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The Black Hole: Disney's Attempted Space Epic In A Post-Star Wars World

Entertainment | December 18, 2020

Maximilian in 'The Black Hole.' Source: IMDB

Disney's The Black Hole had good robots (V.I.N.CENT. and BO.B.), a big bad robot (Maximilian), an evil villain, laser battles, special effects, ambiguous creepy drone humanoids, a powerhouse cast and some incredibly inaccurate science. These are all great ingredients in a late '70s sci-fi movie, thanks to Star Wars. Yet The Black Hole couldn't pull it off -- despite a big budget and the perfect window between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, The Black Hole was only moderately successful, outperformed by other 1979 space fare Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and Moonraker.

Of course -- what do critics know? Who cares about box office math? Many kids who saw the film loved it, bought the action figures and comic books, and fully expected a Black Hole II.

A Disaster Movie In Space

Source: (JoBlo.com)

The 1970s brought a number of successful disaster movies, and Bob Barbash and Richard Landau approached Disney to suggest a space themed disaster film, originally titled Space Station One in 1974, and they even referred to it as The Poseidon Adventure in space. Disney shelved the concept and then another factor helped to spark the creation of The Black Hole: in 1977, Star Wars made a staggering profit in its first year, so Disney tried to replicate Star Wars’ success by creating their most expensive film to date. The film cost $20 million to produce (which was twice the cost of Star Wars) and grossed $36 million. The Black Hole was released two weeks after Star Trek: The Movie, which outperformed Disney’s take on the space epic. The tagline on the film poster for The Black Hole read “A journey that begins where everything ends…”and indeed, this was a journey for Disney in a bit of a different direction.

If Jules Verne Wrote About Space Exploration

Source: IMDB

The Black Hole seems to be a reinterpretation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The main character Don Holland, played by Robert Forster, is the captain of the USS Palomino, an exploratory spaceship searching for alien life. As they journey through space, they discover a black hole and a lost ship, the USS Cygnus, just outside its event horizon. The crew of the Palomino decide to solve the mystery of the Cygnus, which is piloted by Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), and had gone missing years earlier. The crew of the Palomino attempt a fly-by and are almost drawn into the black hole but end up docking with the Cygnus and board it. Reinhardt (who seems to have been fashioned after Captain Nemo) had stayed behind with his crew of faceless android workers, a robot sentry army and his personal assistant/hench-robot named Maximilian, claiming that the rest of the crew had left. The crew of the Palomino finds out that the black robed androids are the formerly human crew of the Cygnus. They had mutinied and Reinhardt lobotomized them. The crew of the Palomino also learns that Reinhardt’s goal is to fly into the black hole. Of course, villains need evil partners as well, and in this case, the evil hench-robot Maximilian is a physically imposing red robot; his original design was black, but they changed his color in part to avoid comparisons to Darth Vader. Eventually, after a bit of drama, everyone falls into the black hole in the rather confusing, somewhat muddled ending of the film; the film may have ended the way it did in part because the ending hadn’t been written before filming began, and they were conflicted over what should happen. In fact, the producers didn’t know what the ending was until they saw it in post-production.

A Film On The Frontier Of New Techniques

Source: (JoBlo.com))

Once filmmakers began production, they used a combination of filming techniques. The film started the move towards computerized effects, but they still relied significantly on older, albeit innovative techniques. For example, to make it seem like the characters were in space, they used harnesses and wire; the film had the most wire-work ever achieved in a motion picture at the time. The film would open the door to computer centered films like Tron.  

Parallels To Star Wars

V.I.N.CENT. Source: (Disney.fandom.com)

Just as Star Wars had its beloved robots, so too did The Black Hole. V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) is very similar to R2-D2, although he floats, a design element to try to avoid comparison with the Star Wars character. V.I.N.CENT’s name is an acronym for Vital Information Needed CENTralized. The dilapidated BO. B. (voiced by Slim Pickens), whose name is an acronym for Bio-sanitation Battalion, was an earlier version of V.I.N.CENT. Both robots were made to appeal to children. 

Disney For Adults

Anthony Perkins dying at the blades of a robot. Source: (Vocal)

The filmmakers also wanted to appeal to adults as well, and decided to aim for a PG rating so they could make the film seem edgier. And it was edgier, as one of the main characters, Durant, played by Anthony Perkins, is killed by Maximilian, who attacks him with a drill, shredding the book that Durant holds between himself and the killer robot. The scene maintained its Disney nature though, as it wasn’t too violent. Additionally, for the first time, “Walt Disney Presents” was removed from the production and it was released under the Disney subsidiary Buena Vista Productions, as the company was concerned that adults would not want to see the film if they knew it was a Disney film. Disney fans were upset that Disney was releasing a PG film because they were concerned that a company so connected to wholesome entertainment was releasing a film aimed at adults. 

Marketing 'The Black Hole'

Toy figures created to market the film. Source: (Toyark.com)

Taking another page out of the Star Wars playbook, The Black Hole tried to get in on the action figure market that George Lucas' film had invented. The Mego Corporation produced 6 million figures and models of the Palomino. Nabisco created plastic pencil holders shaped like the film’s robots and included in specially marked cereal boxes. Alan Dean Foster wrote a novel to accompany the release of the film and to also justify some of the scientific inaccuracies within the film.   

It Was Not A Film To Teach Science

Robert Foster and Yvette Mimieux. Source: (We Got This Covered).

The Black Hole was definitely not scientifically accurate, and, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson said “they not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole, had they gotten it right it would have been a vastly more interesting movie." In a rare nod to scientific accuracy, the filmmakers made Yvette Mimieux change her hairstyle. The actress, who played Dr. Kate McCrae, had long blonde hair prior to the film, which would fly all over the place in zero-gravity. That would have required next-level special effects, so to avoid the problem altogether, she sported a new short hairdo.  

Tags: The Black Hole

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!