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Arts & Culture

The Strange Pull Of 'The Black Hole'

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© Disney. All rights reserved.
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I may be one of only a handful of people in this world that loves "The Black Hole," Disney's 1979 sci-fi movie. Famous for being the first ever Disney film to be rated PG, and released fresh on the heels of "Star Wars," "The Black Hole" may be full of cheesy dialogue and bad science, but I still have a special place in my heart for the movie.

Let's set the record straight, though. "The Black Hole" was not conceived of as Disney's response to "Star Wars." Indeed, the film had been in development since 1975, but after George Lucas' space opus captured the world's imagination (and money) Disney put production of "The Black Hole" on the fast track.

The plot of "The Black Hole" is a bit of a riff on "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," set in space. The crew of the U.S.S. Palomino comes upon what appears to be a derelict ship sitting motionless near the edge of a black hole. They soon discover the ship is the long lost U.S.S. Cygnus, captained by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). Reinhardt has developed a crew of robot workers to man the ship, since the original crew fled during a meteor storm. He's also worked out an anti-gravity formula, which keeps the Cygnus from being sucked into the black hole. But he doesn't intend to stay put. Reinhardt tells the Palomino crew that he intends to take the Cygnus "in, through, and beyond" the black hole.

Meanwhile, the Palomino crew is divided on whether Reinhardt is a genius or a madman. But with their trusty robot friends in tow (voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens), they aim to blast off as soon as repairs to their own ship are made.

It seems fitting that Disney's DVD release of "The Black Hole" coincidentally comes just a few weeks after physicist Stephen Hawking reversed his thinking on black holes. Hawking, quoted by the Associated Press, said, "I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes."

The idea of traveling through a black hole (and surviving, of course) isn't the only bit of junk science in the film. Holes are ripped in the Cygnus, and sometimes characters are sucked out, sometimes not. Meteors in the darkest depths of space glow an iridescent orange. And some characters even manage to walk outside the Cygnus without wearing a space suit. Perhaps Reinhardt has developed an oxygen field as well?

But despite these implausible actions, "The Black Hole" works for me. The film's saving grace comes through a few of the performances, the music, and the splendid visuals.

Maximilian Schell is effectively creepy as Hans Reinhardt, appearing out of nowhere in a backlight to recite a passage from Genesis as he stares at the black hole. Being alone on that ship for years has obviously loosened a few screws in that skull of his. And on the heroes' side, Anthony Perkins takes a twitchy turn as Dr. Alex Durant, a scientist on board the Palomino who falls under Reinhardt's spell. Other performances from veterans Robert Forster and Ernest Borgnine are serviceable.

John Barry's title theme score, built on a seven-note motif, is full of the brassy harmonies that will be familiar to those who know his James Bond scores, and this main title theme is notable for its use of a theremin. [Ed. note: since this essay was written, Intrada Records released the entire score on CD. Well worth checking out.] Incidentally, that main title sequence also featured the longest shot of computer generated imagery (CGI) that had ever been attempted on film at the time.

Which brings me to the design and visual effects of "The Black Hole." Let's start with the Cygnus. In the history of science fiction movies, there has never been a spaceship that looked quite like the Cygnus. Instead of the sleek space fighters of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," the Cygnus is a long, elegant slab, all girders and struts and exposed skeleton, with a glowing control tower at one end. It looks like something Gustav Eiffel might have designed, rather than NASA. The interior of that control tower is a fantastic set, with a huge matte painting star map on one wall, windows that look out upon the cosmos, and catwalks everywhere. And in one inspired sequence, one of those aforementioned glowing meteors comes crashing into the ship, rolling through a long passageway on its way toward the heroes.

Reinhardt's clunky sentry robots leave something to be desired, but his chief henchman, Maximilian, is a menacing piece of work, and the humanoids that man the controls of the Cygnus are a model of restraint, wearing heavy cloaks and a faceplate made from a convex mirror.

And in a complete break from all previous Disney films, "The Black Hole" ends with a "2001"-esque sequence that takes us to Heaven, Hell, and elsewhere. It's not completely successful, but again, the images on film were unlike anything the Disney studio had undertaken before, and the filmmakers were rewarded for their hard work with two Oscar nominations, for Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects.

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Credit ©Disney. All rights reserved.
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The short featurette "Through the Black Hole" included on the DVD offers a nice overview of the special effects employed in the making of the film. Matte painting supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, son of the late Peter Ellenshaw (who supervised the visual effects on the film), details a few of the 150 matte paintings used for "The Black Hole," many more than both "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" put together. Ellenshaw also shares some photos of the miniatures used in the film, and even reveals an alternate ending to the film shot in Rome, but never used.

There are two other short bonus features on the DVD. First is the film's theatrical trailer. If you think trailers nowadays reveal too much of the plot, you haven't seen anything yet. Even the fate of one of the characters is revealed in this trailer! The second little surprise on the disc isn't mentioned on the packaging, and that's the "overture" music that plays before the feature starts. This music accompanied 70mm prints of the film in some theaters, and it has been restored here.

I will admit that part of the reason why I love "The Black Hole" so much is that I saw it when I was a young boy, right after "Star Wars" and right before "Cosmos" on PBS. But twenty-five years later, "The Black Hole" stands as one of the most uniquely designed sci-fi films of all time. Harrison Ellenshaw uses the word "elegant" to describe the look of the film, and I could not agree more. Despite its scientific and narrative shortcomings, "The Black Hole" continues to suck me in!