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Black Hole, The (1979) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 March 1999

The Black Hole
Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine. Unbilled voices of Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens
release year: 1979
film rating: Two stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

As entertainment, "The Black Hole" is a failure, but as a historical artifact, for a film buff, it's fascinating.

After "Star Wars," everyone wanted to get into the space adventure movie act in hopes of catching an edge of the endless stream of money that Lucas' film was generating the world over. Ron Miller, the son-in-law of Walt Disney and one of the studio's busiest producers, decided that even Walt Disney Pictures needed to take a plunge into space.

Trying to capitalize on the public's dawning awareness of the strange space singularities known as "black holes" (which are collapsed stars, and not holes at all) as well as to cash in on what "Star Wars" had created, the studio announced a movie to be called "The Black Hole" -- and then stalled. Clearly, "Star Wars" itself was not the kind of movie that the Disney company of the day would have made, so they tried to reshape the idea of a space adventure into something at once suitable for Disney, and yet which would capture the "Star Wars" audience. Rumors emerged from the studio that "The Black Hole" was going to feature a little boy and his pet dog, then that it was going to be about a literal descent into Hell.

When Miller finally got the project underway, he made almost all the mistakes interested onlookers were fearing; he failed to grasp just what a big-scale science fiction film should be, as well as what a good movie should be. For years, the studio had gotten by on family-film projects entrusted to mediocre, easily-dominated writers and directors. Even though "The Black Hole" was a very different kind of project for Disney (it got the studio its first PG rating), Miller didn't understand that this required different kinds of writers and director.

It's directed by Gary Nelson, a standard Hollywood studio director, competent, but style-less and unimaginative. Nelson began his career with a handful of sitcoms ("F Troop," "Captain Nice," etc.), and after a brief foray into theatrical films, settled into a long series of TV movies, mostly comedies at first, then crime films. He did do the theatrical "Freaky Friday" for Disney, but there's nothing about his career that even hints that he'd be appropriate to helm a space adventure movie. After "The Black Hole," he returned to TV movies, and with a few minor exceptions ("Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold"), he's remained there ever since.

The credited writers are similar. The original story is credited to Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard Landau, who very likely did not work together, but rather successively. Rosebook's earliest screen credit was for Sam Peckinpah's fine "Junior Bonner," but after that, like Nelson, Rosebrook worked on TV movies, some of which ("I Will Fight No More Forever") were considerably better than others ("Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III"). Rosebrook is also co-credited with the screenplay for "The Black Hole" with Gerry Day, who wrote only one other movie, plus episodes of TV series like "Little House on the Prairie."

Barbash wrote only a handful of films, with "Tarzan and the Great River" probably being best known. Richard Landau was another matter altogether; he was probably the first writer on "The Black Hole." His career went back to the early 1940s, but it was not exactly distinguished. He was a busy utility-level writer, tending toward crime melodramas and horror films, such as "Secret of the Whistler," "The Lost Continent," "Pharaoh's Curse," "Voodoo Island," "Hot Cars," "The Girl in Black Stockings" and "Frankenstein 1970." (He also is credited with "The Quatermass Experiment"/"The Creeping Unknown," but the script owes more to Nigel Kneale than to Landau.)

So why did Disney hire these second-raters to write and direct what could have been a breakthrough film for the Disney studio? Because it was the Disney studio, with its long record of avoiding (expensive) major talent in favor of malleable nonentities who could be relied upon to produce smooth, unremarkable movies that were exactly what the big bosses wanted.

The story of "The Black Hole" is very slim, derived partly from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and his sequel "Mysterious Island." But it's short on incident and long on talk. A small American spaceship passes near a dangerous black hole, which is sucking in matter and light itself. Exaggerated fears are expressed -- the black hole might swallow the universe, it's a rift in the fabric of space and time; it's even referred to in religious terms as Hell itself. The crew notices another ship apparently motionless in space near the singularity, the Cygnus, missing 20 years.

Eventually, they board the giant Cygnus to be confronted by glowering, bearded Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), alone aboard the ship with lots of robots, including the pointlessly demonic Maximilian, who seems to have no other function than to loom in a threatening manner. A lot of talk follows, plus vaguely ominous scenes suggesting that Reinhardt is really a villain. As if you couldn't tell already.

Very little is said about the black hole nearby, other than that Reinhardt wants to go "into" it. Probes return from it every now and then, but we learn nothing about whatever they might have encountered. At the climax, the survivors do plunge "into" the Black Hole -- and sure enough, it's Hell in there, with Maximilian presiding over gouts of flame and jagged black rocks like Mephistopheles. There follows some church-window imagery. This is supposed to be profound, but its embarrassingly banal.

So is the entire movie. Someone assumed that since it was a Disney movie, "The Black Hole" had to have Disney-like characters. Taking the wrong cue from "Star Wars," there are two comic robots, which not only talk funny (in the unbilled voices of Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens), but, far worse, look funny, like a tin salt-and-pepper set. They have big eyes and are given to big reactions, which makes their turning into heroes toward the end awkward and awesomely unconvincing.

The performances vary wildly, from Maximilian Schell's intensity, to the cool professionalism of Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins and Yvette Mimieux (who is telepathically in contact with a robot), to the colorless, bland Joseph Bottoms. Ernest Borgnine, who flowers under good direction, either overacts or becomes stilted under bad direction -- here he's stilted. His character is also required to abruptly turn cowardly toward the end just to further a minor plot point.

But the whole movie is a plot point; it exists solely to be a movie called "The Black Hole." The characters are routine, the conflicts unconvincing, the plot developments abrupt and inconsequential, and the climax wildly misjudged. (The old 1950s space movie standby, the swarm of incandescent meteors, makes its unwelcome reappearance.)

The movie looks great, though. The cinematography by Frank V. Phillips, like much of the rest of the movie, is routine. The sets are preposterously vast (all that air!), but they're gorgeous, especially the exterior views of the fragile, almost antique-looking Cygnus. Peter Ellenshaw was the production designer, but he was really one of the great matte artists of movie history (rarely a production designer), whose career began with movies like "Things to Come" and many others for Alexander Korda; he then worked for Michael Powell and the Archers ("The Thief of Bagdad," "Black Narcissus," etc.), and finally wound up at the Disney studios, where he worked for 27 years. And worked very well, too; virtually everything good about "The Black Hole" can be credited to Peter Ellenshaw.

The score by John Barry is only serviceable, except that he provides a driving, haunting title theme that really does create the musical equivalent of a spiraling trip to the heart of Hell. Technically in general, the film can't be faulted; though it's not a show-off-your-sound-system DVD, "The Black Hole" does have some satisfactory explosions here and there.

Anchor Bay has been releasing Disney films that the studio itself apparently doesn't want to bother with, which is good for film history and dogged collectors of Disneyana. In this case, on one side of the DVD, they provide the film letterboxed and accompanied by a trailer and a handful of uncaptioned stills. The other side features the film panned and scanned, which doesn't help a movie that's this problematic in the first place.

"The Black Hole" is one of the most interesting "cusp" films of movie history; it was made just at the point that those running Disney studio were beginning to realize that they were going to have to be more like a real studio than they were in the past. But it was too soon for "The Black Hole," which embodies almost all the worst aspects of the studio's 1970s output -- the wrong directors, a compromised story, flat characters and the split-brained attitude that to make a movie suitable for the family, you insert childish elements into an adult story.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed and pan-and-scan editions
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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