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On December 21st 1979, Disney’s science fiction gamble, The Black Hole, premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square, London. Released the same month as the hotly anticipated Star Trek – The Motion Picture, The Black Hole was a massive gamble for Disney’s live-action studio as its first foray into big-budget science fiction.
The Black Hole started its cinematic journey in 1974 under the title Space Station One, a space-set disaster movie. The idea had been formed during the 70’s resurgence of the disaster movie, with box office hits such as Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Science-fiction would play a minor role in the original screenplay, second to the classic disaster movie format. However, by late 1977 Star Wars fever had arrived, bringing a resurgence in the traditional space opera and a new toy frenzy that immediately caught Disney’s attention. However, Disney’s live-action movies could not match this new public appetite. After all, their live-action stable remained firmly stuck in the 60s and early 70s, with films such as Freaky Friday (1976) and the Herbie series.
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This raised an important question, could Space Station One help Disney enter the Hollywood space race? Work quickly began on realigning the screenplay, stripping back the disaster movie themes in favour of an action and adventure space odyssey. The screenplay adjustments were complete by the end of 1977, and Emmy Award-nominated director Gary Nelson took the helm. However, significant challenges still lay before the Disney team.
At the time, Disney had no experience in producing large scale science fiction movies and couldn’t compete with the effects of Star Wars. Therefore, initial conversations centred on Disney using the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm) for model work. However, these negotiations were to fail, leading Disney to find in house solutions to the effects needed. This would push the film’s budget to a cool 20 million dollars, making The Black Hole the most expensive Disney film ever produced at the time, and a huge financial gamble.
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Therefore, expert casting with big names would become essential in ensuring The Black Hole delivered box office returns. Here Disney would approach several Hollywood veterans, with Maximilian Schell (Judgement at Nuremberg) as the mad scientist Dr Hans Reinhardt alongside Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine).
However, in the casting of Ernst Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure), Robert Forster (Avalanche) and the uncredited Roddy McDowall, The Black Hole would give a knowing wink toward its disaster movie roots. But this casting wasn’t the only wink toward its original Space Station One screenplay. Opening with a rare musical overture, The Black Hole would offer audiences a unique mix of science fiction and disaster movie while adding a dark tale of religious and moral judgement.
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Slated by critics of the time as Disney’s Star Wars cash-in, The Black Hole actually takes its inspiration from TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost in Space. But it’s the disaster movie roots of its screenplay and a number of religious overtones that make it truly fascinating. Here Nelson’s movie echoes the claustrophobia of The Poseidon Adventure and the race against time of Airport. Nelson’s characters are immediately designated as survivors and dispensable victims within a narrative that follows the beat of the classic disaster movie. However, this is a film that also carries a dark undertone. Here The Black Hole’s commentary on scientific discovery is layered with a religious and moral subtext.
Nelson’s swirling black hole represents heaven and hell; the fate of those entering it is mists predetermined by the life choices they have made. Here, the film’s final scenes subvert the fun of the adventure as the space opera becomes a moral message on the danger of humans playing god.
Director: Gary Nelson
Cast: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine