On December 21st 1979, Disney’s family science fiction gamble The Black Hole premiered at Odeon Leicester Square, London. Released the same month as the hotly anticipated Star Trek – The Motion Picture. The Black Hole was a huge risk for Disney’s live-action studio, being its first foray into big-budget science fiction territory.
The Black Hole started its cinematic journey in 1974 under the title Space Station One, its primary concept being to create a space-bound disaster movie. Following the 70’s resurgence of the disaster movie, started with Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The science-fiction elements of the film playing a small part in the original conceptual design. However, by 1977 Star Wars was storming the box office, bringing with it a resurgence in science fiction. One that interested Disney as a potential financial opportunity.
However, Disney’s live-action offer remained stuck in its 1960s roots, with films such as Freaky Friday (1976) and the Herbie series. With the earlier work on Space Station One, therefore, becoming a real interest to the Disney studio as they aimed to join the Hollywood space race. As a result, work began on a realigning the script of Space Station One. Focusing on the science fiction elements of the story, while creating an overarching journey that was less disaster film and more space opera.
By the end of 1977, the adjusted script had found its director, with Emmy Award-nominated Gary Nelson taking the helm. However, significant challenges still lay ahead in bringing the concept to the big screen. Including space-bound visual effects design that Disney had no major experience of producing. Initial conversations, therefore, centred on Disney using the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic for model work. However, when these failed Disney had to find in house solutions to create the science fiction landscape the script demanded. In turn, pushing the production budget of the film into realms unheard of in Disney family filmmaking at cool $20 million dollars. Ultimately making The Black Hole the most expensive Disney film ever produced on its release. And a huge financial gamble for the studio.
Casting decisions helped bolster the films potential box office takings. With veterans of the Hollywood system signing up for Disneys first space opera. With Maximilian Schell (Judgement at Nuremberg) bringing gravitas to the role of the mad scientist Dr Hans Reinhardt, while Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine) brought bankable box office credibility. It was, however, the casting of Ernst Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure) Robert Forster (Avalanche) and the uncredited Roddy McDowall. That provided the nod toward the original script development of The Black Hole as a disaster movie in space.
Opening with a rare cinematic musical overture, The Black Hole provided a strange mix of family science fiction and disaster adventure. While in turn-taking inspiration from several earlier science fiction films and TV shows; adding to the mix a dark tale of religious and moral judgement in exploration.
Slated by critics of the time as Disney’s cash in on the popularity of Star Wars. Visually The Black Hole owes far more to TV science fiction ranging from Battlestar Galactica to Lost in Space than it does the Star Wars universe. However, in addition to these science-fiction roots, The Black Hole also retains its disaster movie feel. Echoing the claustrophobia of The Poseidon Adventure and the race against time of Airport. With its characters set up as both eventual survivors and dispensable victims. As John Barry’s score thunders along with the energy of a steam train.
For Children, The Black Hole offers a steady mix of action, funny robots, spaceships and adventure. However, this is a film that carries much darker undertones. Its commentary on scientific discovery and a longing for answers, layered with a clear religious and moral subtext. As the disaster movie origins, the script shine through the science fiction adventure. With the swirling black hole representing both heaven and hell. At the same time, as the fate of those entering it is predetermined by the life choices they have made. The final scenes of the film subverting the fun and humour of the adventure that came before them. As space opera turns to moral dissection on the boundaries of human exploration.
Forty years on, it would be easy to dismiss The Black Hole as a mediocre science fiction fantasy. One that played to the potential financial gain of the Star Wars era. And while this is undoubtedly a factor in the film’s development and construct. The Black Hole was also a defining Disney film; creating a bridge between the fluff of its 1960s live-action children’s films and the development of the darker Touchstone Pictures brand in 1984.
Ultimately The Black Hole’s curious mix of morality, 50s science fiction and 70s disaster picture, shows a studio in transition. Experimenting with new ideas while also trying to retain family credentials. The result of this a film that still manages to catch people unaware even after multiple viewings.
Director: Gary Nelson