On December 21st 1979 Disneys 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 a space bound disaster movie, following the mid 70’s obsession for disaster pictures that started with Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The science fiction credentials of the film played a small part in the original conceptual design work, however by 1977 Star Wars had stormed the box office, bringing a resurgence in space opera and science fiction to Hollywood. Despite this resurgence, Disney’s live action offer remained stuck in its 1960s roots, with films such as Freaky Friday (1976) and the Herbie series. The early work on Space Station One therefore became of real interest to the Disney studio as they joined the 1977 Hollywood space race. Space Station One had its script realigned focusing on the science fiction elements of the story, 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 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. These challenges pushed the production budget of the film into realms unheard of in Disney filmmaking at $20 million dollars. Making The Black Hole the most expensive Disney film ever produced on its release, and a huge gamble for the studio whose live action offer had focussed on a 1950s and 60s style of all American children’s matinee stories.
Casting decisions helped bolster the films potential box office takings, with veterans of the Hollywood system signing up for Disneys first space opera. 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 Hollywood experience. It is however, the casting of Ernst Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure) Robert Forster (Avalanche) and the uncredited Roddy McDowall (The Poseidon Adventure) that nod to the original script development of The Black Hole as a disaster movie in space.
Opening with a rare cinematic musical overture, The Black Hole is a strange mix of family science fiction that crosses the boundaries of disaster, adventure, religion and B movie sci-fi. This is a film that takes inspiration from a number of earlier science fiction films and TV shows, while creating an ultimately dark tale of religious and moral judgement. It is a film you can watch multiple times and notice new inflections on its moral tale at every viewing. The original disaster movie script clearly still steering the adjusted story and characters.
Criticised by film reviewers of the time as a Disney’s rip off of Star Wars, visually The Black Hole owes far more to 1950s science fiction, coupled with TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Lost in Space than it does the George Lucas Star Wars universe. There is a clear homage to the innocence of 1950s space opera, coupled with 1960s TV space adventures. In addition to these science fiction roots, The Black Hole retains its disaster movie feel while also playing homage to the James Bond franchise. The mad scientist sitting in his self created lair, his robot and half humanoid minions indulging his dangerous fantasies. This link to Bond, is even further emphasised by the score of the late, great John Barry, who’s powerful and atmospheric soundtrack ripples through every scene. At times bringing with it the essence of early Bond films such as You Only Live Twice, especially when navigating the corridors and automated transport of the USS Cygnus.
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 human discovery and a longing for answers, layered with a clear religious and moral sub text. The swirling black hole representing heaven and hell, the fate of those entering it embodied by the choices they have made in the lives and the light or darkness of their character. The final scenes of the film subverting the fun and humour of the adventure that came before it into a moral tale of the limits of human exploration. The original disaster movie construct shining through the added layers of science fiction and children’s storytelling to show the true heart of the original script.
40 years on, it would be easy to dismiss The Black Hole as a mediocre science fiction fantasy that played into the potential financial gain of the Star Wars era. While this is undoubtedly a factor in the films development and construct, The Black Hole was also a defining Disney film. This is the film that led Disney to darker more adult themes in filmmaking, a bridge between its 1960s live action children’s films and the development of Touchstone Pictures in 1984 as an adult arm of the Disney studio.
The Black Holes curious mix of morality, 50s science fiction and 1970s disaster picture, show a studio in transition, experimenting with new ideas, while trying to retain its family credentials. The result is a film that still manages to catch people unaware even after multiple viewings. The Black Hole isn’t brilliant science fiction, but it is a fascinating journey into a script that couples together two of the greatest genres of 70s filmmaking, the disaster picture and the science fiction opera. Creating a final film that strangely still manages to hold its own 40 years on.