Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition. The Black Hole

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We have long since finished the animated films so we have moved on to the live action films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Black Hole

Year: 1979

Budget: $20 million

Box office: $35.8 million

Plot: In the year 2130, nearing the end of a long mission exploring deep space, the spacecraft USS Palomino is returning to Earth. 1 The Palomino crew discovers a black hole in space with a large spaceship nearby, somehow defying the hole’s massive gravitational pull. The ship is identified as the long-lost USS Cygnus, the ship McCrae’s father served aboard when it went missing. Deciding to investigate, the Palomino encounters a mysterious null gravity field surrounding the Cygnus. The Palomino becomes damaged when it drifts away from the Cygnus and into the black hole’s intense gravity field, but the ship manages to move back to the Cygnus and finds itself able to dock with it. The Cygnus appears abandoned.


The Palomino crew cautiously boards the Cygnus and soon encounters the ship’s commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and his sinister-looking robot Maximilian, Reinhardt explains that he has lived all alone on the Cygnus for years. After the ship encountered a meteor field and was disabled, he ordered the human crew to return to Earth, but Kate’s father chose to remain aboard and has since died. Reinhardt then reveals that he has spent the past 20 years studying the black hole and intends to fly the Cygnus through it. Only Durant believes it is possible and asks to accompany Reinhardt on the trip.

The rest of the Palomino crew grows suspicious of the faceless drones’ human-like behavior: Booth sees a robot limping and Holland witnesses a robot funeral and discovers the Cygnus crew’s personal items in the ship’s living quarters. Old B.O.B. 2 explains that the faceless drones are in fact the human crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth and had been lobotomized and “reprogrammed” by Reinhardt to serve him. McCrae’s father had led the mutiny and was killed.


Using telepathy, V.I.N.CENT tells Kate the truth about what happened. When Kate tells Durant, he removes the reflective faceplate from a “drone” to reveal the zombie-like face of a crew member. Appalled, Durant tries to flee the bridge with Kate, but Maximilian kills him. Reinhardt takes Kate prisoner, ordering his sentry robots to take her to the ship’s hospital bay to be lobotomized.

Just as the process begins, Holland, along with V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B., rescues Kate. Meanwhile, fearing the situation is escalating dangerously, Booth attempts to escape alone in the Palomino. Reinhardt orders the craft shot down, but the weapons fire sends the ship crashing into the Cygnus, destroying its port-side anti-gravity forcefield generator. A meteor storm then destroys the starboard generator. Without its null-gravity bubble, the Cygnus starts to break apart under the black hole’s huge gravitational forces.


Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors separately plan their escape aboard a small probe ship used to study the black hole. Reinhardt orders Maximilian to go and prepare the probe ship, but then a large viewscreen falls on Reinhardt, pinning him down. His lobotomized crew stand motionless as he struggles helplessly, completely oblivious to everything but the tasks they have been programmed to do. Maximilian confronts the others and fatally damages B.O.B. moments before he himself is damaged by V.I.N.CENT and drifts out of the broken ship into the black hole. Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT reach the probe ship and launch, only to discover the controls locked onto a flight path that takes them into the black hole.


In a vision, Reinhardt becomes merged with Maximilian in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark-robed spectres resembling the Cygnus drones. Next, a floating, angelic figure with long flowing hair passes through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel. The probe ship carrying Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT then emerges from a white hole and is last seen flying through space towards a planet near a bright star.

Background: The initial idea for the film was conceived by veteran Disney writer and producer Winston Hibler in 1974. Encouraged by the success of Star Wars, Ron Miller took over the project.

The Black Hole was shot using a blend of traditional camera techniques and newly developed computer-controlled camera technology. The computerized system allowed for the camera to take double exposure photographs of the miniature models as it moves convincingly across the matte painting. It also permitted the actors to move unrestrictedly within a matte painting, and the camera tracks them within a non-existent set that would be painted in later. In total, 150 matte paintings were created for the film under the supervision of Harrison Ellenshaw, but only 13 were used in the film. Yvette Mimieux was given a short hairstyle to avoid having to film long hair in zero gravity.

The Black Hole was one of the last mainstream Hollywood films to have an overture at the start of the film. It is notable for being the first Disney film to earn a PG rating because of the frequent use of “hell” and “damn” and the violent death of Dr. Alex Durant. The film also features some subtext and metaphysical and religious themes that reflected the company’s interest in developing more adult-oriented and mainstream films. This trend eventually led the studio to create the distribution company Touchstone Pictures, under which films considered too mature for the Buena Vista Distribution label could be released.


Music: The score was composed by John Barry. He has won many awards including five Academy Awards; two for Born Free, and one each for The Lion in Winter (for which he also won the first BAFTA Award for Best Film Music), Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa (both of which also won him Grammy Awards). He also received ten Golden Globe Award nominations, winning once for Best Original Score for Out of Africa in 1986.


Cast: Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens return in uncredited roles as the voices of V.I.N.CENT and Old B.O.B.

Maximilian Schell as Dr. Hans Reinhardt. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film Judgment at Nuremberg, his second acting role in Hollywood. He received Oscar nominations for The Man in the Glass Booth and Julia. Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant. He is of course best known for playing Norman Bates in the film Psycho. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his second film, Friendly Persuasion. His other films include Fear Strikes Out, The Matchmaker, On the Beach, Tall Story, The Trial, Phaedra, Five Miles to Midnight, Pretty Poison, Murder on the Orient Express, Mahogany, North Sea Hijack, and Crimes of Passion.

Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland. He known for his roles in Medium Cool, The Delta Force, and Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Other films include Reflections in a Golden Eye, Avalache!, Alligator, Me, Myself & Irene, Mulholland Drive, The Descendants , Olympus Has Fallen, and its sequel London Has Fallen. Joseph Bottoms as Lieutenant Charlie Pizer. He won the 1975 Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year – Actor for his role in The Dove. He appeared in the television mini-series Holocaust. He starred with Kirstie Alley in Blind Date. From 1985 to 1986, he was a series regular on Santa Barbara. He also appeared in Street Legal and Days of Our Lives.

Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae. Her man film roles include The Time Machine, Where the Boys Are, Light in the Piazza, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Toys in the Attic, Monkeys, Go Home!, The Delta Factor, and Jackson County Jail. Ernest Borgnine as Harry Booth. Borgnine’s film career began in 1951, and included supporting roles in China Corsair, From Here to Eternity, Vera Cruz, Bad Day at Black Rock and The Wild Bunch. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Marty. He starredin the sitcom McHale’s Navy. Other roles include The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, The Poseidon Adventure, Emperor of the North, Convoy, and Escape from New York.


Tom McLoughlin as Captain S.T.A.R. (“Special Troops/Arms Regiment”). He is a screenwriter, film/television director and former mime who is most notable for directing Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives and One Dark Night. His other credits include numerous television movies such as Murder in Greenwich, At Risk, Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life, Date with an Angel and the 2010 Lifetime Movie Network film The Wronged Man.


Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two stars out of four upon its release, saying it “takes us all the way to the rim of space only to bog us down in a talky melodrama whipped up out of mad scientists and haunted houses.”
  • Janet Maslin, reviewing the film for The New York Times, wrote that the film “is attractively unpretentious and at times quite snappy — among the more sensational stunts is a shot of a huge, molten meteor rolling towards a crew of tiny people, who appear to be right in its path. Its story, about a band of explorers and a wicked space tyrant who pretends to be nice, has a comic-book feeling. But as comic books go, this one is pretty much a page-turner.”
  • Richard Schickel of Time acknowledged that the “overpowering score, squads of menacing heavies, and, especially, two adorable robots—are straight Star Wars steals, and because, despite all this sincere flattery and a script and performances that are merely adequate, the fool thing works.” He later praised the visual effects and miniature designs as an “amusing mixture of the plush and technological” concluding that it is “good to see the Disney craftsmen doing what they do best on such a grand and risky scale.”

Legacy: Alan Dean Foster wrote a novelization based on the film. Comic book artist Mike Royer suggested fellow artist Jack Kirby to draw a comic strip adaptation of the film. In the official Disney Read-Along recording and illustrated story book, the crew in the probe ship emerge safely on the other side of the black hole, while the Cygnus is “crushed like an eggshell.” The story ends with Captain Holland saying, “We’ve been trained to find new worlds. Let’s go find one for ourselves!”

The Mego Corporation produced 6 million action figures and models of the USS Palomino from the movie, released in the fall of 1979.

In 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson deemed the film to be the least scientifically accurate movie of all time. Criticizing the film, he noted, “They not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole, had they gotten it right it would have been a vastly more interesting movie.”

In November 2009, it was reported that Disney had plans to remake The Black Hole as a live-action movie instead of an animated one. Director Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Disney’s Tron: Legacy and producer Sean Bailey were attached to the production. By April 2013, Jon Spaihts, who wrote the script for the Alien prequel Prometheus, signed on as screenwriter. In 2016, it was announced that the movie’s development was put on hold because Spaihts’ script was considered “too dark for a Disney movie”.

My take: I LOVED this movie as a kid, and I have to say it still holds up. The special effects are old school minatures, wire work, projections, matte paintings, and animation, and they too still hold up (interesting that the next film we are going to look at is the complete opposite: Tron. ) Maximillion is terrifying and his final confrontation with V.I.N.CENT holds up.

Next Week: Greetings Programs!