A landmark film for Walt Disney/Buena Vista Productions, The Black Hole was released the same month as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (December of 1979).
A small exploration spacecraft, the U.S.S. Palomino, is headed back toward Earth after 18 months of fruitlessly searching for planets in deep space that could support human life. At the beginning of the film, a voice-over dialogue between V.I.N.Cent (short for Vital Information Necessary Centralized, voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell), Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), and Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) reveals that something is altering their trajectory. V.I.N.Cent summons Lt. Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) to the bridge of the Palomino, and the cause of their course deviation and need for correction is revealed: a gigantic collapsar, or a “black hole”, is near their path.
Drs. Durant, Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), and reporter Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) discuss the awesome power of the menacing phenomenon. As they do so, V.I.N.Cent reports another point of interest; something as eerily anomalous as the black hole itself. A ship is perched within spitting distance of the black hole, and does not seem to be affected by the exponentially powerful forces of the black hole. After some quick research, it is discovered that the darkened vessel is United States Space Probe One, the U.S.S. Cygnus, last known to be under the command of one Dr. Hans Reinhardt. Kate's father, Frank McCrae, was first officer aboard that ship when it simply disappeared over 20 years before.
After a minor debate, Capt. Holland determines that a closer look is warranted (against his better judgment) and the Palomino makes its precarious way toward the seemingly derelict spaceship. The Cygnus is three quarters of a mile long, and dark. There appears to be no sign of life. The Palomino is safe as long as it remains in the mysterious "zero gravity" envelope of the mammoth vessel.
However, after receiving no replies to their hails, the Palomino drifts away from the zero g envelope, and is suddenly being drawn toward the black hole. During this sequence, we discover that Kate and V.I.N.Cent are able to communicate with each other via telepathy (or ESP, as it's referred to in the film). Considerable damage is done to the smaller craft, but thanks to the quick actions of V.I.N.Cent (feared lost to space when performing extravehicular repairs), and a lucky break in the gravitic pull of the black hole, the Palomino races back to the protective embrace of the Cygnus, which finally activates its brilliant lights. The ship is both beautiful and daunting. Holland nearly arms the Palomino's warheads, but Durant admonishes him not to go hot, citing the Cygnus' superior firepower. Kate sees a shadow in the aft of the Cygnus, declaring that there is indeed life aboard the larger ship.
After docking, and being summarily disarmed by the Cygnus' automated defenses, Holland, Durant, Booth, McCrae, and V.I.N.Cent find their way to the conning tower of the gigantic ship.
Meanwhile, a group of sentry robots armed with dual laser pistols board the Palomino; their intent unknown.
After entering the conning tower, the Palomino crew see a humanoid crew occupying the control stations, and monitoring space phenomenon. They are then menaced by a giant red robot which does not seem capable of communication. V.I.N.Cent moves to confront the large automaton, is clearly apprehensive, but does not yield. It is then that the Cygnus' commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) reveals himself to the first humans he's seen in 20 years. He explains the exploits and fate of the Cygnus, and the crew. To Kate McCrae's sorrow, it is revealed that her father, Frank, perished after volunteering to remain with Dr. Reinhardt while the remaining crew abandoned ship after a ferocious meteorite attack that crippled the Cygnus. Lt. Pizer is then brought before Reinhardt by his sentry robots (the "goon squad" as Charlie calls them). Dr. Reinhardt invites the Palomino crew to dinner.
While Dan and Charlie requisition the parts they need to repair the Palomino, the scientists and Harry are treated to a tour of the Cygnus by Reinhardt, who reveals his new power source to them, and talks about the antigravity force field which holds the Cygnus in place against the tremendous forces of the black hole. "A Mexican Standoff" he calls the phenomenon.
At dinner, Reinhardt reveals his ultimate plan to the Palomino crew: to take the Cygnus in, through, and beyond the black hole, and asks the Palomino to monitor his trip from beyond the event horizon. The plan is met with skepticism by most of the crew, but Durant is more than intrigued. After Reinhardt departs to check on an inbound probe ship, the crew discuss Reinhardt's frightening plan, and are convinced that he is indeed a madman, except for Dr. Durant, who is spellbound by Dr. Reinhardt's seemingly monumental achievements and discoveries, and refuses to prematurely condemn the man.
During parts requisition, V.I.N.Cent meets Old B.O.B., short for Biosanitation Battalion (voiced by Slim Pickens, also uncredited), a battered and beleaguered old robot of the same type as V.I.N.Cent. Maximillian seems to hold considerable, fearful sway over B.O.B. Later, after an amusing laser skeet contest, when the two can speak in private, B.O.B. reveals that things are NOT what they seem on the Cygnus, and that Hans Reinhardt is a monster. After a forced laser fight with two sentry robots who discover their presence in the ship's "hospital" (where the remaining human crew have been turned, against their will, into mindless automatons), V.I.N.Cent and B.O.B. race back to the Palomino.
V.I.N.Cent relates B.O.B's story to the Palomino's command crew and Mr. Booth. They all accept the story, and make preparations for a hasty departure from the Cygnus. The rest of the crew is ready to leave, much to the chagrin and suspicion of Reinhardt. Kate and Durant are still in the conning tower with Reinhardt as he goes over final equations in preparation for entering the black hole. Capt. Holland urges V.I.N.Cent to warn Kate to return to the Palomino, with or without Alex Durant. He orders the robot to fully disclose the story to Kate through ESP.
With Reinhardt seemingly distracted by his own calculations, Kate tries to convince Alex to leave. Reinhardt then insinuates himself into the conversation, trying to persuade Kate to remain aboard the Cygnus as Durant has elected. While the two scientists converse, Alex moves away to discover the horrible truth for himself. Shocked, he attempts to spirit Kate back to the central elevator, only to be blockaded by Maximillian, who uses his razor sharp cutting tools to slay Dr. Durant.
Reinhardt rebukes the robot, and then, when Kate refuses to buy his "innocent bystander" act, orders the sentry robots to take Kate to the "hospital" where she will be converted into another one of Reinhardt's mindless humanoids. Through ESP, she alerts V.I.N.Cent, and he and Holland and B.O.B. spring into action, leaving Charlie and Harry to guard the ship. Several laser battles ensue as the Palomino crew rescues Kate.
On the way back to their ship, they run into a blockade of sentry robots. Against orders to take off, Pizer rescues Holland and company from their attackers. However, Booth has his own plans, and attempts to take off in the Palomino, leaving the rest of the crew behind on the Cygnus. Unskilled in piloting the ship, the Palomino threatens to collide with the Cygnus. Reinhardt orders it blasted out of space. The large ship's laser cannons fire on the out-of-control Palomino, and it disintegrates, but careens toward the Cygnus, impacting with her at mid-hull.
The crew are at once disheartened, and then inspired as V.I.N.Cent states that there is an alternative means of escape: the Cygnus' probe ship.
A meteor storm then rakes and ravages the Cygnus as she continues (at Reinhardt's foolish order) her course to the maw of the black hole. After the storm subsides, Reinhardt orders Maximillian to prepare the probe ship for launch. As the large robot leaves the bridge, Reinhardt is pinned under the collapsed main viewer, and is mortally wounded.
After a confrontation with Maximillian, who fries Old B.O.B. with a well-aimed laser shot, V.I.N.Cent destroys the gigantic robot, and rejoins the crew who have made it to the probe ship. The probe launches, but is still programmed to Reinhardt's course, They will travel through the black hole..and they pray that Reinhardt was a genius.
In a very cryptic climax, the probe ship darts through the collapsar, while the crew dream in flashbacks and speculation. We are taken on a trip through hell, where Reinhardt is assimilated by Maximillian, and we see the crew of the Cygnus as tormented demons marching through this purgatory. Then, the view shifts to a peaceful, beautiful cathedral-like corridor, where an angel speeds back toward infinity. The crew then find themselves on the way to a distant planet, having survived the perilous journey through the black hole. The story ends on an optimistic, yet mysterious note.
Comments: The Black Hole was something of a departure for Walt Disney/Buena Vista Productions. It was the first film released by Disney to ever receive a PG rating for its content. (Violence and profanity). It was released alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture from Paramount Pictures (which initially received a G-rating, despite its own use of profanity, a rating which was retrograded to PG in 2001 when that film was released on DVD). This was done in the fervor created by the release and enormous popularity of Star Wars in 1977.
The Black Hole was an improvement in Disney's in-house special effects over other films that preceded it. (The Cat From Outer Space, The Witch Mountain series of films, etc.) However, during close-ups of V.I.N.Cent and B.O.B.'s flight sequences (and the sequence where Pizer is nearly carried off by the black hole during their escape to the probe ship) you can EASILY see the suspension wires used to hoist them into the air. That is the only parts of the film, visually, that do not hold up well to the passage of time.
The story is interesting, if a bit slow paced. However, some of the dialogue definitely needed some rewriting. (For example, Kate McCrae's line "USS Cygnus. It's mission to discover habitable life in outer space. Same as ours."). This film was far darker in scope than any Disney film that preceded it; another reason for its PG rating.
Roddy McDowell, who performs the voice of V.I.N.Cent in an uncredited role, was in the previous year's Disney sci-fi/comedy release: The Cat From Outer Space. Because the films were released so close together, it's possible that he worked on both movies simultaneously, if they both got their start in 1977 (which The Black Hole did).
The Cygnus herself is, in this writer's opinion, one of the most unique space craft ever devised for science fiction. It looks as if it would have suited the early nineteenth century as well as the distant future. It was certainly one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Perhaps it was inspired as a Jules Verne-styled spacecraft, for it certainly would've served well in one of his science fiction/fantasy tales.
Instead of using bluescreening to composite the spaceships against the void of space, Disney Co. used a revolving, backlit backdrop of space. The black hole was optically placed into the background... a swirling of water, composited into "space."
Disney had to engineer its own motion control system, since they could not rent the Dykstraflex motion control system. Its new system, A.C.E.S. was regarded as superior to the Dykstraflex camera. For a short time, Disney Co. was actually technologically superior to Industrial Light and Magic.
There are MANY interesting factoids regarding this film at the IMDb.com database, just type in: "The Black Hole" and select the 1979 link. For example, Dr. Alex Durant meets his maker in three different ways between three different mediums. In the film, he is slain by Maximillian's cutting tools. (Which elicited a very graphic, blood curdling death cry from Anthony Perkins.) In the novelization, he was killed by Maximillian's laser arm. In the comic book, released by Gold-Key, Durant was killed by a laser pistol fired by Dr. Reinhardt himself.
Kudos to this film as far as the maneuvering of the USS Palomino, with the use of reaction control thrusters, something rarely seen in sci-fi films before this.
The cover art of the most recent re-release of "The Black Hole" onto DVD is deceptive. It depicts the Cygnus in orbit of an Earth-type planet...but in the film there were no planets, save for the mysterious one at the end that the probe ship races toward. The cover art is beautiful, however, and effectively modernizes the motif for today. This DVD also sports a featurette which discloses some of the behind the scenes work of The Black Hole. A previous DVD release has only an insert which featured a texted backstory for this film.
Not the greatest science fiction film ever made, but certainly original. Definitely not what one would term a "family film" although the robots, V.I.N.Cent and Old B.O.B. serve as characters that kids could visually relate to. This writer is nonetheless proud to have it as part of his DVD collection.
Written by Martok2112 (Steve Dunlap)