Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Voyagers now in theaters and Stowaway on Netflix next week, we’re looking to the stars for five days of space movies.
There’s a simple explanation for how The Black Hole came to be: Star Wars. George Lucas’ space opera had completely upended the entertainment industry in the late 1970s, and everyone from James Bond to ABC wanted in on the star-cruising, laser-blasting action. This included former Los Angeles Rams tight end and Walt Disney son-in-law Ron W. Miller, who was on a campaign to break the family business out of its reputation as a purveyor of all-ages entertainment and all-ages entertainment alone. Naturally, this plan included a science-fiction picture with state-of-the-art special effects, colossal starships, merchandisable robots, and Disney’s first-ever PG rating.
And yet two of those Black Hole automatons still wound up with great big, googly cartoon eyes—and one of them lets off a couple of reactions that wouldn’t look out of place in a Goofy short. The Walt Disney Company could not escape the trends that were threatening to leave the studio in the dust, and The Black Hole could not escape the gravity of The Walt Disney Company. Such tensions make for fascinating viewing all these years later: It’s science-fiction eye candy with philosophical pretensions and a climax harkening back to its origins as an intergalactic disaster movie, executed under the aegis of people who had no real experience with any of the above. The closest thing to The Black Hole in Miller’s production portfolio were the Witch Mountain movies; the director and screenwriting team were largely TV veterans. Despite a cast that boasts Maximilian Schell, Robert Forster, and Ernest Borgnine, the star performances in The Black Hole are all on the technical side—in its awe-inspiring matte work and intricate spaceship miniatures.
When the research vessel Palomino happens upon the seemingly derelict U.S.S. Cygnus at the edge of a black hole, they haven’t so much arrived in an ersatz galaxy far, far away as a charmingly naïve approximation of the decade of sci-fi cinema that preceded them. At heart, The Black Hole is a gateway drug to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, right down to its bald attempts at smuggling in some highfalutin quotations and psychedelic imagery alongside gee-whiz stuff like Maximilian, the crimson killbot with the spinning knife hands. If The Black Hole mimics Star Wars in any capacity beyond the armor and capes in its costume designs, it’s in the wild range of reference points it rockets into the heavens. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea provides a basic framework and a model for the Cygnus’ mad commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Schell); writing about the film for The A.V. Club in 2014, Jason Heller argued that “[j]ust as Star Wars works better as fantasy as than as science fiction, so does The Black Hole work better as another genre entirely—in this case, gothic horror.” Forget the infamously spiritual turn of its finale, the Renfield-like thrall Reinhardt casts over the Palomino’s senior science officer Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), or the just deserts awaiting several of its space jockeys. The film could earn its gothic bona fides solely on the basis of the candelabras, crystal chandelier, and red drapery of the ornate dining room in which Reinhardt informs his guests of his intent to travel into the black hole.
The Black Hole is a product of aesthetic and environment. There’s an arresting vastness to both its starfields and the interiors of the Cygnus: the seemingly infinite corridors, the glittering panels, and unexplained planetary models attended to by hooded silhouettes in a cavernous control room. The film is never better than when its protagonists are wandering around the Cygnus, puzzling over the unoccupied dormitories and the strange rituals of the AI who serve under Reinhardt. When it’s not passing exposition to Ernest Borgnine or running cross stitch aphorisms through the vocal processor of robot sidekick V.I.N.CENT (Roddy McDowall), there’s something alluringly unknowable about The Black Hole—all the better to contrast Reinhardt’s megalomaniacal desire to learn the secrets of the universe at all costs. Such a spirit of inquiry is the best way of approaching The Black Hole, too. Perhaps it’s so adept at projecting the eerie emptiness of an ever-expanding void because the film, too, has a hollowness of characterization and plot. But it remains worth seeking out, if not for its misguided ambition (70mm prints got a stentorian overture from John Barry) then for its time capsule qualities (repeat: 70mm prints got a stentorian overture from John Barry).
Looking out from a point in history in which Disney is so powerful, calculating, and deep-pocketed that, rather than competing with Star Wars, it just up and bought the thing, it’s refreshing to watch something as chintzy and idiosyncratic as The Black Hole. As Miller ascended through the corporate ranks—realizing his vision of a studio arm for more sophisticated, mature fare just before he was ousted in favor of Michael Eisner—Disney continued dabbling in genres outside its comfort zones. It was a period marked by subsequent live-action odd ducks like Tron, Watcher In The Woods, and Return To Oz—movies that, ironically, didn’t draw the types of audiences that Touchstone Pictures like Splash, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Good Morning, Vietnam would, but did sear themselves onto the subconscious of the kids exposed to them in the theater or on VHS and the Disney Channel. If today’s precision tooled Disney releases are the sleek Maximilian, then The Black Hole is B.O.B. (Slim Pickens): an older model that’s a little banged up, but useful in a pinch, and still hanging around in case you’re not in the mood for The Empire Strikes Back.
Availability: The Black Hole is currently streaming (with that aforementioned overture) on Disney+. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, DirecTV, and VUDU.