For most of us, Walt Disney Productions is responsible for making our favorite films from childhood. After all, since day one they have been committed to producing family-friendly movies that every parent would feel safe plopping their kid down in front of. But every once in a while, Disney likes to show its darker side. This was the case with a film that has haunted me since childhood. I was a mere adolescent watching it for the first time on VHS, and it intrigued me so much that I rented it a dozen times more. Yet, even now as an adult, it still chills me. Walt Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE from 1979 was my introduction into the magic of frightening cinema and to this day remains one of my favorite unintentional horror films.
A group of explorers (played by Robert Forester, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine) stumble upon the USS Cygnus, a ship that had been reported missing for several years. The Cygnus is parked on the edge of a black hole. Floating just above the black hole’s gravitational pull. The ship appears to be abandoned. The explorers dock with the Cygnus and board her. They make their way through the ominously quiet ship with the help of their robot V.I.N.CENT (Vital Information Necessary Centralized) voiced by Roddy McDowall. Inside, they come across several faceless androids, a giant floating red robot with saw blades for hands named Maximillian, and Dr. Hans Reinhardt played by Maximillian Schell. They also meet a robot named B.O.B. (Bio Sanitation Battalion), voiced by Slim Pickens. A beat-up and older version of V.I.N.CENT, B.O.B was probably my favorite character. His “old timey” western affectation officially placed this film all over the genre map.
Dr. Hans Reinhardt is the last remaining human crew member of the Cygnus. He tells his guests that after the ship was damaged in a meteor storm, he sent the crew back to Earth. Since then, he has lived on the ship with only his robot friends for company. Studying the black hole for a number of years, Reinhardt believes he can make his way through. Our explorers soon learn that the crew of the Cygnus did not go to Earth, but were rather part of a mutiny against the now clearly mad doctor. These mutineers were then lobotomized and turned into robots by the doctor. With his secret revealed, the doctor proceeds with his plan of sending the Cygnus through the black hole and out the other side. The journey through the black hole is a strange psychological trip through heaven and hell that no child is prepared to see, especially on repetition which was how I watched it.
THE BLACK HOLE was Disney’s attempt at capitalizing on the success of STAR WARS back before they realized they could just buy the entire franchise. Made for $26 million the movie grossed $36 million on its opening weekend despite getting a lot of mixed reviews. Roger Ebert panned the film 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.” He goes on to shame its STAR WARS stealing ways by saying, “The friendly robot looks like C3PO… The taller robots are ripped off from Darth Vader.” Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called it the least scientifically accurate movie of all time.
Despite inaccuracies and accusations of theft, THE BLACK HOLE was nominated for two academy awards: Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography. I will admit, as a kid the melodrama was a bit heavy, but the film made up for it with horseshoe shaped lasers and gun fights. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure director Gary Nelson would have probably preferred making a western movie.
THE BLACK HOLE wasn’t just a fond childhood memory; it did have deeper significance for Walt Disney Productions. THE BLACK HOLE was Disney’s first produced PG rated film. Although their subsidiary, Buena Vista Distribution, had released a few PG rated flicks, this was the first time Disney had actually gone out and made one. In the days before the creation of Disney’s more adult arms, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures, to see a PG film with a Disney logo was unheard of. Full of “hells”, “damns”, and people getting crushed by flat-screen display units, THE BLACK HOLE was a welcome change from the flowery crap Disney usually served up, and it lovingly warped me forever.