There are two major problems that plague Disney’s 1979 release, “The Black Hole.” The first is that it’s a Disney film, meaning it’s primarily aimed at kids and features some pretty juvenile material. The second is that it was produced before Stephen Hawking and company had fully explained to the world just what a black hole was all about. As a consequence, the movie today can only be viewed as outlandish fantasy rather than serious science fiction.
In the story, a spaceship is sitting on the edge of a black hole and finds that because of circumstances beyond its control, its only choice is to travel through the “hole” to the other side. In Hawking’s 1988 book, “A Brief History of Time,” he explained what scientists had been predicting theoretically for some time, that a black hole is a collapsing star whose gravitational field compresses everything infinitely small, the increased mass resulting in a gravitational pull so great that not even light can escape it. Thus, the star appears as a blank spot in space, while it sucks anything near its event horizon into its center. At the time, Hawking observed speculations that an astronaut “may be able to avoid hitting the singularity and instead fall through a ‘wormhole’ and come out in another region of the universe” but added “unfortunately it seems…that may all be highly unstable.” He later stated that anything, whether man or spaceship, being sucked into a black hole would be instantly stretched into a mile-long noodle before becoming a part of the star’s internal mass. More recently, Hawking has admitted that nothing actually “disappears” into a black hole–it simply gets drawn into the center and becomes a part of its mass–and that all of the star’s matter, no matter how infinitely compressed, will be spewed back out when the star eventually deteriorates.
In other words, forget about a spaceship travelling through a singularity (a black hole) and emerging on the other side or in another region of space. It used to be a nice sci-fi theory. Today, it’s pretty much discredited. And there goes the premise of Disney’s “The Black Hole.” Oh, well.
In the film, a U.S. exploratory spacecraft, the Palomino, traveling in the depths of space stumbles upon another craft, the U.S.S. Cygnus, hovering motionless near a black hole. Upon investigation, the crew of the Palomino discover that the Cygnus is a ship presumed lost some twenty years earlier. Within the Cygnus, they find a deranged captain and a staff of robots. An hour’s worth of theatrics later, we travel through the black hole, about a three-minute journey. Disney’s idea appears to have been to effect another mind-boggling “2001” climax. Instead, it’s a nonsensical entrance into something resembling heaven and hell, and hardly worth the tortuous route the audience has to endure to get there.
Although the look and feel of “The Black Hole” owe a lot to “2001” and “Star Wars,” the characters and action are straight out of 1940’s and 50’s Saturday-morning kiddie serials. There’s the stalwart, macho leader, Captain Dan Holland, played by stalwart, macho Robert Forster. There’s the young, clean-cut heartthrob, Lt. Charles Pizer, played by the young, clean-cut Joseph Bottoms. There’s the shifty, duplicitous newspaperman, Harry Booth, played by a shifty, duplicitous Ernest Borgnine. There’s the beautiful female scientist, Dr. Kate McCrae, played by the beautiful Yvette Mimieux. There’s the cold, nervous, grim-faced scientist, played by a nervous, grim-faced Anthony Perkins. And, of course, there is the supremely egotistical mad scientist, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, played by a supremely mad Maximilian Schell.
To make matters more unfortunate, there are two droids, two little android robots, designed specifically to appeal to children. The first is VINCENT, the Vital Information Necessary Centralized, the Palomino spaceship’s main computer. He stands about three feet tall, looks like a Disney-ized version of R2-D2, and is voiced by Roddy McDowall. The other droid is even more trite and childish. He’s Bob, the former main computer on the Cygnus. He, too, is pint-sized, but he looks like an old Western cowpoke and is voiced by old Western cowpoke Slim Pickens. Come on, folks. Would the U.S. Government really build a robot to look and talk like Gabby Hayes or Smiley Burnette? Well, they would if Disney had anything to do with it.
I didn’t enjoy the corny dialogue, either. “What’s going on?” “That’s what I’d like to know!” “The black hole is pulling us in!” “The word ‘impossible’ is only found in the dictionary of fools.” And so on.
For action, we’re treated to laser-gun fights, a la “Star Wars”; a meteor storm; and the crew appearing to exit the spacecraft at various times with no space suits on. The Cygnus, incidentally, is supposed to be an exploratory ship on a scientific voyage, yet it has laser cannons; sounds more like a part of the Spanish armada.
For me, the best parts of the show were the matte paintings, the models, and the music. The film does look good, even it doesn’t have much to say. I enjoyed looking at the precomputer, non-CGI special effects; the several ships; the free floating in space; and the gadgets and gizmos. And John Barry’s musical score, especially the overture and opening-credits music, is original and atmospheric. It’s only in the more thrilling sections of the story line that the score begins to sound too much like John Williams. But we could do worse. Like the rest of the movie.
The Disney folks obviously took great care when transferring the film to disc, and the results are impressive. They did not do a full, frame-by-frame restoration, but they did find an excellent print in their vaults and digitally mastered it at a high bit rate in enhanced, anamorphic widescreen. The movie’s original Technovision ratio of 2.35:1 is here rendered at about 2.13:1 across a normal television, and the movie’s original Technicolor hues show up in rich, deep, solid contrasts. There is often a touch of soft grain noticeable, but it serves to provide texture to the images; and I slightly prefer it to the glossy clean, grain-free appearance of films shot in digital video. Some minor age spots also creep into the picture, again reminding us that this transfer was probably a good print and not necessarily a restored one.
The movie was initially released in two-channel stereo, but on DVD it has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The bass makes itself known immediately, during the overture, and on a couple of occasions it seems to overpower the dialogue. The front-channel stereo spread is quite wide and quite impressive, and the newly appended rear-channel effects, like those of ricochetting laser-shots, ship noises, exhaust jets, and alarm bells, make a strong contribution to the film’s overall believability.
There’s not much in the way of extras, I’m afraid. The primary item is a sixteen-minute, fullscreen featurette called “Through the Black Hole,” in which Harrison Ellenshaw, the matte-effects supervisor for the film, explains how many special, non-computer-generated effects went into the making of “The Black Hole.” It’s somewhat informative but not especially entertaining. Beyond that, there are a measly ten (ten!) scene selections and a three-minute, fullscreen, extended theatrical trailer. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, with French subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I wish I could say I liked Disney’s “The Black Hole” better this second time I watched it than I did the first time I saw it in a theater. But no. If anything, the film has worn poorly over time, and I liked it even less. Of course, I have probably worn poorly over time, too; I’m certainly a lot older and a lot less open to juvenile melodramatics. “The Black Hole” may still hold the attention of a ten-year-old, I don’t know. But with so many great fantasy and sci-fi films appearing in the intervening years, I doubt that too many adults are going to find the Disney flick of much interest. I didn’t.