The Black Hole (1979): Empire retrospective feature

BlackHoleSquareIn the three years between the release of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes back, audiences were relatively starved for big-screen sci-fi, with only Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture the only films able to satisfy the new generation of sci-fi buffs spawned by Lucas’ space opera. Neither of those films, however, had Star Wars’ sense of adventure, and it was not until Christmas 1979 that kids got a sci-fi movie made just for them: Disney’s The Black Hole.

Set in the distant future, the story began as the space probe Palomino arrives at the edge of the titular phenomenon, where the crew – played by Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine – is shocked to discover the long-lost exploration ship Cygnus, abandoned twenty years earlier by all but one of its crew. Fascinated by the scientific possibilities of the black hole, the Cygnus’ captain, Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), has chosen to remain on the ship, constructing an army of humanoid robots to serve as a makeshift crew, while he fine-tunes his plans to explore the black hole. The Palomino’s crew, meanwhile, is justifiably suspicious of Reinhardt’s true motives, not least because there is something a little too ‘human’ about his robot helpers.

Although The Black Hole would certainly not have been made if Star Wars had not been so successful, the film was conceived several years before Lucas’ game-changer. The story began life as a deep space disaster movie, Space Station-One, which Walt Disney Pictures purchased as a pitch in February 1974, from writers Bob Barbash and Richard H Landau, veterans of such TV staples as Maverick, The Wild Wild West and The Six Million Dollar Man. Inspired in equal parts by the real-life drama of Apollo 13, and the successful big-screen disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, the story concerned the passengers and crew of a huge spacecraft in peril on the edge of a black hole. After numerous rewrites, pre-production began in July 1976 under the supervision of British director John Hough, who had steered Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain to the screen the previous year. During this period, several screenwriters came and went (see sidebar), until Jeb Rosebrook came aboard in February 1977. “I was unlikely choice,” he says, “because I had just written Junior Bonner, a rodeo movie with Steve McQueen, for Sam Peckinpah, and it hadn’t been a commercial success. But my agent at CAA got me a meeting at Disney, and even though I told him I didn’t know the first thing about science fiction, he told me to shut up and go talk to them. I think the reason I was hired,” he adds, “was that most of my work was character driven, and the scripts were kind of flat in terms of character motivation.”  BlackHoleWide2In addition to Rosebrook’s other changes, including the introduction of the evil red robot, Maximilian, and B.O.B., a broken-down service droid voiced by Slim Pickens, Rosebrook added ten pages of backstory and character motivation, which never made it into the final film, because the studio felt it would slow the action. Rosebrook delivered his first draft on July 7th, 1977, just two weeks after Star Wars’ opening. “Ron Miller was running the studio by then, Walt Disney having died a short while earlier, and he read my draft and said, ‘This isn’t any different than the ones I had before? Why should we go with this draft?’ And then Hough and I had an epiphany moment, and we both said at the same time, ‘What if they went through the black hole?’ And that was it: Miller said, ‘That’s a great idea, go do it.’”

By this time, Disney knew it had the potential for a Star Wrs-type hit on its hands, but that audiences would expect special effects of the highest caliber. With all of Star Wars’ key creatives already busy making The Empire Strikes Back, Disney coaxed one of its own effects pioneers, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’s Peter Ellenshaw, out of retirement, to work on the effects sequences which had been inserted into the script, post-Star Wars, by seasoned TV scribe Gerry Day. Chief responsibility for the film’s early production designs fell to Robert T McCall, who worked closely with Douglas Trumbull on the ‘Spock fantasy trip’ sequence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but was then best known as painter of the space station on the poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey. McCall spent six months creating nearly a hundred lavish and innovative illustrations for the Cygnus, the Palomino, and V.I.N.CENT., although few of them would ultimately resemble the designs for the final film. While Ellenshaw’s latticework construction of the Cygnus might be said to be an improvement over McCall’s NASA-like craft, the latter’s sleek concept for the Palomino – designed to suggest the twenty-year age gap between the two ships – was arguably more exciting than Ellenshaw’s, and his depiction of V.I.N.CENT. as a complex, multi-tasking robot was a far cry from Ellenshaw’s ‘cutesy’ conceptualisation. “I don’t care for his final design at all,” McCall commented upon seeing Ellenshaw’s V.I.N.CENT. (a clumsy acronym for Vital Information Necessary CENTralized). “I think he looks a little absurd with his painted eyes.” It was a view shared by all but the youngest of The Black Hole’s audience, who took the epigram-spouting robot, voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, to their hearts.

Despite these occasional misjudgments, almost every other aspect of The Black Hole’s special effects was literally state of the art, building on advances made during the filming of Star Wars, and creating a new benchmark in science fiction cinema. No expense was spared creating the 125-foot Palomino model and Cygnus sets, complete with a separate command tower measuring 40 by 80 feet, and a living agricultural module containing thousands of shrubs and trees (an obvious steal from Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running). Around 150 mattes were painted, many of them by Ellenshaw’s son Peter, who had worked as a matte painter on Star Wars, while the cel-animated lasers and rocket exhausts utilised Disney’s considerable animation expertise to good effect. BlackHoleWide3Of all the film’s many visual effects, however, the most enduring and dramatic is the manifestation of the black hole itself, a seemingly omnipresent swirling vortex which, on the cinema screen, was often peripheral to the action, yet almost invariably drew the eye. Astonishingly, this effect was not only the first to be filmed, in May 1978, but also one of the simplest and cheapest to achieve: a transparent, 1,000-gallon Plexiglas tank was built to create a whirlpool of water, into which Ellenshaw himself poured various coloured pigments. The vortex was then backlit, photographed with a super-fast film stock, and finally slowed down before being inserted into blue screen sequences filmed, on occasions, an entire year later. The effect is seen at its best during the Cygnus’ climactic, cataclysmic destruction as it crosses the ‘event horizon’, and the ship descends into the bathos beyond the black hole.

“One of the relevant criticisms of the film was that the ending looked like it had been done in a boardroom,” says Rosebrook, “which is a shame, because I worked on a fantastic ending with Harrison Ellenshaw, and we came up with some really interesting ideas that would have challenged audiences. As it was,” he adds, “it was not a challenging ending.” Well, it was in one sense: the challenge of understanding what happened on the other side of the black hole, a traditional brightly lit ‘heaven’ for the good guys (and their friendly robot, V.I.N.CENT.), and an Inferno-like ‘hell’ for the evil Dr Reinhardt (and his ‘evil’ robot, Maximilian). Despite the disappointing ending, and the violence which many saw as a disturbing new direction for Disney movies in the aftermath of Walt’s death, those who saw the film on the big screen left with the knowledge that they had seen some of the best special effects cinema had to offer, and the film’s earnings – $36 million in pre-Reagan era dollars – was enough to out-gross Disney’s most recent animated effort, The Rescuers (1977), by some margin, and making it the 13th highest grossing film of the year. The film even garnered two Academy Award® nominations, for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography.

In the three decades since The Black Hole’s release, the film has not been treated as fondly as some of the era’s other sci-fi films. Indeed, as Rosebrook recalls meeting one sci-fi fan at a book signing, who gave it to him straight. “He asked me what films I had written, and I said, ‘I wrote what a lot of people call the worst science fiction movie ever made: The Black Hole.’ And he said, ‘You’re right!’” Nevertheless, The Black Hole was clearly an influence on Paul W.S. Anderson’s similarly-themed Event Horizon, in which the crew of a spaceship encounter an apparently derelict ship, powered by a black hole, with a mad scientist at the helm. Then, in 2009, Disney announced that it would produce a remake of The Black Hole, written by Clash of the Titans screenwriter Travis Beacham, and directed by Joe Kosinski, who would steer Tron: Legacy to box office set at the close of 2010. “This one will be a re-imagining,” Kosinski has said of the remake. “For me, it would be taking ideas and iconic elements that struck me as timeless and cool and preserving them, while weaving a new story around them that’s a little more 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw The Black Hole as a little kid,” he adds, “and what sticks out most is the robot Maximilian. The blades and the vicious killing of Anthony Perkins freaked me out, and that’s definitely going to be an element that will be preserved.”


Feb 24 1974
Walt Disney purchases story entitled Space Station-One from writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau. No black hole appears in the treatment.

Sep 19 1974
Barbash and Landau’s final outline mentions black hole for the first time.

May 1975
Barbash and Landau deliver final script, now entitled Probe-One.

June 16 1975
Writer William Wood (TV’s The Mod Squad) hired to polish script.

Feb 5 1976
Wood delivers re-draft.

July 21 1976
Pre-production begins as director John Hough is attached to project.

July 28 1976
Writer Sumner Arthur Long (Lassie) hired to rewrite script.

Oct 1976
Long delivers re-draft entitled Space Station-One. Writer Ed Coffey hired to rewrite.

Nov 1976
Hough leaves to direct Brass Target.

Jan 7 1977
Coffey delivers rewrite.

Feb 7 1977
Writer Jeb Rosebrook (Junior Bonner) hired to rewrite.

July 7 1977
Rosebrook delivers new draft, forming the basis of the final version.

Jan 16 1978
Gary Nelson (Freaky Friday) attached as director.

March 23 1978
Rosebrook delivers re-draft entitled Space Probe-One.

April 3 1978
Writer Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Day hired to incorporate new special effects into Rosebrook’s draft.

Oct 4 1978
Day delivers final draft, now entitled The Black Hole.

Oct 11 1978
Principal photography begins. Development cost to date: $3,620,310.

April 20 1979
Principal photography completed.

Dec 20 1979
The Black Hole opens in the US. Final declared cost: $20,000,000.

November 2009
On the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, a poster appears on a bedroom wall in Tron: Legacy, as Disney announces plans to remake The Black Hole, under the supervision of Tron: Legacy director Joe Kosinski.


About David Hughes: Published Work

Empire and Time Out film critic, screenwriter of award-winning drama "Where the Road Runs Out", and MD of movie marketing agency Synchronicity, and author of books about Kubrick, Lynch and films that were never made.

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