It’s official. Disney Plus has launched. Though you’re not likely to find much in the way of horror, the ‘Mouse House’ has a PG and PG-13 creepers here and there. Case in point, Disney’s forgotten Star Wars cash-in, The Black Hole is – intentional or otherwise – almost as much horror as science fiction. In spite of its interesting premise and decent cast, The Black Hole failed to find an audience and faded into obscurity. As a Star Wars clone, The Black Hole can’t help but compare unfavourably. But if watched as a sci-fi/horror hybrid, it’s a fun little B-movie.
Near the end of a deep space expedition, the crew of the USS Palomino discovers a vast black hole. Inexplicably floating just outside the black hole, the Palomino is shocked to find the long vanished research vessel, The Cygnus. Though The Cygnus initially seems to be abandoned, the ship’s commander, Dr Hans Reinhardt, is very much alive. His crew vanished and only his robot creations for company, Reinhardt has perfected technology allowing The Cygnus to resist the black hole’s pull. When the Palomino’s crew learns the true fate of Reinhardt’s comrades, they must escape The Cygnus before the mad scientist enacts his true plan … a trip through the black hole itself.
The Black Hole Offers B-Movie Escapism in lieu of Epic Sci-Fi Adventure
Clearly, The Black Hole wanted to be the next Star Wars. It’s got cute robots. Laser fights. Evil robots reminiscent of Darth Vader and Stormtroopers. What The Black Hole is lacking are ground-breaking special effects and edge-of-your seat action set-pieces. This isn’t to say that Disney’s sci-fi cash-in looks cheap or poorly made. To the contrary, The Black Hole still has some good special effects for the time period. One scene with a fiery meteor tumbling through the Cygnus’ trench is visually impressive. But the effects – and the movie’s story – are all noticeably a step down from George Lucas’ classic. Anyone who couldn’t tell that Maximilian Schell’s scene-chewing Dr Reinhardt wasn’t evil should be bonked over the head.
To the contrary, The Black Hole still has some good special effects for the time period.
Yet despite its shortcoming, The Black Hole works quite well as a bit of pulpy, B-movie escapism. It’s set-up of a lost research vessel – now seemingly a ghost ship – inexplicably floating just outside a black hole is a great hook. Though the mystery surrounding the fate of its crew is pretty easy to unravel, its pacing and the breadcrumbs of clues keep things interesting. Wisely, the movie never overstays it welcome. Moral dilemmas, mad scientist banter, and space laser fights are liberally sprinkled throughout the movie. It’s all enough to keep things just interesting enough to get you to what’s a surprisingly good climax.
Surreal Horror Imagery a Surprise Cameo in Disney Sci-Fi Movie
Children’s entertainment in the 1970’s and 1980’s wasn’t always kid-friendly. Anyone who has seen The Secret of NIMH or Watership Down can vouch for that statement. In this regard, The Black Hole makes a huge left-turn away from Star Wars. Yes, Lucas’ ‘far far away galaxy’ boasted its share of creepy aliens. But this Disney movie surprisingly diverges with an occasionally nihilistic atmosphere and nightmarish surreal imagery. With its ghost crew and vast empty space halls, The Cygnus has an undeniably haunted house feel to it. In addition, ‘Darth Vader’ stand-in, the robot Maximilian, evokes familiar techno-horror tropes.
But The Black Hole diverges with an occasionally nihilistic atmosphere and nightmarish surreal imagery.
But it’s The Black Hole’s ending that feels like a horror movie. What follows when the remaining crew members of the Palomino travel through the black hole is a piece of surreal film-making. Amongst the ghoulish red lighting, the crew seemingly travels through what passes for hell. Images of a dead Reinhardt drifting through space before merging with a malevolent-looking Maximilian were pretty unnerving when you were eight-years-old. Composer John Barry’s haunting score gives this imagery a boost, further adding that horror movie vibe to things.
Strong Cast and Likable Droids Elevate The Black Hole
If The Black Hole excels in another area, it’s the surprisingly game cast of character actors and likable robots. Horror fans will be delighted to find Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in what’s actually a fairly layered role as Dr Alex Durant. Academy Award nominee Robert Forster (Alligator) more than capably anchors the movie as the Palomino’s Captain Dan Holland. While he’s a little heavy-handed, Maximilian Schell’s ‘Dr Reinhardt’ makes for a decent B-movie villain. And Ernest Borgnine (The Devil’s Rain) was always a welcome addition to any cast.
However, what most fans of The Black Hole probably remember are the movie’s robots. Obviously, they’re not quite up to the standards of R2-D2, but something about the design and voice-work makes them stand out in all the right ways. As a kid watching this movie, I left the theater want action figures for VINCENT, BOB, and Maximilian. Fan-favourite Roddy McDowall (Fright Night, Planet of the Apes) and Slim Pickens provided the voice for VINCENT and BOB, respectively. In addition to their simple, but fun designs, McDowall and Pickens bring their robot characters to life. By the movie’s climax, you may find yourself caring more about the robots than the living, breathing characters.
The Black Hole a Reminder That Older Kids Movie Could Be Creepy
No, The Black Hole isn’t really a horror movie. And it’s no Star Wars. In fact, it isn’t even one of Disney’s better low-key movie offerings. What The Black Hole does offer is nostalgic, B-movie fun with some ‘non-kid friendly’ scares reminiscent of the time period. And if it’s not a nostalgic watch for you, it may be a good ‘gateway movie’ for younger sci-fi and horror fans.