August 20, 2007

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) - Disney's STAR WARS

(1979, USA)

Atmospheric space adventure in need of restoration

It's about time I looked at the film that inspired the name of this blog! I keep revisiting this film, but it's getting harder to enjoy on DVD, because the picture noticeably needs remastering now.

When the first Star Wars was released in 1977, everyone else (and their dog) wanted to make a movie as successful. That meant outer space! Adventure! Robots! Laser gun battles!

The Walt Disney Studio made their own space epic, which looked as spectacular as Star Wars, but the camerawork and spaceships were not nearly as agile. Even though Disney Studios built their own recordable camera movement computer, ‘ACES’, needed for the complex visual FX. But they were mostly using the older traditional special effects techniques, trying to compete with John Dykstra's motion control system over at Industrial Light and Magic.

For instance ILM were using multiple passes (re-recording multiple visual elements on the same piece of film), while Disney used multiple optical composites (each time you composite two visual elements together, the film goes down a generation and softens). Some shots in The Black Hole have been composited so many times, that the picture is defocussed, almost ‘soft’ focus, and crawling with film grain. These shots are now really noticeable and will look no better on HD.

The only current DVD release, in standard-definition NTSC, still shows up the wires supporting the actors in 'zero-gravity', dodgy matte lines, and the excessive film grain. Even the edges of matte paintings, an effect previously perfected by Disney, are easily discernible.

I’m hoping that some sort of restoration can improve the look of the film. I'd also like to see some DVD extras, especially since this was Disney's most expensive film at the time. It still deserves attention. It has a unique story and a creepy atmosphere – a ghost ship perched on the edge of a black hole, crewed only by silver faced drones, sentry robots and a megalomaniac intent on probing the secrets of space.

It’s part mystery, part rollicking adventure. Despite some informative babble about black holes, science gets thrown out of the window by the end of the film! The climactic meteor rolling down the ship’s central corridor is hugely spectacular, doesn't really make sense, but still makes a huge visual impact.

It's also worth a look for the design work on the main spaceship, the Cygnus – an inside-out construction, latticed like an internally-lit Eiffel Tower.

The soundtrack is one of John Barry’s best, where he perfected his space march music, which also came in handy for other Star Wars wannabes, Moonraker and Starcrash.

It’s also interesting as Disney was trying to lose its 'kiddie' image at the time, in order to win back older family audiences. Slightly uncertain in tone, the film veers between an adult and a child audience. Disney were very worried about making their first PG-rated film - with an all adult cast, (light) swearing, onscreen deaths and more graphic scares than ever before. The ending was controversial too, it ends up as like 2001 - A Space Odyssey aimed at children.

The adult elements in The Black Hole sit uncomfortably with the robot sidekicks, who have huge, cute, stuck-on Disney eyes. Nowadays they remind me more of the eyes of South Park characters. Early production artwork also had flying robots, but looking more like The Ultimate Computer from TV's Star Trek, and definitely without any eyes. Besides being cute, Vincent the robot tests our patience by spouting more classical quotes than Jean-Luc Picard. But don't let me put you off.

Hopefully Disney are aiming for a better digital release for the film's 30th anniversary in 2 year's time.

Also in this period, Disney made some other interesting, 'more adult' movies...
- there was Watcher in the Woods - a creepy ghost tale (which needed an extensive reshoot to remove the leftfield, sci-fi twist ending)
- Dragonslayer which has the best movie dragon ever filmed, with more child-unfriendly plot twists and blood too
- Something Wicked This Way Comes, about a haunted fairground, which almost plays like a Stephen King story now
- and of course the hugely influential Tron, which tried to start the ball rolling a little too early on CG special effects.

Do you want to know more…?
The best guide to the pre-production and special effects of The Black Hole was in a magnificently illustrated double issue of the lamented movie magazine Cinefantastique (pictured) published in Spring 1980.


  1. I have a fondness for this movie. The first 20 minutes are very atmospheric and spectacular. Interesting what you say about picture quality on the DVD. I remember seeing the film in the movie theater in 1979, and the support wires on the robots and the in the 'zero gravity' scenes were quite apparent a lot of the time. given the volume of these effects it's a bit odd that Disney chose to shoot the movie in 70mm, where the additional clarity in picture 'resolution' would pick up the wires even more.

  2. I just rewatched it for the first time since I saw it as a kid in 79.

    Ehh... The ship does look beautiful, but the acting is terrible - despite a much better cast than many live action Disney movies ever got.

    I had forgotten about the 2001-esque scenes at the end though. Then it just ends in a snap. There could be a nice 20 minute edit made of it - cut out all the dialogue, almost all of the laser shootouts, and just have the ships and meteors and silver-faced drones. I'd watch that again.

  3. I confess that I completely geeked over this movie when I was nine. I proudly plastered VINCENT and Cygnus posters on my wall and worked painstakingly on a Maximilian model.

    I sobered up some years later and eventually embraced cynicism professionally. However, I have to admit I still harbor a little love for this film.

    Slim Pickens as a beat-up robot. Ernest Borgnine in a figure-hugging sweater. Anthony Perkins puréed. The bizarro religious ending.

    Kitschy goodness.

  4. Some seventies cinema I watch as kitsch, but I can still watch THE BLACK HOLE seriously and enjoy the ride. It had a similar effect on me as I guess 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA may have had on a previous generation.

    Good luck with your blog, Bitterfrost!

  5. Eh. I was impressed with (most of) the special effects, but the putrid acting, insipid comic relief, torpid pacing, and absolutely worthless end sequence ruined the thing. Shame, as it really does look stunning.

  6. This was the film which taught me not to get too excited by pre-launch hype. There were many articles in magazines telling us how much effort Disney had put into its first PG film, and how amazing the effects were.

    And it did start well - The overture playing before the film starts, followed by one of the most impressive title sequences ever. Unfortunately, it was all rapidly downhill from there - It was like the film fell into its own black hole almost immediately after the titles!

    Apart from the "eyes" on the cute robot (why does Disney have to include a cute non-human in absolutely every film they ever make?), the fact that the wires were visible in pretty much every shot which involved zero-gravity was, to me, unforgivable.

    While I can understand that others have a sense of nostalgia about it, for one reason or another, I can't help but rate it as one of the worst films ever made. I've tried to watch it again since its opening night, but every time I give up in disgust long before I reach the incredibly appalling finale.

  7. To the above comment Mr. Reg Langford;
    Your wrong , wrong,wrong..this is a beloved cult film
    that is intriguing to watch. This is not the worst film ever. Try watching The Phantom Menace in one full's impossible. What i love about this movie is , the mysterie ship, on the outskirts of the galaxy, which reminds me of the derelict ship in ALien 1 (1979). Why is it there..what happened..hmmm...oh the mysterie indeed. No mysterie in TPM.

  8. Dear Anonymous (if that is your real name),

    Comparing a bad movie with another bad movie does not make either movie movie good... :-)

    Beloved cult films are not necessarily good films; they are beloved. While I appreciate that YOU like it, that also doesn't make it good (just as my hating it doesn't actually make it bad; I just think it does ). Please try not to let nostalgic remembrance of how much you enjoyed the film when you were a child cloud your judgement as an adult - There are many, many films out there which I loved when they first come out, but which are truly terrible when I look at them 30 or 40 years later.

    While I totally agree that Phantom Menace (along with every Star Wars film since Empire) is crap, at least I can't fault the special effects (just the story, script, acting, etc.). And, when the quality of the visuals are important (and, surely they should be in a "Sci-Fi Spectacular"), then to fail in this area is inexcusable.

    Ultimately, regardless of any other faults, it was the visible wires that undid it, from my point of view. This was released over 10 years after 2001 (which is really the ultimate benchmark of what is achievable in SFX prior to the CGI revolution). Any film post-dating this (let alone Star Wars, which upped the ante in many areas), has no excuse for such a flaw.

  9. Reg, I agree that one person's "beloved cult" film may be another person's trash, but I wouldn't laud the special effects on The Phantom Menace. Most of that film looked (and felt) like a cartoon. It just didn't look real. The problem was the (too early, in my view) decision to ditch detailed physical modelling with computer graphics. CGI is a lot better now, but even so it is still mostly best done in small doses, not screen-wide panaramas.

    I'd say that most kids that, like me, grew up during the 1970s, have a nostalgic feeling for space sci-fi films which used models -- 2001, Star Wars, Alien etc. Even The Black Hole.

  10. As a child when I first saw the film, I thought it was great. It had everything I wanted in an adventure, the unknown, space, ships, and robots. Granted as you get older your sense of a good movie gets more complex and expectations get higher. It really doesn't matter whether it is good or bad or you love or hate it. I would love to see a remake with today's CGI. I think Disney could hit on the head. Hopefully with a better story line and dialouge.

  11. I've never seen this film but it is due to start in 2 minutes on tv. My boyfriend who is 40 yrs old says he has great fondness for this film from his childhood. However, I was born the year this film came out. I guess I'll just wait and see. I am interested to see if the wires are as apparent as others on this forum speak of them.

  12. Just saw it on Vudu. Bad movie + enjoyment = New guiltt pleasure for me. Great looking film (minus the wires). Spectscular John Barry score. Good sound design. Interesting story (minus ending). All in all, not as bad as it's reputation.

  13. I remember seeing this film during my senior year of high school. This was a very different type of Disney movie, we thought was a bit risqué for that studio. One of the main things that made the biggest impression on me was the John Barry score. It was creepy, haunting and very much a suitable kind of outer space music.

    The movie was pretty decent. I'd like to see it again.

  14. I saw this movie when I was a senior in high school. At the time it was considered a bit risqué for a Disney movie. What I remember the most was the great score by John Barry. I'd like to see this movie again.