The Black Hole

Year: 1979
Studio: Disney
Director: Gary Nelson
Producer: Ron Miller
Writer: Jeb Rosebrook/Bob Barbash/Richard H Landau/Gerry Day
Cast: Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Maximillian Schell, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Roddy McDowall, Slim Pickens

Here's something I never realised about The Black Hole the first time I saw it on a big screen in 1979, and it's even more obvious in today's moviegoing climate (2015) where every big science fiction movie we see on screens has been shot on some sound stage surrounded by green curtains and programmed in later like the render of a videogame.

Every new room and location aboard the Palomino, Cygnus and beyond is a visual delight to watch, and it's because Disney and director Gary Nelson spent good money to build very real and very large sets. Everything from the Cygnus control room to the main fuselage of the ship with the giant meteor rolling down the centre is gorgeous.

Even the lobby to the greenhouse where Harry (Ernest Borgnine) tries to get a rise out of the droid guard has been designed and constructed with loving detail and in keeping with the visual language of the film. Almost every room and chamber is cavernous, just like the huge ship it's housed in.

A less brave approach by a cost-obsessed studio would have seen the director and production designer told to reign it in just a bit to save money, but every set in the film looks like it lives and breathes its location, from deep space to a gigantic interstellar cruiser.

In a movie that's often so maligned for its science, it also gets something very right that we'd never seen in a film before and isn't commented on very much. Just a couple of years before Imperial TIE fighters, Death Star and the rebel fleets had battled throughout a galaxy far, far away bathed in sunlight from somewhere.

In The Black Hole, far from any planetary system or star, space is cold, dark and full of shadows, and the initial cautious approach on the USS Cygnus is eerie, like approaching a huge neighbourhood mansion that's supposed to be haunted on a dark night. The enormous, seemingly derelict ship is like a giant piece of abandoned industrial machinery, all spindles, beams and metal tresses holding it together.

When it comes alive with an eruption of golden light from the interior all of a sudden – revealing to the Palomino crew that it's manned and still operating after all – your breath will catch in your throat. Like far too few movies today, it's built for big screen viewing.

There's little backstory to the members of the crew as they come across what they assume is the wreck of the Cygnus, sent into deep space decades before under the command of mad genius Dr Hans Reinhart (Maximillian Schell) to travel to the event horizon of a black hole.

It now sits adrift not far from one and no matter how wrong the science, if the hair on your arms doesn't stand up a bit when you first see the spinning whirlwind-shaped vortex hanging in space, you're way too hard to impress.

With an eclectic group of characters - all with distinct motives and personalities and played by some of the big names of the day (including Roddy McDowall as the AI droid V.I.N.CENT) - the exploration ship Palomino can't figure out how the Cygnus is stable so close to the black hole. When they get caught in its gravity well trying to find out and only just escape, the Cygnus comes to life around them, they're invited to board and they find out.

Reinhart claims to be the sole survivor, telling his visitors he built the army of robotic sentries, controllers and pilots that maintain the ship around them, including the fearsome Maximillian.

One of cinema's great antagonists, you can talk all you want about emotional performances by inarticulate robots from R2 D2 through to Wall.E – the menace Maximilian manages to convey only by floating through the air and turning his head to stare with his glowing red eye strip is palpable.

But Reinhart – it soon turns out – is batshit crazy, ranting about flying the Cygnus into the black hole to unlock its mysteries and make them all famous.

As his psychosis and ambition becomes more apparent, the group splinters, Captain Dan Holland (Forster), Charles (Joseph Bottoms) and Dr Kate (Yvette Mimieuax) trying to keep a level head, Alex (Anthony Perkins) unable to see past his hero worship of the mad scientist and journalist/mission documentarian Harry Booth (Borgnine) prepared to sacrifice anything or anybody to get away before Reinhart kills them all.

There are handgun shootouts with the Cyngus robot army, a lovable beat up droid from V.I.N.CENT's class called Bob that befriends and warns the group about Reinhart's real plan (and what really happened to the Cygnus crew) and a host of other moments and characters that made it a Disney-friendly product as well as a cool movie. I personally had hours of fun with my cut out Black Hole diorama.

It's worth remembering while you watch or revisit it that everything was done in camera. There were some rudimentary computer graphics around at the time – Tron would be the most visible example just three years later – but everything is there in the studio with the actors.

The robot soldiers and technicians are people in suits, the Cygnus is an incredibly detailed miniature in front of a star field matte painting and V.I.N.CENT, Bob and Maximillian are puppets suspended on string (one sequence in the film was shot upside down so the wires would be harder to see, holding the robot by its feet from the upside down ceiling).

For all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways, they don't make them like this any more and it wouldn't be too long before they never did again. To watch The Black Hole is to witness a beautiful art form becoming antique.

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