‘The Black Hole’ – Captain Nemo in space on Disney+

The Black Hole (1979), Disney’s first foray into the Star Wars-inspired big-budget sci-fi sweepstakes, is an odd sort of landmark for the company. It was the company’s first live action feature aimed at breaking out of family movie ghetto to claim an adult mainstream audience, their first PG film, and an expensive flop.

A deep space research ship captained by the quietly authoritative Robert Forster stumbles across a seemingly derelict ship floating on the fringes of the gravitational well of a black hole. On board, the crew finds the long-lost Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell in a wild-man beard), a (quite literally) mad scientist who has created an army of robots to run the otherwise abandoned craft and now plans to ride it into the black hole. Anything for science.

Anthony Perkins has the designated Spock role as Dr. Alex Durant, an emotionally closed-off intellectual fascinated by Reinhardt’s maverick ideas and impressed by his achievements. The rest of the probe’s crew is more suspicious, and rightly so. There are some creepy doings on board here and Reinhardt’s story of the mutiny of this “abandoned” ship doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s like a space-age 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with Schell as an interstellar Captain Nemo with a Hitler complex, but the impressive production is hampered by a clumsy story, a murky metaphysical ending, and some of the most stilted dialogue ever to emerge from a film screen.

The science of this fiction is a hokey as the drama, but the imaginative art design and excellent special effects are magnificent. The spaceship is a stunning vision of glass and latticework, glowing like an ember in the night, and is a veritable haunted house of futuristic phenomenon, from the cloaked zombie-like drones shuffling through corridors to Reinhardt’s robot bodyguard Maximillian, a satanic-looking behemoth in crimson and black. John Barry’s ominously pretty score is a welcome contrast to the John Williams inspired bombast of most space opera symphonies.

Yvette Mimieux costars as the telepathic scientist and empathetic balance to Perkins’ prickly logical character, Joseph Bottoms is the junior pilot and impulsive young crewman, Ernest Borgnine a crusty reporter, and Roddy McDowell voices the roly-poly floating robot Vincent. At the time, it resembled a Fisher-Price toy take on R2-D2 and a merchandising gimmick. But in its way, it looks ahead to another Star Wars droid: BB-8.

Directed by Gary Nelson, a TV vet who helmed Disney’s original Freaky Friday.

It was nominated for Oscars for its cinematography and visual effects.

Rated PG

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Black Hole [Blu-ray]
The Black Hole [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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