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Watch the Disney film that tried to go toe-to-toe with Alien
From the Vault: As the streaming space keeps growing, massive studio catalogues are becoming more and more available. These include lost and forgotten gems, so-bad-it’s-good duds, and just plain weird pieces of film history. And you probably won’t find them by waiting for streamers to put them in front of you. In From the Vault, Android Authority aims to rescue these titles from the algorithm graveyard and help you get more out of your streaming subscriptions.
The year is 1979. Two years after the massive success of Star Wars. Four years after Jaws ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster. A new movie sees a small space crew taking a detour from their voyage home to investigate a mysterious phenomenon. What starts as a well-intentioned rescue attempt soon sees the crew fighting sinister forces to get home safely.
I’m not talking about Alien. I’m describing Walt Disney’s largely forgotten sci-fi feature The Black Hole, among the many library titles available on Disney Plus.
The Black Hole earned Academy Award nominations for cinematography and visual effects, but it was met with mixed to negative reviews. Critics overall dismissed it as a knock off of better films, bogged down by a weak script and generally boring plot.
And yet, upon review, The Black Hole is certainly an interesting cultural artifact. It’s dynamic and original enough to hold your attention, at the very least.
Nowhere near as pivotally important as Alien, it contains the markers of a genre in flux in a way that’s well worth its runtime, and it’s a cut above many other titles on Disney Plus.
Journey into The Black Hole
Directed by Gary Nelson and with a terrific score by John Barry, The Black Hole jumps right into the action in scene 1.
The U.S.S. Palomino takes a detour from its return to Earth when it encounters a black hole and an abandoned ship thought lost 20 years earlier. Sustaining damage from the nearby black hole, the Palomino docks and finds the famed Dr. Hans Reinhardt living aboard the otherwise deserted ship — deserted save for Reinhardt’s army of oddly life-like robots.
Reinhardt isn’t what he seems, and as the crew works to repair their own ship, they help the doctor in his attempt to fly through the black hole, but they begin to uncover dark secrets surrounding his decades-long absence.
The film boasts a stacked cast. Robert Forster (Medium Cool, Jackie Brown) plays the ship’s captain, and his crew includes horror icon Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Ernest Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure, The Wild Bunch). And among the robots are actors Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, both lending their voices uncredited.
Whatever held The Black Hole Back, it certainly wasn’t the premise or the talented folks onscreen.
Not quite Alien, not quite Star Wars
The Black Hole blends a light campiness with darker themes in a compelling — if at times clumsy — way, and that’s one of the main points in its favor. It’s not a swashbuckling space opera like Star Wars, though it leans in that direction with its laser-shooting droids. And it’s not a grim slasher in space like Alien, but it certainly goes to some haunting places, with the mad doctor Hans Reinhardt oscillating somewhere between Victor Frankenstein and Colonel Walter Kurtz (look at that, Apocalypse Now came out in 1979 too!).
Watching it now, The Black Hole looks as though it scrambled to plug some lighthearted adventure into a haunted tale at the last minute. Just as 2003’s Daredevil was plagued by a need for levity following the success of Spider-Man the year before, The Black Hole plays as much like an attempted Star Wars clone as a film trying desperately to resist being that.
When The Black Hole allows itself to go dark, it’s full of powerful, striking imagery.
Outside of hokey action scenes, the film has some pretty powerful imagery when it allows itself to go dark. Robots grieving their dead, the tortured faces of Reinhardt’s experiments, and the, uh, not-so-accurate fiery hellscape at the centre of the titular black hole are all absolutely striking.
The film achieves moments of genuine greatness, despite some obvious extra fat that could have been trimmed here and there.
A little dark for Disney
The darker sides of The Black Hole make it an appealing work to revisit. The film is bankable “IP” to use the corporate speak of Disney. But that darkness also makes it harder for the PG-focused House of Mouse to wrangle.
Seeing the film’s potential, Disney tried to launch a remake in 2009, with Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski at the helm. Maybe they recognized The Black Hole’s similarities to Alien, because Disney enlisted Jon Spaihts, who’d previously written Alien prequel Prometheus, to write a script in 2013.
For better or worse, the project never got off the ground and was deemed too dark for Disney. Spaihts told Slashfilm in 2016 that he loved working on the script, but “It sits uneasily in Disney’s world as a dark epic, and Disney is in a very colorful place … It was very faithful to the original but clever in all the ways that in first film was silly, I hope.”
There’s plenty to work with, and rumors suggest that Disney is still at work on a reboot, with Pacific Rim: Uprising writer Emily Carmichael attached. Who knows where the project might end up?
Caught between two worlds
It’s easy to think of film history as a series of befores and afters. Acting before and after the coming of sound. Horror before and after Psycho. Science fiction before and after Star Wars. 3D before and after Avatar.
But the norms we take for granted didn’t spring up fully formed. Alien didn’t suddenly change all of science fiction, or introduce horror to sci-fi for the first time. It was a pivotal film, no doubt, but it also exists on a long spectrum of change.
The Black Hole reveals some of the messier growing pains on the spectrum. It feels as much like a descendent of Forbidden Planet and Buck Rogers as it does a prelude to Blade Runner and Event Horizon.
As such, it feels caught between two worlds in a way that’s fascinating to watch.
“Forgotten classic” might be a stretch, but The Black Hole is a notable entry in the sci-fi pantheon. One you might be unlikely to seek out (or even find anywhere) without streaming catalogues at your fingertips.