Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Black Hole
As we’ve discussed many times before, Star Wars changed the way Hollywood studios looked at their tentpole releases and genre fare. Previously relegated to B-status, the success of the original 1977 film saw the other studios responding with their own high-class sci-fi pictures to various degrees of success. It also led to a flood of cheap knock-offs in the international film market. But one studio we’ve never touched on before in regards to the Star Wars watershed is The Walt Disney Company.
Prior to buying Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Marvel Entertainment, Disney was known for its own home-grown features like The Little Mermaid and its live-action output via Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures. But in an even earlier era, the 1970s, Disney was producing and releasing live action films under the Disney label to a small but profitable market. Growing out of the tradition of family films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat, Disney made The Love Bug series into the Me Decade. They also began to branch out into stranger, moodier pictures like Watcher in the Woods. But in the wake of Star Wars, they took their biggest gamble: a science fiction epic known as The Black Hole.
The plot concerns the crew of the U.S.S. Palomino — Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) , slight telepath Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), civilian overseer Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and a robot with with the most tortured acronym for a name ever conceived: V.I.N.CENT (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”), voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall. On their way back to Earth, they detect a black hole and a spaceship somehow defying its gravitation pull. They soon identify the ship as the U.S.S. Cyngus, the vessel Dr. McCrae’s father served aboard when it mysterious vanished some years prior.
Docking with the Cygnus, they discover its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), is alive, well, and studying the black hole with the aid of an android crew he claims to have built after he ordered his human staff to abandon ship 20 years prior. He also tells McCrae that her father chose to remain aboard the Cygnus, but has since died. He also reveals to the Palomino crew that he is near the completion of his dream to enter the very heart of the black hole itself. Dr. Durant is thrilled by this prospect and volunteers to join Reinhardt on the mission.
The rest of the Palomino crew is not so sure about Reinhardt’s intentions; particularly as they get to know the Cygnus and realize the android crew possess human traits. Some walk with limps while a group of androids are seen carrying out a funeral procession. When V.I.N.CENT makes the acquaintance of an older model robot named B.O.B (BiO-sanitation Battalion), they learn the horrifying truth — Reinhardt lobotomized his crew when they rebelled against his plan to enter the black hole. Durant is killed by Reinhardt’s chief enforcer drone Maximilian and Booth’s attempt to flee the situation aboard the Palomino begins a cascade failure of the Cygnus‘s system and the gravity well it uses to maintain its orbit near the black hole. The surviving Palomino crew and Reinhardt hatch separate plans to reach a probe ship capable of space flight, but nothing can stop their fateful meeting with the black hole.
And if a film about a hapless crew confront a driven and likely insane captain of a technologically advanced craft reminds you of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, that’s part of the charm. In developing a space epic all their own, Disney made the smart move in using a plot they already had access to and which was proven to be a money maker. It also meant the film would have an imposing villain in its distaff Captain Nemo. This allowed director Gary Nelson to focus on the elements the studio believed would be more important in the long run: the production design and special effects of Disney cinematic magician Peter Ellenshaw. The Cyngus, robot enforcer Maximilian, his army and even V.I.N.CENT are smartly designed — even if the latter has a clear toyetic element to him. The effects are also marvelous even they show their relative cheapness when compared to the work Industrial Light & Magic would unveil in The Empire Strikes Back just a year later or the work executed by Douglas Trumbull for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ellenshaw’s matte paintings may be more obvious, but the handcrafted quality lends the film a certain garage charm as Disney attempts to catch some of the space magic.
Unfortunately, the focus on design and trusting in their 20,000 League plot means the film creaks. Heavy on dialogue and slow on action, the film is ponderous; almost as ponderous as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Release the same year, both films reflect an older sensibility regarding science fiction and little of the whizz-bag good feelings Star Wars generated on its path to box office domination. And while I like Robert Forster and the sort of no-nonsense characters he plays, he’s no Harrison Ford. Similarly, Bottoms, Perkins and Borgnine seem out of place and overwhelmed by the technical proceedings happening around them. The only actor who really acquits himself well in the film is Schell. Essentially playing Nemo, his cold menace is the best human thing about The Black Hole.
So you might be asking how it ends up a cheesy movie. The answer takes us back to that older sensibility of science fiction filmmaking. Prior to Star Wars, sci-fi films either resembled 2001: a space odyssey with its slow moving space ships and elliptical, if artful storytelling or cheeseball B-pictures which borrowed heavily from Forbidden Planet without its sense of scope or craftsmanship. The Black Hole manages to employ both sensibilities at the same time. When the crew first boards the Cygnus, the mood is deliberate and spooky. But once they meet Reinhardt, the more obvious space-set plot (which, of course borrows from 20,000 Leagues) takes over. In making these choices, the end product is a film which really shouldn’t appeal to children despite kids being the target audience. The end result is a slow, contemplative and goofy movie which allowed children to witness their first cinematic representation of Hell. To view the movie is to consider these baffling decisions and watch one of the cheesiest live action movies Disney ever made under its own name.
But, like Starcrash, it features a wonderful John Barry score, which elevates the film by half a letter grade and gives the cheese unfolding around you an elegance it hardly deserves, but would be incomplete without.
The Black Hole is available for rent on the usual streaming services. A DVD release is also available at budget prices.