After the release of “Star Wars” and its monumental, game changing success, seemingly every major film studio cranked out a competitor. While the low-budget “Star Wars” knockoffs are a long list of mostly forgotten duds, the expensive, ambitious examples are noteworthy for all arriving in the same year. In 1979, United Artists sent James Bond into space, as “Moonraker” featured a climax with a ray gun battle and shuttle shenanigans. While it was once the top-grossing 007 adventure and has some great scenes, “Moonraker” is mostly remembered today as secret agent camp.
Paramount Pictures, on the other hand, released the no-nonsense, glittering “Star Trek- The Motion Picture.” The first Trek film has been widely criticized for its length and slow pace. Indeed, Robert Wise’s film drags but (until J.J. Abrams 2009 “Star Trek”) is one of the few epic-sized adaptations of Gene Roddenberry’s series, is highlighted by Jerry Goldsmith’s muscular score and has an overlooked, cleverly Rod Serling-esque finish. I remain a big fan of “Star Trek-The Motion Picture.” Wise’s widescreen take on Roddenberry’s earnest, trendsetting TV series feels like the charming, old school, traveling road show science fiction equivalent of his other big Hollywood productions. Another 1979 sci-fi feature was “Alien,” from 20th Century Fox and it, unquestionably, was the one that remains in the zeitgeist subconscious. Whereas “Moonraker” and “Star Trek- The Motion Picture” are responses to The Force, Ridley Scott’s blend of sci-fi and gothic horror was a new cinematic beast.
Yet, the most illuminating of the “Star Wars” knockoffs is “The Black Hole,” released by the Walt Disney company. Made back when the Mouse House was struggling to maintain its dominance in animation, churning out subpar live-action films (like “Superdad” and “Condorman”) and decades before Disney officially acquired the “Star Wars” franchise, “The Black Hole” is a surprisingly riveting (if occasionally creaky) bit of genre showmanship.
A crew of outer space explorers, aboard the Palomino spacecraft, discovery a colossal black hole and a long lost spaceship, the USS Cygnus. Upon first glance, the Cygnus resembles an expansive Victorian mansion, flattened out into a spaceship. It’s a gorgeous spectacle, as the scale of the ship is so cleverly staged, we can overlook that we’re gazing at a vast, handmade model. The Palomino crew, led by Captain Holland (played by Robert Forster), boards the Cygnus to find a craft the size of a major city, run by the enigmatic Dr. Reinhardt (played by Maximillian Schell) and his silent, looming robot, Maximillian.
Once Reinhardt’s self destructive plan and the nature of his minions (like a sci-fi take on “House of Wax”) are out in the open, the movie takes off. One awesome sequence after another showcases dazzling effects that, even today, are truly jaw dropping. The iconic shot of our heroes running across a bridge, while a giant fireball destroys the structure, is a milestone Disney live-action special effect. I’d put it alongside any of the best scenes from “Mary Poppins” or “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The meteor shower and the ship’s descent into the black hole are, likewise, so cool to watch and brilliantly created.
The ending is one for the books. Rather than simply suggest a classic, good versus evil denouement, Nelson and his screenwriters Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day nod to Stanley Kubrick.
Once our heroes take the inevitable plunge into the black hole, things get impressively weird. The result of Reinhardt’s villainy leads him and his mantis-like Maximillian into a Dante-like hell. The protagonists, meanwhile, experience a trip not unlike the Dave Bowman’s Star Child journey. The grand finale intends to be a more accessible, literal variation on the “Infinite and Beyond” climax of “2001- A Space Odyssey.” While its more goofy than remotely profound, the imagery still stuns, combining visions and Dante-esque darkness and heavenly vistas. Only this time, the imagery is less about landscapes and wormholes and more of a religious passage. It’s all open to interpretation, but it does kind of look like the bad guy goes to Hell while the heroes ascend into Heaven. I’m not sure, but I still find the ending hypnotic.
Despite beautiful, vivid special effects and an ambitious idea, this resembles a glossy update of “Destination Moon” or “This Island Earth” more than an offshoot of “Star Wars.” “The Black Hole” is both state of the art (note how cool and effortlessly scary Maximillian the robot is) and utterly corny (note how cheap, silly and kinda lovable R2-D2 knockoffs V.I.N.C.E.N.T and B.O.B. are). While a mid-range box office success in theaters, the film is a rare PG-rated Disney film and contains notably violent and creepy sequences.
An amusing touch that the studio likely regretted in hindsight: despite attempting to appeal to young audiences. everyone in the cast is old. Instead of Mark Hamill, we get Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins, excellent performers who give it their all but seem long in the tooth for this movie. Lead Robert Forster seems grumpy and not thrilled to be here. The best work comes from Maximillian Schell, who makes his one-note character compelling. Schell is playing the intergalactic equivalent of Captain Nemo. In fact, the whole movie plays like Jules Verne meets George Lucas, though the plotting is more obvious and weird than either “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or “Star Wars.”
John Barry’s memorable theme sounds like a somber waltz but he gives this an immediacy and grounded seriousness. Gary Nelson’s widescreen direction makes this look and feel more grand than a B-movie space opera. Unfortunately, Nelson’s keen ability with orchestrating the demands of the lavish production doesn’t apply to the humans. Aside from Schell, who makes his character a sinister, space-age Mephistopheles, none of his co-stars give performances equally spirited.
Today, Disney’s expansion of the “Star Wars” universe is among their most successful franchises. Still, as enjoyable as the new “Star Wars” films are, they lack the go-for-broke boldness and surreal touches of “The Black Hole.