The Black Hole: Disney's dark sci-fi

The Black Hole: Disney's dark sci-fi

The Black Hole

If we think of the Disney film tradition, the first thought is inevitably turned to the rich production of animation, made famous by titles such as Fantasia, Robin Hood or Basil the Investigatopo. Still, the house of Mickey Mouse has been particularly active in the production of films with real actors, conceived as products for the whole family. Generations of young spectators have grown up watching The Cowboy in the Bridal Veil, The Cat from Outer Space or Herbie the Beetle's incredible feats. Joining these films was the desire to create an offer that, in line with the perception of the brand, was not only linked to animation, Disney's core business, but that could capture the interest of all members of the family. Commendable intent that led live action productions for two decades, until the arrival of what at the time was a small revolution: The Black Hole.

The Black Hole in 1979 was a surprise for lovers by Disney. Accustomed to fairytale contexts in cartoons and funny and delicate stories in live action, being catapulted into a science fiction story with dark tones was a revelation, which did not however achieve the hoped-for success. One wonders, in hindsight, why Disney decided to try such an experiment, but the truth is that The Black Hole was the answer to a question that snaked in the upper echelons of the major: how much we can still monetize from the audience of the teenager?

Change of course at Disney

A question that is anything but obvious. The 1970s had left Disney managers with an interesting, albeit worrying fact: if animation continued to be a source of satisfaction, albeit aimed at a child or pre-adolescent demographic, the production of live action films, designed for an audience adolescent, they struggled at the box office. It is no mystery that brass knobs and broomsticks (1971) was a disappointment for Disney, a blow that forced the Disney top management to take note of how American teenagers were changing tastes, thanks to new influences. The film and television production of the period was undergoing considerable changes, sci-fi in particular was heading towards a revolution that aroused the imagination and interests of adolescents as well. Those were the years of Star Trek, of the reruns of Citizen of Space or of the incredible tales of the Twilight Zone, but also of the new freedoms enjoyed by a medium very close to teenagers, comics, where a progressive dismantling of the constraints of the Comics Code Authority within the Silver Age it allowed to venture into new dimensions, such as horror, and to approach new languages, also introducing more visually violent and raw elements.

New stimuli which obviously contributed to evolving the taste of young Americans, who therefore perceived the Disney live action production as childish, unappetizing. A feeling that some Disney managers, such as James Miller, tried to point out to his colleagues, who were opposed to his intention to create more mature content, afraid that this change of course could undermine the fame of Disney, considered a symbol of entertainment for families. Yet, within Disney this desire for renewal was gaining ground, so much so that the conditions for what would become The Black Hole were already present.

Science fiction at Disney, at the time, was present only in the film adaptation of 20,000 leagues under the sea, based on the famous novel by Jules Verne. A seminal sci-fi, as were the works of the French author, who had entered the ranks of Disney productions mainly for his adventurous spirit. In the early 1970s, however, science fiction became a genre of interest even in Disney, where Space Station One appeared, a short sci-fi story, which should have been the first step towards making a film. The reticence of Disney's upper echelons combined with a difficulty in defining this project, which changed its name to Probe One first and finally to The Black Hole. But not even the new name could win the reticence of the Disney management, who struggled to see in this dark science fiction story a 'Disney' film, an opposition that collapsed only when a young farmer from a distant galaxy conquered American cinemas in 1977.

The Black Hole: the big bet

The Black Hole would not exist without Star Wars, this is a certain fact. On the other hand, without the first film in the George Lucas saga we would not have had most of the sci-fi productions of the late '70s, from Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek: The Motion Pictures, but in the case of The Black Hole this link is particularly felt. Either because Disney refused to produce this Star Wars, or because when everyone was determined to ride the sudden American interest in science fiction The Black Hole was the only idea at Disney that had any semblance of feasibility, and the factor time was of the essence.

It was therefore a question of accepting the risk of completely overturning one's cinematographic tradition. What made The Black Hole even more appealing was its analogy to another genre that was thrilling American audiences at the time, disaster movies, where titles such as the Airport and Meteor series had become cult stars. The intuition of the writers Bob Barshan and Richard Landau was to set a disaster movie in space, an idea that was presented to the story editor Frank Paris, starting an internal process at Disney that led this screenplay to be reworked several times, being entrusted to different directors until, after a series of complications, it was entrusted to director Gary Nelson.

Nelson's arrival was a fundamental point for Disney's revolutionary policy, which was ready to abandon the G rating, that is suitable for younger viewers, aiming at the PG, aimed instead at a more adult audience. Choice that was expressly imposed by Nelson, who in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter recounted this central moment in the development of The Black Hole:

“We deliberately chose to point to the PG, to move away from cataloging as G. In at first we had no idea how to create the conditions for a PG rating, so we decided to simply say it was too intense for too young viewers. Also, no terms like 'damn' or 'hell' appeared in Disney films before The Black Hole "

To further mark this clear separation from the previous Disney live action production was another choice of Nelson: Don't show the Disney logo. The director's perception was that the presence of the popular Mickey Mouse house symbol could discourage audiences over 18, while The Black Hole's purpose was just the opposite. Reason why, he chose to remove all ties to previous productions and release The Black Hole as a Buena Vista production.

The change of narrative register was not the only turning point impressed by The Black Hole, which with its 20 million dollars established itself as the most expensive production in Disney history. It was a staggering figure, if we think that The Black Hole was a gigantic question mark, given its nature as a film that breaks with tradition. But that budget was needed, in large part, to create an astonishing visual system, with which impressive sets were created, such as the interior of the Cygnus. Too bad that this care was not extended to the drafting of a script that did not show a bite-free writing, in which the often bombastic dialogues alternated with predictable scenes, badly exploiting a cast in which there were actors of the caliber of Maximilian Schell, Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins. Disappointing, considering that the narrative was promising.

The spaceship Palomino, during its return trip to Earth, crosses a giant spaceship, which turned out to be the Cygnus, a vessel that was lost years earlier. On board the Palomino it was decided to attempt the exploration of this spaceship, inside which a section is detected in which energy is still present: it is in this part of the Cygnus that Reinhardt lives, a scientist who, following an encounter with a years ago meteor storm remained aboard the ship to allow his fellow passengers to escape with lifeboats. In these years of loneliness, Reinhardt has pursued the search for knowledge, which now pushes him to want to launch the Cygnus inside a black hole, convinced that on the other side there may be the supreme knowledge.

I his plans are put at risk when the crew of the Palomino discover the true nature of Reinhardt's servant automatons and his madness, forcing the mad scientist to anticipate his plans by taking the Cygnus to the black hole, with the Palomino men still in it. edge.

Compelling premise, in which some typical sci-fi cues are also recognized, but which is spoiled by a management of unhappy narrative times, with long discursive sequences that break the rhythm, boring rather than captivating the viewer . The convincing visual system is of little use, futuristic for the time, but which cannot hide the inexperience of Nelson, a director with a good experience in the television field, but who has shown all his limits in this too pretentious production. br>

The legacy of The Black Hole

The Black Hole did not have the hoped-for success, but had the merit (or the fault) of inaugurating a period of experimentation at Disney, mainly wanted by 'then president Ron Miller. It was Miller himself who saw a limitation in the young age of the main target of Disney productions, and The Black Hole was his first attempt to shake up the majors.

The failure of The Black Hole was not a setback for the plans of Miller, who starting from 1978 tried to give Disney live action productions a more adult nature, also touching genres so far never approached, such as horror (The eyes of the park) to fantasy with The dragon of the lake of fire. After introducing a vaguely abusive language in The Black Hole, which came harshly from the American audience, he also launched into a visually more bloody and disturbing narrative, so much so that in The Dragon of the Lake of Fire it was decided to open the film with a grim scene, in which a young woman was given as a sacrifice to the monster of the title. Event shown with so much desperation of the victim, that she trying to free herself from the chains that oppressed her she was bleeding from her arms, before she was literally burned alive by the breath of the dragon. To get an idea of ​​how disruptive this approach was, just think that in order to maintain the G rating when it was decided to bring The Treasure Island back into the room in 1975, a scene was cut in which a man wounded by a bullet was cut.

The Black Hole therefore inaugurated an interesting period, albeit not very satisfying, for Disney, which ended with the release of another project of great fascination for its desire to experiment, Tron (1982) . The Black Hole is still admirable today, with the right awareness, the putting on the screen, with a Cygnus that still shows a certain charm, but which pays for a script that, already weak at the time, today is naive and pretext. The Black Hole has the bitter taste of a project that could have really been an important turning point for Disney, even on a narrative level (it anticipates the concept of Point of No Return by almost twenty years) but which was plagued by haste to ride the success of Star Wars.

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