There are many movies that could have been done better. Not just in the realm of B-movies, where budget is often the limit, but also in movies from the major studios. The more interesting films are the near-misses, the ones that just missed the mark. The effort is there, but misapplied, resulting in a disappointment instead of an outright flop. Disney’s The Black Hole is such a movie. Released in 1979, The Black Hole was part of a science fiction renaissance born from the tremendous success of Star Wars. Everyone wanted a science fiction movie. However, Star Wars was also a game changer. While inspired by, among other soruces, the pulp serials of old, the hero wasn’t the square-jawed scientist as parodied by the character Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Instead, Star Wars featured a farm boy, a character type more likely to be found in a fantasy.
Changing approaches takes time. Scripts need to be written to accommodate the new paradigm. But to get something, anything out to take advantage of the sudden interest, time isn’t a luxury. Star Trek: The Motion Picture used a script meant for the pilot of a rebooted TV series, and it showed. The Black Hole, released the same month, had a script that would have felt more at home with the science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, featuring square-jawed science heroes. The problem there was that The Black Hole wasn’t solely a science fiction movie.
The Black Hole was gothic horror tucked in a science fiction shell.
Science fiction and horror do go and have gone together. Alien was a classic monster in the dark plot on board a spaceship. The Terminator featured an unrelenting robot out to kill one woman and was born from a nightmare. Having The Black Hole be horror isn’t a stretch; the elements are there. The big problem, though, was timing. The Black Hole was a first in many ways for Disney – the first Disney-branded movie to get a PG rating, the first with even mild swearing, the first with on-screen human deaths. It’d be understandable that the studio would be nervous. Disney created both Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures to be able to release films for adults, but neither existed at the time The Black Hole came out.
That was the core issue with The Black Hole – it was a horror movie from a studio that shied away from being too horrific. Disney was known for children’s entertainment. The studio could present frightening situations, like an evil woman becoming a terrifying dragon, but there was always someone brave to stand up to fight the evil. The Black Hole had the evil, but bravery didn’t help save the day. In horror, the hero doesn’t necessarily defeat the evil, just survive it, and that concept doesn’t always translate well to other genres.
The Black Hole looked like a mish-mash of genres. The crew of the Palomino were the square-jawed science types, using intelligence and research and talking to tackle the problem of the day. The Cygnus, despite being a spaceship, wouldn’t be out of place in gothic horror or a Hammer film, hanging in space orbiting a black hole. The end sequence may have been inspired by the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a side trip to Dante’s Inferno. And V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. owed more to the animal sidekicks of past Disney films than they did to R2-D2 and C-3P0.
This isn’t to say that The Black Hole was a bad movie. The film had a strong cast, with Antony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and Maximillian Schell, and the vocal talents of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickins. The special effects were cutting edge for the time, with the black hole a presence on screen. Even with their almost cartoon-quality appearance, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. were as capable as any droid from Star Wars, possibly more so with their ability to hover long before CGI made it easy.
Remaking The Black Hole isn’t just hypothetical. One attempt at a remake fell to the wayside after scripts were written. The main issue comes from figuring out just what approach to take with the film. However, for Lost in Translation, the idea is to figure out the core of the original and how to coax it out properly while still keeping the original plot more-or-less intact.
The first step is to get the science as close to correct as possible while still being able to tell a good story. In the original, the Cygnus was poised near the accretion disc of the black hole, using anti-gravity to maintain position. Adding a star in a dying orbit around the black hole allows for a Lagrange point where the acceleration of gravity of both are balanced and will enhance the visuals. The balance of forces also means that the Cygnus can be knocked out of position into danger.
While on the topic of the ships, the Cygnus and the Palomino should look like they’re from the same world. The original Palomino looks more like a lunar landing module of old. The interior of the Palomino is enough room for its five crew and robot. The Cygnus is far larger, and even with its original larger crew, still has far more space than the Palomino. Both were deep space explorers, so why the difference? The Cygnus may have a hydroponics section for longer endurance, but the Palomino doesn’t look right beside it. And it’s the Palomino that needs the change. The Cygnus needs to look like it belongs in gothic horror, brooding in the terrible sky. The Palomino, while smaller, should be a reflection of the Cygnus and what it once was. Get the mood going early.
The last technical design change is V.I.NCENT’s. The core design is good; V.I.N.CENT looks like he should be functional in zero-gravity. The change here is to make the robot more part of the crew, less like an animated character. Keep the basic design, but make V.I.N.CENT less like a commercial product and more a contracted design, where functionality takes precedent over appearance. However, Reinhardt’s robots should keep their appearance, if only updated for modern camera techniques. Provide more articulation to Maximillian, but otherwise keep his appearance. Likewise, the rest of Reinhardt’s robots should only receive minor updates, with some subtle foreshadowing of their true nature before the reveal.
The general plot can be kept, but change the focus from pure science fiction to horror. Once on the Cygnus, the audience should have a feeling that something is off. The scene outside should help; a star losing part of itself to a black hole is not normal. Reinhardt should seem reasonable on first meeting, but as time passes, again, something is off. Only when his plan is revealed should he begin to monologue. For the end, the trip through Hell needs to be kept; Reinhardt’s goal and his fall are key to the plot.
Getting the right feel is the critical. The original was trying to be both science fiction at a time when science fiction in film was going through a paradigm change and horror when the combination of the two was more likely to be a monster movie. The Black Hole won’t work as an action film, and the studio will have to resist the temptation to turn it into one. The goal is to keep the horror aspects front and centre. The Black Hole has potential, but will need work to bring it out properly.