Hollywood Flashback: In 1979, Disney Wanted 'Black Hole' to Be Its 'Star Wars'

MIRRORPIX/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
Robots V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. and and four mysterious “android drones” promote 'The Black Hole' at a March 1980 event in the U.K.

Decades before acquiring the coveted franchise from Lucasfilm, the media giant tried its hand at launching its own sci-fi universe featuring laser battles and droids.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A long time ago, before Disney could buy Star Wars outright, it tried launching its own sci-fi franchise with 1979's The Black Hole. The years immediately following Star Wars' May 1977 release — during which 20th Century Fox's space epic amassed $230 million domestic­ally (equivalent to $930 million today) — were heady ones for films set in space: Black Hole opened during the Christmas season alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien had been a summer hit and even James Bond had achieved zero gravity in Moonraker.

All of those releases wanted to get a head start on The Empire Strikes Back, which was opening in May 1980. But none got a review like the one Black Hole got in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, THR film critic Arthur Knight begins: "Despite a title that manages to be at once sexist and racist, The Black Hole is far from controversial." (This about a family adventure set in deep space.)

"It was basically a space version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," explains Robert Forster, now 74, who in the film plays a spaceship commander who stumbles upon a mysterious vessel led by a Captain Nemo type, played by Maximilian Schell.

The sway of Star Wars on Hole is unmistakable: It features laser battles, helper droids who could be R2-D2's cousins and a Darth Vader-like heavy in the form of Schell's hench-robot, Maximilian (no relation).

While not a critical success, Hole is credited with radically advancing computerized effects — though much of its magic was achieved the old-fashioned way.

"This was one of the last films that had the old Disney masters doing things like weightlessness with wires. I don't think greenscreens existed," recalls Forster of the $20 million production, then Disney's priciest. It grossed only $36 million, but there were other lines of revenue: A deal with Mego Toys produced 6 million dolls and models of the movie's USS Palomino. And like the Palomino, a planned remake is floating in limbo. 

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