In deep space, the starship Palomino discovers a huge black hole and finds itself being drawn in by its massive gravitational pull. However, sitting on the edge of this unimaginably powerful event, apparently lifeless, is a lost space station called the Cygnus that had disappeared twenty years before. Strugggling to stay near the ship, which appears to have its own immunity to the effects of the gravity, the crew of the Palomino take a closer look, and the station lights up - could there be survivors inside? Considering the repairs they now need, there's only one thing to do and that's dock with it and find out...
This costly fantasy was scripted by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day and was one of the many attempts to cash in on the Star Wars craze, in this case from the Disney studios. It was basically concieved as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in space, and unlike its 1950s predecessor turned out to be a big flop, in spite of its handsome look and pulp sci-fi trappings. Not to mention a budget which was far above most of the George Lucas wannabes trying their luck with the public's appetite for dazzling science fiction and fantasy around this time.
It's not only derivative of Jules Verne, you can watch the film ticking off the influences. There are cutesy robot companions for the Palomino crew - the proverb-quoting V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall) is one in a long line of non-human Disney sidekicks, and no less annoying for that. In fact there's a real tension between the tradional, friendly Disney stuff and the sinister accoutrements that the more impressive thrills are dependent on. Take evil genius Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who is more like a Bond villain, the laser gun battles that are a straight lift from Star Wars, and the baffling 2001: A Space Odyssey-style ending that strives for profundity.
The storyline's predictability and the hardboiled to pretentious, but usually clunky, dialogue works against the film ("What caused that cause?" Eh?) but the rather, er, mature cast is made up of distinct screen personalities that goes a little way to making up for their cardboard characters. Schell is actually quite fun as the mad doctor, making the most of his clichés and glowering impressively, and his own robot henchman (called Maximilian, funnily enough) is a nicely threatening presence. Dr Reinhardt also likes cabbages, judging by his vegetable garden.
Peter Ellenshaw's design is excellent, with huge, elaborate sets and atttractive special effects that only occasionally show the strings. This is at its best when dealing with the sheer scale of the situation, as after all black holes are pretty mind-boggling in their own right and to some extent this is captured here. But the only nod to originality, being the religious aspect at the climax, is badly thought out and simply amounts to "good guys go to heaven, bad guys go to hell". Still, as space operas go it's perfectly watchable if you're feeling indulgent, even if you end up wondering why the doctor didn't program his robots to hit their targets properly. And how often do you see a film that strives for the truly cosmic, especially in science fiction, nowadays? Never mind that it was probably works like these which put filmmakers off even attempting such giddy heights of conceptualising for decades afterwards, more's the pity. Repetitive yet rather grand music by John Barry.