Behold the beauty of The Black Hole's USS Cygnus

Contributed by
Feb 4, 2018

Pleased to see you back in the orbit of SYFY WIRE's Flight Deck, where we perform a proper inspection of many of the most recognizable, influential spaceships and starbound vessels from a wide range of iconic sci-fi films and TV shows.

Credit: Disney

The Black Hole, Disney's risky venture into a darker-themed sci-fi adventure in 1979 didn't exactly ignite the box office, but over the years its share of dedicated admirers has grown exponentially. At the time, it was the most expensive feature film ever produced by Disney, with a budget of $20 million, and was also the first PG-rated film the revered studio presented.

While it might not appear among all-time classics for the House of Mouse beside Pinocchio and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was an ambitious undertaking with some astounding special effects, a mesmerizing John Barry musical score, and a truly breathtaking galactic starblazer at its core, the USS Cygnus.

Credit: Disney

Starring Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Ernest Borgnine, The Black Hole received deserved Oscar nominations for Peter Ellenshaw’s striking production design and Frank Phillips’ glittering cinematography.

Ellenshaw was an Academy Award-winning matte painter and special effects master who worked on Treasure Island (1950), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954),The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and Mary Poppins (1964).

Released on December 21, 1979, director Gary Nelson's The Black Hole was a financial failure doomed by gross miscasting choices, fans holding out for 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, and a rushed screenplay whose finale felt jumbled and wholly dissatisfying.

Disney's live-action interstellar epic chronicled a group of space voyagers aboard the USS Palomino who discover a long-lost spaceship, the USS Cygnus, drifting outside a menacing black hole. Inside the advanced antimatter-powered craft, these explorers encounter a mad scientist commanding a small army of faceless robots, who explains that his original crew abandoned him as he planned to venture through the ominous eye of a gargantuan black hole.

As the centerpiece of the entire production, the glorious exploratory vessel christened the USS Cygnus is an impressive piece of hardware. With its massive Victorian-era conservatory design, domed command tower, astronomy module, and illuminated presence commanded by the insane Captain Hans Reinhardt, it lingers outside the event horizon of a destructive cosmic whirlpool where time and space converge.

Credit: Disney

The experimental probe was heavily modified with null-gravity devices by Reinhardt and his android crew over the past 20 years before being found by the USS Palomino. At over 1,600 meters long and 400 meters wide, it's not the most nimble spacecraft ever to cruise the heavens, as its gothic, cathedral-like style and colossal size outweigh any notions of strict practicality. But wow, is it a stunning specimen!

Credit: Cinefantastique

Special effects wizards Eustace Lycett and Art Cruikshank assembled a fantastic team to create two 12-foot-long models of the Cygnus, with larger scale sectional models built for the necessary close-up shots. Each mighty miniature weighed 170 pounds and was constructed from scratch primarily of brass, with EMA tubes and domes utilized for extra detailing. Sections of translucent plastic were placed beneath its brass exoskeleton and lit with 150 automotive bulbs.

Credit: Disney

These extravagant models cost $100,000 each and took a crew of 12 to 15 people approximately one year to build. One of the miniatures was wrecked filming the movie's climactic sequences. The second model was delivered to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The immensity of the mile-long USS Cygnus, named after the swan-shaped constellation, deserved a far better fate than being torn apart after diving into the churning cataclysm of the black hole, but she lives on as one of the most jaw-dropping craft ever to grace a silver screen.

What are your memories of The Black Hole, and does it hold a special spot in your geeky heart?