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Retro Review: Pitch Black (2000)

Here are some updated thoughts (2015):  When this review was originally posted to the movie site I worked on, it garnered nearly 200 comments . . . more than all the comments on Infinispace added together!  Back in 2000 when the web was still growing and the .com bubble was expanding, that was a significant number of comments . . . for a single movie.  Why?  Opinions on this movie are very divisive.  People either love it or call it an Alien(s) rip off.  I have to admit that the tenor of my opinion on Pitch Black has mellowed over the years.  15 years ago I found it slightly above average as a whole.

Since release Twohy has gone on to make two sequels:  The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Riddick (2013).  I loved the former for its character and world building, introducing us to a world that was significantly more complex, interesting, and compelling than what was presented in Pitch Black.  While the latter fell back to the same vein mined in Pitch Black, more monsters, more action.  Surprisingly, it looks like we’ll be getting a fourth Riddick film in the future.  Perhaps I’ll write more on the existing trilogy as a whole at a later date . . .

There is a frequent conflict that trades shots in my mind when I view a movie like Pitch Black. On one side there’s the desire for escapism and the itch for eye candy.  On the other side is a yearning for conventions to be transcended and a new perspective to be presented.  Pitch Black comes tantalizingly close on both counts, before falling agonizingly short.

Marooned on a desert planet, survivors of a starship crash must find a way off the planet, or at least a way to survive long enough to be rescued.  There are two major obstacles: one of the survivors, Richard B. Riddick, is a cold-blooded killer who escapes into the desert, and the other is the planet’s indigenous population of hammerhead predators who live in the darkness below the planet’s surface.  It’s soon discovered that the planet they crashed on resides in a system with three suns, leaving them in perpetual daylight.  This initially is a good thing, as the light keeps the beasts at bay.  The bad news is that every 22 years, planets in the solar system align in just the right orientation causing eclipses that leave the planet in total darkness.  Guess when the ship crashed?  Scant hours before this event takes place, of course.  An amazing coincidence . . . or a handy plot device.

Contrivances of plot like this rarely bother me.   If characters on screen don’t make stupid decisions and too-convenient devices don’t pop up to create dicey situations, why bother making movies?  What happens to Pitch Black to lessen the movie-going experience for me was that it suffers the same personality crisis that plagued From Dusk ‘Til Dawn:  halfway through a plot that focused successfully on character intrigues, it grinds the gearbox introducing a new threat.  For those I’ve left in the dark (sorry about the pun), in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, the Gecko brothers, played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, carve a swath of blood and explosions across Texas, and abduct a family vacationing in their Winnebago and force them to take them to Mexico.  After I was all wrapped up in an effectively tense psychodrama, BAM!  Vampires.  Up to that point I had completely forgotten that vampires were even part of the plot!  In Pitch Black, the underlying motives of the only surviving crew member, the convict, and the man trying to bring him to justice, transformed into a fabulous balance of deception, impending violence and ominous treaties.  Then BAM!  Aliens.

This is not to say that you can’t have creatures in your character studies, or strong characterization in your monster movies.  It just seems like a daunting task to put those elements together effectively in a film.  M. Night Shyamalan manages this perfectly in The Sixth Sense (using ghosts), as did Steven Spielberg in Jaws (using a shark).  Perhaps not coincidentally, both directors were nominated for Oscars for their efforts.  Do not expect to see David Twohy’s name associated with this picture among next year’s nominees.

However, the fact that he even tried can’t be downplayed.  It was refreshing to see the orchestrations of the characters, the presumptions made by them, the desire to accept things as they assume they are, and then grimace when that belief is either betrayed or vindicated, and sometimes both.  It seems like films often rally their characters around each other, everyone pulling together to defeat a common foe.  Not so in Pitch Black, where the old adage of “we are tested in the hard times, not the easy times” has the characters failing time and again, as uneasy alliances are built and torn down.  A recurring theme in the film is responsibility for the survival of others, and what price to pay for ensuring their survival.  It’s great for character interplay, but the movie missed a few notes in the recital.

Pitch Black Poster

Pitch Black (2000)

The daylight can burn you, but the darkness will kill you.  Experience the psychological terror when a group of marooned passengers must face a pack of terrifying creatures whose only weakness is the light.  With little power and dwindling numbers, the doomed passengers turn to a vicious convict with an appetite for destruction and eerie eyes that can guide them through the darkness.

Director:  David Twohy
Starring:  Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David
Genre:  Science Fiction / Horror
Media:  Film, 109 minutes
Rating: R
Year: February 18, 2000
3 out of 5 stars

Vin Diesel brings to the screen the best science fiction villain since Darth Vader.  His rumbling tenor (remember the voice of The Iron Giant? That was Diesel) brings an earthy menace to his Riddick character, matching his imposing presence.  A back-alley ‘shine job’ on his eyes gives him the ability to see in the dark, a feature necessary for the continued survival of the cast, while at the same time cementing his status as conscienceless murderer endeared to nobody.  To make matters worse, he can pilot on his own, making the rest of the survivors superfluous to his escape.  The studios sell Pitch Black as evil versus evilt, but underlying it all is a thread that Riddick may not be really be a simple villain.  The longer Pitch Black plays, the more morally ambiguous he becomes.

On the technical side, the film is very nice to look at, and sports the same washed-out, overexposed look that graced Three Kings.  The triumvirate ultimately responsible for this, Cinematographer David Eggby, Art director Graham Walker and production designer Ian Gracie, are all veterans of Australian shoots.  Eggby worked on the original Mad Max, Walker cut his teeth on Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and Gracie and Eggby both were on the crew of Quigley Down Under.  Gracie also held the art director title for The Thin Red Line, one of the most captivating shot films of the last decade.  Veteran creature designer Peter Tatopolous is responsible for the aliens, though I don’t really know what to say about that since his designs spent most of their screen time in complete darkness.  They were better than his Godzilla (1998) and his Independence Day aliens, that’s for certain.

The original tagline of the film, “Fight evil with evil,” suggests to me that the director’s vision for the film was centered more acutely on Riddick.  While by far the most interesting character and most integral to the plot, I think that vision got distorted somewhere.  Could it have been during post-production?  MGM performed a hatchet job on Disturbing Behavior a few years back, on the belief that the “target audience” didn’t have an attention span over two minutes and didn’t care about subtext.  Did Interscope leave a few integral scenes on the cutting room floor due to some demographic prejudice?  With such great left of center films like Being John Malkovich, What Dreams May Come and Very Bad Things, I have a hard time believing that they would be so timid as to flinch at a villain taking up such a prominent role.  I don’t really have an explanation for why a proven director like Twohy can deliver a sometimes brilliant and sometimes jarringly uneven product such as this.

The obvious enthusiasm of the cast and crew to create something greater than the genre can usually deliver must be recognized.  Pitch Black wanted to be different; it wanted to offer something more than the standard fare of air-fluffed scifi glitz, but it ultimately falls short of breaking new ground in the genre.

Words © 2000-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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