Pitch Black Reviewby Sean Townsend (seanman AT ibm DOT net)
February 23rd, 2000
STARRING: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Keith David, Cole Hauser DIRECTOR: David Twohy
WRITTEN BY: Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, David Twohy
Remember when you were a kid, and you were afraid of the dark? Come on, now, it wasn't that long ago, and don't hand me any of that crapola about how you never needed a night light or a partially open bedroom door. As far as fears go, it's pretty much universal, hard-wired into the primitive part of our brains that still recalls what times were like before we figured out the fire thing. As a result, it's also a handy emotional trigger, one that fright films have always relied upon as a cheap and easy way to heighten the emotion of horror. In the movies, what we can't see can (and usually does) hurt us, and it almost always happens in the dark. Light, in all its forms, means salvation. Pitch Black takes this tradition and extrapolates it in a way that's so ridiculously literal it should be awful. Thanks to Diesel's great charisma and a few well-handled scenes, though, it's actually quite a bit of fun.
All you really need to know about the film is that it places a typically diverse group of interstellar crash-landing survivors on a barren, sun-soaked planet. These include a strong-willed female pilot (Mitchell), a Muslim imam (David) and his youthful followers, a fussy antiquities dealer, and a sort of galactic cop (Hauser) along with his prisoner (Diesel), who just happens to have surgically altered night-vision eyes. The film goes to great lengths to make it clear that said prisoner is one bad dude before his obligatory escape, but I doubt I'll be spoiling anything by saying he plays a key role in the group's survival. As the group attempts to find water, they discover a hostile species that requires darkness for survival. They also discover that the planet's three suns are about to be eclipsed for an indeterminate amount of time, rendering the entire place, well, you know. The rest is standard scare-flick stuff as the group's numbers (and light sources) dwindle as they try to make it back to an escape ship.
In order to enjoy this film, it helps to purposely overlook the implausible sci-fi trappings and horror-movie obviousness, because there are elements that work. The scenes dealing with the actual eclipse are effective, building suspense as the suns are gradually blocked, then showing hordes of light sensitive nasties coming out of what look like huge termite mounds. As for the creatures themselves, they're a reasonably threatening bunch, created by Patrick Tatopoulos (also responsible for the new-look Godzilla). While comparisons to certain H.R. Giger-designed Aliens will be inevitable, they reminded me more of the creatures in Stephen King's novella "The Mist." They fly, issue deceptively cute sonar calls, and generally creep around menacingly, always just outside the dimly lit perimeter of the group's flares and flashlights. In one memorable scene, a character is shown only by the light of a Zippo, until a brief burst of illumination reveals that he's completely surrounded by the things. It's good for a shock (unless you've seen the trailer), but it's better as a quick jolt back to a time when you were certain that something waited just beyond the night light's reach.
Diesel (an indie director also seen in Saving Private Ryan and heard in The Iron Giant) never takes himself too seriously, and it helps. Physically, he's a striking presence, with a deep, pliable voice to match. After the novelty of the creatures wears off (and it happens pretty quickly), he's by far the most interesting and entertaining thing about the movie.
While Twohy can't be accused of showing too much of the creatures, neither does he leave enough to the imagination. Given the film's premise, it would have been nice if he had trusted Diesel's ability to hold an audience and used sound and dialogue clues instead of computer graphics to bring the beasties to life. In shedding a bit too much light on the subject, Twohy restrains the power that makes the imaginary monsters of childhood so terrifying.
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