Pitch Black Review

by Jamey Hughton (bhughton AT sk DOT sympatico DOT ca)
March 5th, 2000

*** (out of four stars)
A review by Jamey Hughton

Starring-Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser,
Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald and Rhiana Griffith Director-David Twohy
Canadian Rating-14A

MOVIE VIEWS by Jamey Hughton

Total crap. That would be the most accurate choice of words when describing the majority of sci-fi monster movies that have been exposed to in the past few years. Characters were pursued down flooded cruise liner hallways by fake tentacles (“Deep Rising”), stalked by robotic aliens (“Virus”) and swarmed by ugly flying mammals (“Bats”). And let’s not forgot this January’s “Supernova”. Holy Lord, did that movie reek. But before you reject “Pitch Black”, a science-fiction film with no A-list stars or special trimmings, keep in mind that director David Twohy is behind the camera. You may recollect that Twohy’s directorial debut was the highly intelligent (and highly underappreciated) alien takeover film “The Arrival”. Sure, Charlie Sheen was in it, but the film was executed with an unusual aura of imagination and style. Twohy also co-scripted the excellent cat-and-mouse thriller “The Fugitive” in 1993, so with “Pitch Black”, I was expecting more than just a bloody parade of stock characters pitted in unoriginal situations. There was also my knowledge that, in addition, Twohy penned “Waterworld”.... but hey, we all make mistakes.

“Pitch Black” opens with a bang. A transport ship carrying several passengers and some particularly dangerous cargo collides with space debris and plummets through the stratosphere in an astounding 10-minutes of seat-gripping disorientation. The unscheduled landing site is a desolate, seemingly uninhabited desert planet with three suns. The handful of survivors include captain Fry (Radha Mitchell), the strong-minded heroine with more than a dash of Ripley in her soul, rugged lawman Johns (Cole Hauser), and the dangerous cargo - a murderous convict by the name of Riddick (Vin Diesel). Riddick’s chilling opening narrative defines his character to a tee: “They say in cryo-sleep, the only part of you that doesn’t shut down is the primitive side...the animal,” he says. “I guess that’s why I’m still awake.” When Riddick frees himself from his confinement to roam the planet by foot, the remaining passengers get spooked. But what they really should be concerned about is the local wildlife: an endless swarm of nocturnal creatures that could be described as carnivorous hammerhead pterodactyls. Luckily, they only attack at night. Johns has a breakthrough: “They seem to stick to darkness, so if we stick to daylight, we should be alright.”

And then, a total eclipse occurs. Isn’t that always the luck of characters in this type of movie? At any rate, the survivors must scramble across the desert plain with the necessary amount of energy cells they will require to takeoff. The real question at hand is this: placed in a life-threatening situation, will Riddick help the crew or flee for the sake of his own freedom? Would you believe that this, the extra dimension of character development, is one standout factor that makes “Pitch Black” so refreshing? ‘Tis true. The screenplay, by Twohy and brothers Jim and Ken Wheat (who penned several forgettable sci-fi movies), is a competent tension builder that boasts an absorbing set-up and some palpable character interaction. There are memorable scenes, all stemming from the character of Riddick. Inman (Keith David), the leader of a small group of Islamic pilgrims, approaches Riddick to question his faith in God. The timid English boozehound Paris (well-played by Lewis Fitz-Gerald) is positively horrified of him, and finally there’s the kid (Rhiana Griffith), who wants to be Riddick.

Diesel, tough and lean, makes quite the lasting impression. But the real star here is the alien foe - a massive, skittering army of clawed monsters, sensationally well-devised and sleek in their appearance. Twohy builds tension nicely by keeping the creatures in the shadows until the eclipse, when they emerge from under the planet’s surface in tremendous numbers. All around, the visual effects - including the well-edited crash sequence - are top-of-the-line in quality, despite the relatively meager budget.

The script offers us intelligence, but it eventually degenerates into a leftover creature feature ghoulash. The stylish, visually polished appearance of “Pitch Black”, often bleached out in a manner reminiscent of the Gulf War comedy “Three Kings”, is the film’s most vital component. Effective images such as the towering skeletonized remains of past inhabitants are scattered across the alien landscape, and the cinematography is spellbinding. The only time Twohy really indulges is during a few attack sequences which reveal that he could have graduated from the Brian DePalma school of editing; these fast, choppy cuts are rather ineffective. My major complaint was the lack of action during the 2nd act. This all changes, however, when the lights go down and the beasties come out to play...and not in a friendly sense.

All three primary actors - Diesel, Mitchell and Hauser - do splendidly with building their characters. “Pitch Black” offers some aspects that regular science-fiction does not: characters that we can identify with, a thoughtful visual look, and a few genuine surprises for such a simplistic plot. So, without further ado, sci-fi fans may rejoice: the sleek, intelligent “Pitch Black” is superior monster mayhem.

(C) 2000, Jamey Hughton

MOVIE VIEWS by Jamey Hughton

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