Pitch Black Review

by Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
March 17th, 2000

PITCH BLACK (2000) / *

Directed by David Twohy. Screenplay by Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat and Twohy. Starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated AA for offensive language and violent scenes. Reviewed on March 16th, 2000.


My first exposure to "Pitch Black" came when the preview was played in front of "Girl, Interrupted" a month and a half ago. The preview hinted at monsters which lived on a sun-drenched planet but could only come out in the darkness. Then: "an eclipse!" How convenient, I thought; I could see the whole movie playing out in my mind. I held out some hope that the filmmakers might surprise me, but sadly, actually watching "Pitch Black" did not prove to be a revelatory experience. "Pitch Black" is indeed as improbable, formulaic and predictable as its preview implies.
The film is set sometime in the future. Men travel the stars in enormous ships, cryogenically frozen for the duration of the voyage. One such spaceship is knocked off course and crashlands, killing all but
a handful of the passengers and crew. The survivors include docking pilot Caroline Fry (Radha Mitchell), uneasy with authority and plagued by self-doubts; no-nonsense mercenary William Johns (Cole Hauser); and Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel), a convicted murderer.

The planet on which they are marooned has three suns, and as a result is a dry, blasted terrain without plants or water. Soon, though, the survivors discover evidence of a previous human expedition to the planet which appears to have been violently wiped out. The culprits soon become obvious: in underground caverns live hideous creatures which thrive in darkness and emerge onto the planet's surface only during a total solar eclipse, which in a feat of mathematical and physical improbability occurs like clockwork every twenty-two years. Of course, the cycle is almost up and soon the survivors find themselves under assault from wave upon wave of the terrifying, merciless monsters which are almost invisible in the pervasive darkness. Their only hope lies with the enigmatic Riddick, whose eyes have been surgically altered to permit him to see in the dark.

Convenient indeed. But to be fair, films have to be permitted a certain degree of latitude when it comes to such coincidences; without them, in many cases there just wouldn't be much of a movie. This is particularly true of science-fiction movies, which are so totally dependent on the imagined and the improbable to begin with. But such a leap of faith would be far easier to make if it were in the service of an entertaining movie. "Pitch Black" simply is not.

The entire movie is little more than one long, drawn-out chase scene. The characters have to get from Point A to Point B while avoiding the monsters, and there isn't much more to "Pitch Black" than that. The movie is punctuated only by a few token nods to character development, as well as the obligatory deaths which occur with almost comical timing. It is so easy to forecast right from the start the identity of those characters who survive to the end, it's criminal. This is a classic example of writing by the numbers; the screenplay by Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat and director David Twohy could just as easily have been generated by a computer program, it is so routine.

The best aspect of "Pitch Black" is the computer-animated special effects. There are some beautiful shots of the spaceship cruising past the rings of a Saturn-like planet, and of the onset of the solar eclipse. The monsters are also well-designed, although they do seem to owe something to "Alien". Twohy at least has the presence of mind to keep the monsters mostly out of sight for much of the film, adding to their sense of menace. Even when they are fully unveiled, the lighting and camerawork keeps them indistinct. It's a shame, then, that "Pitch Black" utilizes them in such tired, unimaginative situations. They hammer against doors. They follow the party just out of sight in the darkness. They pop out of nowhere in an apparently empty corridor. There aren't many genuine frights here, and even the rare creepy moments are obvious and predictable.

Part of the movie's problem is that it develops few sympathetic characters to generate viewer interest. I found it difficult to be absorbed into the atmosphere of terror "Pitch Black" attempts to generate when I had absolutely no emotional investment in the characters whatsoever. I think it says something about the movie that of the three principals, the most sympathetic is the mass murderer, Riddick. Sort of a hunky Hannibal Lecter with super-powers, Diesel does a good job of making Riddick an intriguing anti-hero while not forgetting that he is, after all, still a criminal. Mitchell and Hauser, meanwhile, struggle futilely with their unmemorable, unlikeable characters. The rest of the ragtag band is largely forgettable, although Keith David does what he can with the underdeveloped role of the spiritual Imam.

"Pitch Black" is a dismal and tedious exercise in moviemaking, failing even to provide the requisite thrills and chills, let alone living up to the enormous potential of the science-fiction genre. Sci-f provides filmmakers with the opportunity to exercise the entire breadth of their vision and creativity, to do things no other genre permits. It is all the more unfortunate, then, to see a movie like "Pitch Black" dismiss this opportunity in favor of the banal and the ordinary. While the characters spend the entire movie running around the deathtrap planet, the audience is well advised to run in only one direction: away from the theater. Either that, or go into cryogenic sleep until "Pitch Black" is over.
Copyright 2000 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
Archived at http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies/PitchBlack.html

_______________________________________________________________________ / Shannon Patrick Sullivan | "We are all in the gutter, but some of us \ | | are looking at the stars." | \ [email protected] | -- Oscar Wilde /

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