Pitch Black

Reviewed By Greg Muskewitz
Posted 03/20/00 07:41:00

"Hardly commendable, there are some brief pings of entertainment."
3 stars (Average)

In film school, a major block should be spent teaching bigger and more is not better. Or maybe that’s the problem: directors such as of Pitch Black’s, David Twohy skipped out on film school to do it all on their own. There’s nothing wrong from doing it yourself, but as conscious filmmakers, they should use their trained eye to avoid instances which cause the result of something like this. However, as painstakingly textbook as much of this comes off to be, there is still a sense of minimal enjoyment or thrill that Pitch Black emanates.

Pitch Black’s plot is not an uncommon one: a spaceship meandering through multiple verses is struck by some sort of violent force of nature and causes the ship to go down on a planet far away from home. In this case, the purpose of the ship is never disclosed beyond that it was transporting a group of people and a murderous convict. (“That’ll teach me not to fly coach!”) They crash land on what appears to be a planet similar to Saturn, and most all of the passengers are killed, including the captain. Next in command is Fry (Radha Mitchell), a tough girl looking like a refugee from Alien. She narrowly manages to salvage the foremost part of the ship, and including the “bad guy,” a total of 13 have survived. Two or three are quickly eliminated by mistake and/or a mysterious occurrence, and the bad guy, Riddick (Vin Diesel) is missing.

The remaining are Johns (Cole Houser), a bounty hunter posing as a cop; Imam (Keith David) a Muslim priest; Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) an antiques dealer; Shazza (Claudia Black), a futuristic looking Xena Princess Warrior; Jack (R. Griffith), a young impressionable kid, along with two other Muslim followers who aren’t developed enough during the movie to mention names.

Upon the mysterious death of one, Riddick is re-captured and is given the option to join the group in looking for water and possible replacement parts for the ship; after all, they can’t help but see the planet was once inhabited by others. Riddick’s reward for doing so would be his freedom when they got off and out. As they soon find out, the planet has three suns making the midnight sun in the Norwegian Insomnia seem like a pleasure. But as luck would have it for them, they are quickly approaching a rare eclipse in which all three suns will be blocked, hence the title of a planet of pitch black. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that the planet is still inhabited, but by creatures who are like a combination of bats and pterodactyls, and eat with the jealous voracity of hungry pigeons. Payday for the creatures comes quickly when their vulnerability to light is taken out of the equation due to the permanent dark, and their hunger for flesh and blood creates a process of elimination.

Pitch Black is really nothing more than a number of characters placed in a trying situation where all their strengths must unite to get them out alive. Of course the deviation here from something more pat like Cube is the intervention of monsters. The screenplay, by Jim and Ken Wheat and David Twohy, relies way too heavily on coincidence. It’s one of those movies where it just so happens that this is connected to that, and that it just so happens that here is this, etc. I mean, listen to this: It just so happens that they crash land on a three sun planet that just so happens to be the home of creatures that just so happen to be vulnerable to light, so it just so happens that all three suns are eclipsed out, while it just so happened for them to crash land on the specific 22nd year when this was to occur, pushed to the point that it will occur within the next few hours, and that it just so happens that the criminal has inferred vision. The situations that they chose to explore the possibilities can be summed up to be nothing more than hogwash, and ends up ruining the chance of what could have happened.

The diversified cast of Pitch Black was one of its better assets, making sure to include strong women and minority characters, and actually having them dominate in the interim. The cast doesn’t specifically do anything special, but Mitchell, Diesel, David and Griffith are able to make their characters appealing enough to sit with for 107 minutes. Here, aside from Twohy’s unbalanced script is his unbalanced production. Twohy goes for every big gimmick in the book, from shaky cam to quick cut editing, warped images, bleached photography, big special effects, etc. He worked so much more ably with the 1997 quiet sci-fi piece The Arrival, which had very minimal effects, with them being in fact the weakest link for the film. But in Pitch Black, Twohy again makes it the weakest link, but not by choice. Do filmmakers actually think that the shaky camera effects really enhance or heighten the experience of being shook around? Well, here’s a hint: No! It just makes it difficult to watch and futile to follow. On the other hand, the orange and blue bleaching of the negative when the sun was around did give the movie a unique look and glow. Director of photography David Eggby (Mad Max) achieves a neat effect and isn’t a strain to the eyes. Ironically, the lights in the theater auditorium (the ones along the isle to help you see the seats, the other ones purposelessly glowing on the walls) prevent the theater from actually capturing a pitch black feeling. Even when the screen is all black, the lights are enough to be noticeable and don’t allow the full effect.

One of the better contributions of the screenplay –or more actually, lack of contributions, is the neglected and hokey explanations movies of this genre usually offer to rationalize the existence of such creatures. No one there knows what they are or why they are there, where they came from or how they were created other than the fact that they are susceptible to light. It eliminates a huge implausible chunk of superficiality and ambiguity. Never the less, there are still big plot conveniences, like how when Diesel throws away his goggles which prevent too much light getting in his eyes, and then later on how he suddenly has them in a completely different area. Or how when there was light and lots of it, there was no hint of a cloud for millions of miles, but yet only after hours of darkness there’s a huge rain storm that doesn’t let up, considering how the planet had no bodies of water to have it gathered from. You see, little things like this (along with the big ones like the “it just so happened…”) are what detracted from the suspense and creepiness of the movie. (Wouldn’t carrying around a glass bottle fueling a fire begin to burn your hands?) But yet throughout, you still couldn’t help but have a little fun along the way, and the action was able to sometimes cultivate a certain amount of suspense at our brain’s account.

Final Verdict: C+

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