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Pitch Black. A Review with Commentary on the Genre.
posted on 28-Feb-2000 by mr. stein
Each time a science fiction trailer catches my eyes and fills me with hope for the genre, I remind myself that there has been very little in recent sci-fi memory to get excited over.
In the last two years I can recall The Matrix as being a high-caliber, well-made film with some spectacular cinematography, yet The Matrix was too slick and really too novel to be as absorbing as a good science fiction film should be. Sphere was the next best thing to a good sci-fi film in recent years, yet it left me feeling empty, as if all the famous actors could not get past their own images to appreciate the fascinating plot. Jeunet and Caro brought new life to the Aliens series with Alien Resurrection, although this film was a little too dependent on visual shocks and self-reflection to be anywhere near innovative for the genre. Then there were the popular favorites: The Phantom Menace was only particularly exciting for Star Wars fans; and the latest Star Trek film, Insurrection, was hardly more than an extended Next Generation episode-a truly bad one at that. The indie film scene is rarely worth noticing when it comes to sci-fi-probably because low budgets restrict the quality and quantity of special effects. Cube comes to mind as one of the more captivating indie sci-fi films; not for of its acting (which is poor) or its special effects (all 30 seconds of them) but only because of its intriguing plot development and clever resolution. Mr. Maximov suggested that Pi is science fiction, but I don't want to get near a film like Pi today. Other than these few meteoroids in the midnight sky, there has not been much worth noticing in the genre since the genius sleeper Dark City so many years back. Unfortunately, Pitch Black-a film whose trailer showed much promise-does little to break this trend of genre ennui, but it does offer some impressive innovations and some exciting cinematography. Read on for a review . . .

It must be hard to move away from the typical science fiction plot sequence: either there are bad, hungry aliens which therefore must be destroyed or there are good aliens which won't be revealed until the end. If the aliens are bad, they generally are clone-like, insect-like, and lack intelligence beyond primal instincts. The same formula holds true in David N. Twohy's Pitch Black. Stranded on a desert planet, a small band of crash survivors find themselves quickly approaching a fatal situation: when darkness encases the planet hordes of clone-like, insect-like, instinct-driven subterranean aliens threaten to burst out of their caverns and devour each and every one of the soft, apparently tasty human survivors. The only hope for this extraordinarily diverse team of humans is to enlist the aid of Riddick (Vin Diesel), an emotionless murderer and escaped convict who serendipitously is able to see in the dark. Of course Pitch Black features the same social strife present whenever a group of strangers are forced to work together for their own safety, and of course the characters are not quite what they seem.

The only noticeably innovative element in this plot is that the aliens seem to be simply animals trying to have a meal; they are not the typical, insidiously evil malcontents who delight in driving the human cast mad before killing them in all too clever situations; the Pitch Black aliens end up causing the same effect, although without the overt manipulation. In fact, this element of animal naturalism makes Pitch Black's thrills more genuine, I think, because unlike the stalking madman approach of our Alien type of creature, these beasts give very little warning before they attack, just a few bird-like chirps to their nearby mates. Disappointingly, the thrills from alien attacks are few and far between, and because they are so sudden one cringes less at the prospect of a character being eaten than by the actual sight of a character being eaten (never a pleasant thing, especially in this film).

Most of the film's solid thrills occur in the first twenty minutes as the space craft is pelted by dust from a comet's tail and the crew is forced to attempt a crash landing of the vessel. One of the most innovative and gripping science fiction sequences ever takes place as Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) pilots the vessel into the ground. The cinematography and special effects in this sequence are so well done that one gets the feeling that one is in the cockpit, cruising towards the planet, just meters above the rocky surface below and milliseconds from the terror of impact. Anything thrilling after this sequence is simply due to the choppy Blair Witch Project-like photography and editing created just for that effect: the action sequences on the surface of the planet are cut just fast enough to keep the viewer physically tense without creating any genuine suspense. But in this film that may be acceptable, because once on the planet's surface this leaves space for one to appreciate the grand special effects and cinematic atmosphere that make the context of the film seem real: the triplet suns, the giants' graveyard of bones, the enigmatically spiked horizon, and the eclipsing rings of a nearby planet. Plus the aliens are simply beautiful, like a cross between a hammer-head shark and an ancient pterodactyl. The dusk-time emergence of the aliens is breathtaking, as millions of these flying beasts cloud the amber skies in dangerous liberty.

The actors in this film are Hollywood small timers; I doubt most viewers will recognize a single one of them, but they generally play their parts as well as the Pitch Black script allows. Vin Diesel (Iron Giant, Saving Private Ryan) as Riddick steals the show with his silent-but-violent characterization. One can see that his acting ability is above the film's dialogue as he is forced to spit to the aliens one-liners like, "Now you know who you're fucking with." Diesel's calm, calculating approach to the character is exactly what the film needs: he initially appears to be a flat, formulaic bad guy but evolves into something more; yes, Riddick's enigmatic character actually seems to develop during the film, thanks to the solid job Diesel does in the part. And though Riddock is a convicted, seemingly self-absorbed murderer, I found myself most attached to him.

The Jane to Diesel's Tarzan is Radha Mitchell, who plays Carolyn, the tough-as-nails acting captain of the crashed vessel who also is forced to spew bad dialogue to "match" her strong female character. Her acting never gets in the way of the script, yet she never offers the audience more than what the dialogue allows. Cole Hauser (Higher Learning, Good Will Hunting) plays Johns, a troubled mercenary who holds Riddick's handcuffs. Hauser has some of the best lines in the film, and he adds some spice to the social tribulations, especially in the rather lethargic middle.

The rest of the actors do well enough, though none of them are particularly memorable in their roles. I believe much of this can be blamed on the script. As I mentioned, the castaway group has an amazingly diverse make-up: there is a devote Muslim and his 3 prayer-chanting boys, a British antiquarian and his mechanically inclined female counterpart, a trigger-happy black Aussie, and a kid with an identity crisis. This gives the aliens quite the cornucopia to devour before the film is over, and, as in most alien sci-fi films, they make good progress towards cleaning their plates.

The stunningly effective visuals and sounds of Pitch Black make the film worth viewing, although the script, characters, and plot are hardly deep enough to generate much intelligent coffee-table discussion. The plot is predictable and actually anti-climatic; Pitch Black can best be described on a surface level, as anything below the surface is either too inarticulate or too cliche to excogitate on. Pitch Black is no 2001 or Alien Resurrection, but thankfully it's not Independence Day either.

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