Sunday, August 14, 2011

Nothing So Dark As To Be Unwatchable: Pitch Black

The Good: Decent idea, Good casting, Interesting characters, Decent effects
The Bad: VERY predictable plot, Most of the acting is mediocre, Editing
The Basics: Worth seeing, Pitch Black finds a group of settlers and a criminal crashed on an inhospitable planet and forced to rely on one another to survive and escape.

Recently, while on a trip, I was in a hotel and a movie began playing that looked intriguing. It was a big science fiction movie and I was surprised when I did not recognize it at first. It was The Chronicles Of Riddick and I turned it off almost right away when the person I was with told me I ought to see Pitch Black first. But the images stuck with me and I soon hunted out Pitch Black, so I could watch the sequel.

When a starship transporting settlers for a distant world, and a dangerous felon, is damaged in flight, it crashes on a barren, inhospitable planet. Some ten survivors set out from the crash site to find water, including the felon, Riddick. When a crewmember disappears, Riddick is the natural suspect, but alien animals are soon found to be the real culprits. Finding an abandoned mining establishment yields the conclusion that the animals were responsible for the slaughter of this outpost, which seems fine given their aversion to light, until a planetary eclipse seems imminent and the survivors come to understand their hours are numbered.

Pitch Black is not a movie that's going to light the world on fire, and it didn't. But it does some things very well. The first is in the casting. While there aren't any terrifically extraordinary performances in Pitch Black, the parts were well cast for the actors. Radha Mitchell is credible as the sudden captain of the ship, who is uncertain with her new authority and lacks experience. Keith David is great as the Islamic pilgrim Abu. And Rhiana Griffith is decent as Jack, which requires the character to idolize Riddick. Even Claudia Black's brief role in Pitch Black was well suited to her athleticism.

The ultimate in intuitive casting, though comes in the form of Vin Diesel as Richard B. Riddick. Vin Diesel is a heavy who is not the most naturally emoting actor. Riddick is a hardened criminal whose role needs to be sympathetic but realistic. That is to say that for Riddick to be plausible, he cannot be so likable as to make the viewer forget that he has murdered in his past. There needs to be something dangerous and edgy to him. Vin Diesel's quiet underacting executes this character perfectly. This could be the role Vin Diesel was born to play, as they say.

Despite the rather basic plot – Pitch Black soon degenerates into a fairly standard “pick ‘em off” horror movie – the concept behind Pitch Black is refreshingly intriguing and it remains true to itself. There is no one enemy in Pitch Black. The horror that the survivors face is simply a pack of animals. There's no negotiations, There's always another and there is no leader to be wiped out to make the rest back off. Given Hollywood’s obsession with villains, Pitch Black is refreshing for the way it creates a species and sticks with the concept.

Moreover, the movie smartly utilizes the double threat. Our survivors are beset from the outside by the alien animals and the ravages of the environment. From within, the group is plagued by fears of Riddick and the corruption of his jailer, Johns, who also becomes a thorn in Captain Fry's side. By adding the human villainy element, Pitch Black attempts to keep the movie focused on the characters, even if all they are doing is trying to flee through the wilderness.

The characters, if not entirely memorable, are diverse. It's nice to see a future presented where the crew is not all white, not all male and not all good. Pitch Black has religious characters, the greedy Paris, and is fronted by a criminal. It's a less polished vision of the future and the opening immediately conjures recollections of Alien (reviewed here!). This is a dark future with humanity stretching out into the galaxy with many of its current faults, like capitalism and a failed penal system.

On a simple, stylistic front, the alien animals are cool. the creature and set designs do transport the viewer to a very different time and place quite effectively.

But is it enough? David Twohy does an adequate job at directing, but there are a number of editorial choices that are questionable. Employing the standard conventions of horror as opposed to keeping the expressive science fiction tone and style from the movie's opening scenes quickly begins to detract from the story. We have quick cuts and blurred images and later in the movie, images are cut away rather than revealed. The movie becomes horror; playing with the audience instead of keeping the audience as witness to the events and struggles of the survivors. This is only truly effective at the very end with the last casualty of the film, which causes a reaction in the viewer. But even when that happens, part of the power of the action is that the image is clear, revealed fully for the viewer, unlike so many of the previous deaths.

And while the plot becoming something standard might be forgivable – we've seen the “slaughter the crew” in science fiction/horror since Alien – the editing is less so. There are great moments of special effects that set the viewer up for a style of film that is disappointing when abandoned for the conventions of horror. The eclipse shots are beautiful cinematography. After that shot, though, there are no further examples of extraordinary visual technique until the last shot of the movie.

For other films with Keith David, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Princess Mononoke
Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters"


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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