Monday, June 11, 2012

Pitch Black (USA, 2000)

An entertaining science-fiction B-film that reworks John Farrow's Five Came Back (1939 / trailer) and borrows liberally from James Cameron's classic sci-fi body-counter Aliens (1986 / trailer). Whereas in Farrow's old thriller, in which a group of people – including a very young Lucille Ball – who have survived an airplane crash somewhere in the cannibal-invested jungles of the Amazon race against time to get their plane back up in the air, in Pitch Black a group of assorted survivors from a crashed spaceship race against time to escape the dead, waterless desert planet where they are confronted by a flying horde of flesh-eating aliens. 
In its heart as much of a traditional body-count film as a sci-fi flick, Pitch Black has the added attraction of consistent acting, an excellent score, some interesting cinematography and a fast script that not only features more than average character development but also has both some nail-biting suspense scenes as well as thrilling action. True, the final ending – like one character's implausible ease at getting over the deaths of his sons – is slightly unbelievable even as an unexpected twist, but seeing that it keeps in line with the film's nominal theme (namely, redemption and the fine line that separates good and evil), one is willing to let it slide. 
Much like the first Alien (1979 / trailer), Pitch Black begins in a transport spaceship in which everyone is in suspended sleep. The deep, scratchy voice of the mass murderer Riddick (Vin Diesel) intones so threateningly "They say most of your brain shuts down in cyro–sleep; all but the animal side. Guess that's why I'm still awake." A few dangerously understated sound effects later, and the spaceship is drilled by a passing meteor shower, resulting in a crash landing on a dead planet. Fry (Radha Mitchell of Phone Booth [2002 / trailer], Silent Hill [2006 / trailer] and The Crazies remake [2010 / trailer]) almost ejects all cyro-sleepers in her attempt to land, but is prevented from doing so by Johns (Cole Hauser). Still, only about 9 or 10 travelers survive.
The first part of the film introduces the various characters and is spent hunting the escaped Riddick, who exudes a self-assuredness that leads one to think that his dick must be as impressive as his muscles. (Vin Diesel was a relative unknown at the time; this film basically jump-started his action hero career – not surprisingly, at all.) But in no short order it is discovered that there are unseen meat-eating monsters hidden in the darkness of some caves and that there is a deserted miner's camp near by with an escape rocket lacking fuel. But then, the planet's three suns get eclipsed by a huge second planet and thousands of light-sensitive, meat-eating creatures fly out into the darkness and, as the body count grows, characters reveal new sides to themselves as some grow in moral magnitude and others reveal the pettiness of their true colors – and the film doesn't always go the direction one might expect it to.
Director David N. Twohy's script, which he co-wrote with the Wheat Brothers, the men behind such entertaining fare as the trashy Silent Scream (1980 / trailer / full film) and (as "Scott Pierce") Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988 / trailer), is lean and mean and tight, and offers an even better and consistent ride than both his mildly interesting alien-invasion film The Arrival (1996 / German trailer) and Pitch Black's later meandering sequel The Chronicles of Riddick (2004 / trailer). Pitch Black places much less importance on the slow build-up than Twohy's tense, atmosphere-laden horror film Below (2002 / trailer), but for that it increases the action and speed without sacrificing too much of the suspense.
Pitch Black is not a thinking man's film: there are more than a few narrative flaws to be found in the plot, and if one wanted to one could probably tear the film apart relatively easily. But as a B film, the movie packs a few surprises and delivers its goods at such a speed and self-assuredness that any and all flaws – like just how masses of meat-eating monsters survive on a planet where there is nothing left to eat – are relatively easy to overlook. Indeed, it is Twohy's attuned sense of rhythm and visual flare that he brings all his directorial projects, even the narratively weaker ones, which makes him perfectly suited for the genre films he tends to prefer. And if most his films satisfy to different extents, Pitch Black, like Below, is one that satisfies the most.

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