Screenplay : Jim & Ken Wheat and David Twohy
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Vin Diesel (Riddick), Radha Mitchell (Fry), Cole Hauser (Johns), Keith David (Imam), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Paris)
"Pitch Black" doesn't waste much time getting started. After a few brief credits and a standard establishing shot of a giant space cruiser moving slowly through the vast reaches of outer space, we are immediately hurled into a maniacally paced action sequence where said space cruiser is damaged by a rogue comet, the captain is killed by flying debris, and the second-in-command, Fry (Radha Mitchell), is trapped at the controls of the ship, which is now hurtling toward imminent destruction on a desolate planet.
Fry manages to crash-land the cruiser, and a handful of the 40 or more interstellar travelers survive. Among the survivors are a devoutly religious Muslim named Imam (Keith David), an anal antiquities collector named Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and a broad-shouldered, frighteningly muscular convict-murderer named Riddick (Van Diesel) and his captor, Johns (Cole Hauser). They find themselves stranded on a desert planet under the glare of three suns, which burn different colors, thus bathing half the planet in fiery red and the other half in a striking blue. The survivors find the remnants of a human outpost, but there are no people to speak of.
It isn't long before they learn what happened to the members of the previous outpost when they run into the planet's native residents, a species of black, flying arachnid-like creatures that live underground because they can't stand the light. So, the survivors decide that the logical thing is to stay aboveground in the never-ending glare of the multiple suns, and everything will be fine ... that is, until Fry discovers that there is about to be a once-every-two-decades solar eclipse that will envelop the planet in darkness, thus giving the go-ahead for the locals to come out and play.
This is the essential premise of "Pitch Black," an enjoyably tense sci-fi horrorshow from David Twohy, whose directorial debut was the sci-fi dud "The Arrival" (1996) and whose screenwriting credits include the debacle that was "Waterworld" (1995). Here, Twohy seems more in control of the project, and he uses the basic set-up in "Pitch Black" to explore some interesting character issues, especially Riddick and questions about his humanity and willingness to help the others.
It has become typical in recent years (at least since "Silence of the Lambs" in 1991) to have a psychopathic murderer as the key to the protagonist's success, but it's a credit to the screenplay by Jim and Ken Wheat and Twohy that Riddick's version of Hannibal Lecter (cunning and lethal) doesn't turn into a cliche. Vin Diesel, who starred as the tough Pvt. Caparzo in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), makes the hulking murderer into a fascinating enigma who is essential to the others' survival because, by virtue of a somewhat questionable narrative conceit, he has the ability to see in darkness where others cannot. By the end of the film, Riddick is by far the most interesting and sympathetic character, which is a great achievement because the early parts of the film set him up as an omnipresent devil of sorts. However, he does not completely overshadow the other characters, namely Radha Mitchell ("High Art") who makes an intriguing, if morally compromised heroine.
Of course, being a contemporary science fiction film, "Pitch Black" relies heavily on digital special effects, some of which are more effective than others. When seen in swarming masses, the hungry arachnids are effective by virtue of their sheer numbers (there's a great high-angle shot of the survivors moving through the darkness, and the lights from their lamps suggest the outlines of dozens of these creatures surrounding them on all sides), but up close they look cartoonish and two-dimensional.
Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby ("Virus") make effective use of both blinding light, which characterizes the pre-eclipse first half of the film, and the inky blackness of the film's second half. Using visual tricks ranging from heavy use of filters to rapid cross-cutting, Twohy does everything to keep the pace moving, and to his credit the narrative rarely sags.
Of course, "Pitch Black" doesn't rate particularly high in originality (it borrows from virtually every science fiction movie ever made), but that is almost an expected part of the territory in these postmodern days. The virtue is not so much in the filmmakers developing radically new narratives, but in how they reshape the old ones to generate effective chills and surprises. "Pitch Black" does generate both chills and surprises, and it is gutsy enough to end with a climax that involves an unexpected death. This death stands out not so much because of its narrative audacity, but because it makes you realize something about "Pitch Black" that is far too rare in most science fiction films of today: the characters were actually worth caring about.
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick