Pitch Black

[I don't reveal who lives or dies or what happens in the end, but this review does include some spoilers.]

"You're not afraid of the dark, are you?"

Pitch Black is a sci-fi/horror flick about a merchant vessel that unexpectedly crash lands on an uninhabited planet. It's something of a combination of Alien, Hitchcock's The Birds, and the classic Isaac Asimov short story and novel, Nightfall.

The Nightfall stuff is what interests me the most. The planet they're trapped on has three suns and at first appears to feature permanent daylight. The survivors slowly discover, as a group of long dead settlers did before them, that night falls once every 22 years -- and of course, tonight's the night. There are huge flying hammerhead shark-bats living underground that emerge as soon as it gets dark and eat any living thing they can find. They can rip people apart in seconds. The survivors are really and truly screwed.

I didn't know much about Pitch Black when I first saw it on cable (probably around 2001) and had never heard of Vin Diesel, so I actually didn't know during that first viewing that Riddick was the central character. I do remember thinking early in the movie that they should stop focusing on Fry and Johns and give us more screen time with that fascinating villain with the deep voice, mirror eyes and amazing biceps, and of course, they did. Sometimes I think we should all be able to come to movies this way, with no foreknowledge or preconceptions, because by the end of it, I had a serious soft spot for Diesel. His strong performance and impressive physicality dominate this movie. He managed to pull off terrifying, witty, smart, heroic, amused and even sexy. (Maybe the sexy part was because of the numerous early shots of him chained with his arms extended. And wow.)

I also liked the progression of Radha Mitchell's character Carolyn Fry, who becomes the ship's captain right before the crash and immediately starts making the wrong decisions. As the movie progresses, Fry slowly internalizes what it means to be a captain, to have responsibility for the lives of others, and she shows Riddick the meaning of heroism. Mitchell gives a good performance; she and Diesel are the standouts.

To highlight the redemption plot, we have Keith David as Imam, a holy man on his way to Mecca, who points out the obvious religious significance of the actions that the characters take. Cole Hauser also does a good job as Johns, and Rhiana Griffith is fun as Jack, a teenage stowaway who begins to idolize and emulate Riddick. The cast also includes Farscape's Claudia Black, whom I wish had gotten more to do. She could have rocked the part of Fry. Oh, well.

Along with Diesel's impressive star turn as Riddick, a big part of what makes Pitch Black so good is the visuals. The first half of the movie is dominated by the different shades of light thrown by the three suns: everything, including the characters, are tinted either yellow, blue or orange. As shadows fall and the suns move to eclipse, the way the characters are lighted makes them look like normal people for the first time, emphasizing their humanity and fragility.

After the eclipse, though, is when it gets cool. The action in the second half of the movie is framed by total darkness (pitch black) and the characters are lit by what they must use to survive: flashlights, blowtorches, fluorescent tubes, flares, bottles of alcohol with lighted wicks. We keep seeing Riddick's shining eyes and his photographic negative-like visions of what is happening around them in the dark, as well as the ultraviolet images of what the creatures are seeing. It's exceptionally good filmmaking, and it made a strong impression on me. Good job, director David Twohy.

At the start of the movie, Riddick, the dangerous escaped convict, represents the fear that the survivors are experiencing. He is a deadly force lying in wait for them just out of sight, like the hammerhead shark-bats under the ground. As the story progresses, the survivors are forced to bet on Riddick's humanity because he is incredibly tough, strong and smart and (most importantly) can see in the dark. He quite literally leads them to salvation through the valley of the shadow of death, while also dragging the fuel cells that they're hoping might save them all.

Riddick, the blind man who can see everything, is a contrast to Johns, who at first appears to be the hero but turns out to be a mercenary bounty hunter and addict who injects drugs into his own eyes. It is particularly despicable that Johns not only suggests sacrificing a child to save them all, but he even attempts to get Riddick to do the killing for him. Johns can't even be honest about his evil. Throughout the movie, Riddick is always honest about his own evil, and still sees himself as evil when he's doing good.

I don't like the sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. I so wish it had been as terrific as Pitch Black. If it had, it might not have taken so long for us to get a third. (Riddick, the third movie, is coming out this weekend, and J.D. will be posting a review. Which is why I finally got around to reviewing Pitch Black.)

Bits and pieces:

-- The word "nightfall" is used early in the movie. I like to think that was a petit homage to the Asimov story.

-- Riddick got his mirror eyes, his "shine job", illegally while incarcerated in a pitch black prison.

-- Riddick immediately realizes that the creatures "see" using sonar, and outwits them by lying completely still while another character is torn to pieces. It's obvious that we're supposed to see Riddick as a blind monster, like the creatures. Riddick even calls them beautiful at one point.

(Loved the scene with the blind spot.)

-- The survivors have no water and drink alcohol to quench their thirst, even though they know it will dehydrate them. Paris in particular appeared to be drunk during the second part of the movie.

-- The shapes in the valley looked like trees from a distance, but turned out to be bones. Lots of foreshadowing. Pun intended.

-- The ship is called "Hunter Gratzner", and they were on the way to the planet Tangier. If they mentioned the name of the planet they crashed on, I missed it.

-- This review is of the extended version (see the Amazon ad to your right). Although I liked the theatrical version, I remember being a little confused about some plot points. The extended version fills those in.


Paris: "That'll teach me for flying coach."

Fry: "Should he just stay locked up forever?"
Johns: "That would be my choice."
Fry: "Is he really that dangerous?"
Johns: "Only around humans."

Paris: (introducing himself) "Paris P. Olgilvie. Antiquities dealer. Entrepreneur."
Riddick: "Richard B. Riddick. Escaped convict. Murderer."

Johns: "I thought I said no shivs."
Riddick: (shaving his head with a knife) "This? This is just a personal grooming appliance."

Johns: "How's it look?"
Riddick: "Looks clear." (A creature flys out)
Johns: "You said it was clear!"
Riddick: "I said it looked clear."
Johns: "Well, how does it look now?"
Riddick: (drily) "Looks clear."

Johns: "Battlefield doctors decide who lives and dies. It's called 'triage'."
Riddick: "They kept calling it 'murder' when I did it."

This isn't one of my all time favorite movies, but it stands up to repeated viewings and I think it's actually improved with age. Three out of four suns,

Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.


Suzie_B said...

Great review, Billie! I, like you, saw this movie years ago and remember loving it. It wasn't very well known at the time, but I forced a few of my friends to watch it since I thought it was so great. I never got around to watching the second one, and am not sure if I'll watch that one or the new one.I might have to watch the new one, just because it has Starbuck in it! I love her. :)

TheShadowKnows said...

I had no expectations when I went to see this movie in 2000, and I thought it was the best of all the Alien knockoffs. The cross-section of humanity (they're not all soldiers or criminals) really adds a lot of depth to the story. Riddick has a lot of good lines too; besides "looks clear" and "they kept calling it murder when I did it", he has a great little speech when the holy man accuses him of not believing in God. Recommended!

Sadly, the second film is horrible and the third film (which I saw Friday) is just a weak retread of this one. I strongly suggest you spend your money on a DVD of Pitch Black, which is well worth repeated viewings, and skip the new one entirely. You'll thank me.