Pitch Black (United States, 2000)
It's Vin Diesel week! Suddenly, this largely unknown actor, whose only significant credits were a part in Saving Private Ryan and some voice work in The Iron Giant (as the title character), is a hot commodity with significant roles in two films opening the same day. Diesel fans are strongly advised to see both Boiler Room and Pitch Black, as they show different aspects of the actor's range. In Boiler Room, he's a regular guy working a regular job. In Pitch Black, he goes into full Arnold Schwarzenegger mode, flexing his muscles, grunting, and uttering the occasional one liner. It's not an especially challenging part, but Diesel handles it with aplomb.
Pitch Black can be viewed as a slick, stylish version of the kind of outer space creature feature that is typified best by the Alien movies. At its best (which is quite often), Pitch Black is an entertaining effort. On the down side, there are times when various largely anonymous characters wander around in the dark and do incredibly stupid things while being stalked by vicious alien creatures. As they get picked off one-by-one, the only question is who's going to be next.
The last time writer/director David Twohy wandered into the science fiction arena, the result was the surprisingly intelligent and involving The Arrival, about an alien infestation on Earth. For most of Pitch Black, Twohy has brought the same level of thoughtfulness to this screenplay. The initial half-hour, which details the crash-landing of a spaceship on a barren desert planet, is particularly good. Once the first alien makes its appearance, things become routine from a storyline perspective, but the level of suspense escalates. To fill in the dead spots between alien attacks, we are treated to a series of recycled interpersonal conflicts. And, for those who are bothered by such things, the film's so-called "science" employs a few key violations of the laws of physics.
The movie begins with the crash, a violent concussion that leaves most of the crew and passengers dead. Among the handful of survivors are Fry (Radha Mitchell), the pilot; Johns (Cole Hauser), a police officer; Riddick (Diesel), a convicted murderer who is being transported in chains; and Inam, a holy man (Keith David). The planet is an apparently lifeless wasteland - a desertscape where three suns assure that there is no night and possibly no water. Shortly after the rough landing, Riddick escapes, but, while the survivors are looking for him, they too are being hunted - by a species of alien that shuns the daylight but is lethal in the dark. Soon, with the realization that the world is about to be plunged into blackness by an inconvenient total eclipse, everyone must learn to trust Riddick, who can see in the dark, if they are to survive. Meanwhile, it's unclear whether Riddick's primary goal is self-preservation or redemption.
The acting is solid, if largely unremarkable. Most of the principals have fallen effortlessly into the stereotyped roles of quirky characters who are basically waiting to be the aliens' next meal. (Although there are a few surprises when considering who lives through the carnage. I definitely did not correctly predict the composition of the surviving group.) The performers to rise above are Diesel, who relishes the larger-than-life opportunity, and Radha Mitchell, who gives a convincing portrayal of a tough, emotionally conflicted woman. There's a little of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Fry, but this is not a direct copy. For the Australian-born Mitchell, who has done her share of work on the indie scene (Love and Other Catastrophes, High Art), this represents an opportunity to be seen by a wider audience.
Pitch Black has a stylish look. The outdoor sequences, which are nearly monochromatic to emphasize the color-leeching power of the multiple suns, are effectively photographed. After the eclipse occurs, there are some genuinely creepy sequences featuring packs of aliens honing in on the protagonists, who are only able to keep them at bay by waving around lights. For the most part, the special effects are first-rate - I was impressed by the scene of a ringed planet sliding across the sky on its way to block out the sun. These strong visuals complement a workmanlike script, resulting in a consistently engaging science fiction/horror excursion.
Pitch Black (United States, 2000)
Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Rhiana Griffith
Screenplay: Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat and David Twhohy
Cinematography: David Eggby
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: USA Films