Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pitch Black

It all starts here.  And by "all," I mean the current generation of action heroes.  Pitch Black (sometimes retroactively titled The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black) was the first starring role for Vin Diesel after a string of ensemble films, and the first one that showed him doing much of anything that tough guys normally do in movies.  At this point, though, Diesel was an unproven box office draw and action star, so it was a little strange to see him again in Pitch Black, which is much more science fiction-y than I remembered.  But going against expectations can be a good thing, right?  Right...?

In the far-flung future, a passenger spaceship is damaged by the debris from a comet that they passed too close to and is forced to crash land on the closest planet.  The good news is that, among the survivors, the one crew member that survived was the pilot, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), so they can feasibly fly off the planet if the ship is repaired or a replacement is found.  The bad news is that the planet is a vast desert with no signs of life; the only indications that humans have ever been on this planet are some decades-old machinery and buildings that appear to have been left in a hurry.  This planet also has the distinction of having three suns, so it is never night.  Among the survivors are an Islamic Imam (Keith David), his followers, a snooty rich guy, a kid named Jack (Rhiana Griffith), a random chick, and William Johns (Cole Hauser), who is escorting the dangerous killer Riddick (Vin Diesel) to a prison planet.  Riddick has spent so much time in dank, dark prisons that he paid to have his normal eyes surgically enhanced to give him permanent night vision, which means that he has to wear welding goggles during the day --- or all the time on this three-sunned planet.
An even more distinguishing feature: Diesel hair!
Riddick is the strong, silent type, as well as the type that is intelligent and ruthless.  Of course, not everything is as it seems.  For starters, Johns might not be telling the truth, Jack may be more than he seems, and this daylight planet may have night, after all.  You see, every twenty-two years there is a complete triple eclipse.  It's not a good time to catch up on your sleep, though, because when the night comes, so do these things:
Hammerhead raptor bats?
What are they?  They don't get a proper name in the film, but they eat people completely, they fly, and they operate using something like sonar.  The good news is that they are extremely sensitive to light.  The bad news is that the triple eclipse will last a month and there are enough of those creatures to flood the planet.  I guess everybody better work together and escape this planet, eh?
Grimmest.  Science fair.  Ever.

Before I go any further, there is something I would like to touch on.  How the hell does a planet with near-constant exposure to the sun manage to develop a life form that is deadly sensitive to light?  What kind of ass-backwards evolution is that?  And what do those creatures live on during the twenty-two years they are forced to live underground?  Wouldn't the twenty-two years to one month ratio also tone down things (evolutionary-wise) like enormous heads and wings?   If the only life on this planet for the creatures to feast on are the crash survivors and each other, shouldn't this species be nearly extinct soon?  This isn't a deal-breaker for me, but I like it when science fiction explains things with science.

The acting in Pitch Black isn't great, but is good enough.  Vin Diesel is intimidating and pretty cool as Riddick, and his character is intriguing.  Yes, it's awfully convenient that the guy with night vision eyes lands on a planet on the verge of a month of night, but...well, yeah, it is amusingly convenient to the plot.  Radha Mitchell was adequate as the resident rational thinker in the group.  I liked that her character wasn't entirely altruistic, but I dislike the noise she makes when she's frightened.
Pictured: ugly sounds
Cole Hauser is predictably mean and his acting is not going to impress anyone here.  The "complexity" of his character is laughable and Hauser is still a low-rent version of Josh Lucas. 
...but he has a shotgun.  A space shotgun.
I think my favorite moments in the movie are when Riddick and Hauser's character lock eyes and stare each other down.  Yes, those moments are cheesy and sometimes funny, but I really enjoy the idea of Cole Hauser standing up to Vin Diesel in a physical confrontation.  The rest of the cast was fine; most of the roles were poorly developed because the characters were essentially cannon fodder.

Director and co-writer David Twohy does a surprisingly good job with the suspense in Pitch Black.  He sets up Riddick as a kind of bogeyman, but the character turns out to be cool enough to live up to the bombast.  The set pieces were pretty cool for such a low-budget picture and I don't think the film suffered much for having an obviously low budget.  That said, Twohy sucks as an editor.  The action scenes are not impressive and often confusing, and the rest of the movie has a lot of scenes that do little except stretch the running time.  A lot of story elements are introduced with little to no impact on the characters or central story; Johns' morphine addiction felt tacked on and the fact that a survivor (Zeke) murdered another survivor mistakenly is completely glossed over with a roll of the eyes.  Meanwhile, other things that could have used explanation are completely ignored, such as the evolution of the creatures or exactly how Jack was able to find all the stuff to mimic Riddick.  And the story felt clunky and rushed at times, like the when and how behind the snooty guy dying.  I like the overall feel of this movie, but it is not the product of good direction.

I'm not knocking Pitch Black, though.  It is entertaining, mildly suspenseful and Diesel makes a pretty good tough guy lead.  The idea behind the plot is fairly unconventional and the sci-fi elements didn't distract from making this a decent survival flick.  It is lacking that extra something to make it definitely cool, though.  I liked Riddick as a mysterious bad-ass, and I liked how he had presence in the film even when he was not on-screen, but I think Pitch Black could have used a couple more scenes of him doing something awesome.


  1. That is great stuff about the alien species. I am sure their flying muscles are in great shape when they come up from underground once every 22 years. Evolution hates those creatures.

  2. Well, I just naturally assumed that the underground of the planet was an extensive super cave, where the aliens could stretch their wings and do sonar-y stuff. Anything else would be ridiculous.