This article appeared in Issue 19 ofFrontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
You're not afraid of the dark, are you?
During a routine cargo and passenger run in deep space, the Hunter-Gretzner is perforated by a swarm of golf ball-sized debris, killing several of its passengers and crew, including the ship's captain. With the ship knocked off course and straying outside of shipping lanes, the ship's pilot Fry (Australian actress Radha Mitchell of "High Art") is hastily revived from cryosleep. Unfortunately, there is little that she can do to regain control of the ship, which subsequently crash-lands on a desolate planet that is eternally awash by the light of three suns.
Among Fry's fellow survivors are some Islamic pilgrims headed for New Mecca, led by the Koran-thumping Imam (Keith David, who played the general in "Armageddon"), a Lara Croft-wannabe archeologist-type (Claudia Black, seen recently in the TV series "Farscape"), a bounty hunter with an itchy trigger finger named Johns (Cole Hauser of "Good Will Hunting"), and his prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel, the voice of "The Iron Giant"), a convicted murderer with surgically-enhanced night-vision. At first, the survivors are leery of having the hulking figure of a convicted murderer amongst them, but they quickly discover that Riddick is the least of their concerns.
What do my eyes see?
A total eclipse.
It turns out that this desolate planet is home to a bat-like nocturnal species with a voracious appetite, which normally lies dormant deep underground far from the glaring sunlight on the surface. In addition, the normally sun-swept planet is subject to a total eclipse once every twenty-two years, the product of clockwork celestial alignment, plunging the planet into total darkness for days on end. And guess what? It's about time for the next eclipse, and feeding time is about to begin...
When the lights go out, this psycho family of ours will tear itself apart.
This is the set-up of "Pitch Black", the second directorial effort of David Twohy (better known as the scribe of "The Fugitive"), which is at its best once the lights go out. Unable to discern what is threatening them or where the next attack will come from, the survivors find themselves in a very claustrophobic and paranoid situation, relying on torches and flashlights to ward off the encroaching danger. Though they cannot see the their would-be predators, they can certainly hear the odd noises that they make, and even catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of their eye. If you've ever been scared of things that go bump in the night, then you'll appreciate the ominous atmosphere that Twohy establishes here.
And while Twohy introduces a number of other memorable elements into his film, including how the differing light from each of the three suns infuses a different color scheme on the scenery, the stunning eclipse that gradually shrouds the planet in darkness, and the murderer/convict being the only one who can see in the dark, there is very little that is truly innovative or surprising in this film. "Pitch Black" covers very familiar ground, with a story that develops in a by-the-numbers fashion, and it is relatively easy to guess what will happen and which survivors will bite the dust along the way.
Like most sci-fi these days, a number of the elements in "Pitch Black" seem to have been dusted off from the cinematic recycling bin. There's the film's opening sequence where the camera glides along the vast superstructure of the doomed cargo vessel, reminiscent of every film set in outer space since "2001: A Space Odyssey" first used such a shot. Then there's the slice-o'-life archetypal characters that would seem to be at home in any disaster film from the Seventies, including an impressionable kid, a snobby dealer of antiquities with the wrong priorities, the preacher who places too much faith in his god, and the ineffectual representative of authority. And finally, there's the obvious riffs taken from the "Alien" play book, including the look of the nasty creatures (imagine "Aliens" with wings) and their aggressive swarm-like hunting practices.
Another black mark against "Pitch Black" is that it is populated with a number of one-dimensional cannon-fodder characters whose motivations are murky at best. Though we know that Riddick is a convicted murderer, the script does little to explain the circumstances or show what he aspires to be. Instead, he is left shrouded in mystery, randomly throwing out biting and baiting remarks, which makes his subsequent change-of-heart seem arbitrary. In addition, his nemesis Johns is also lacking in ascribed motivation, which makes his change-of-heart in the film's final act equally arbitrary. Had the backstories of Riddick, Fly, and Johns been developed more, the film's latter half would have been much more interesting with their contrary and competing impulses escalating the tension.
Finally, the film suffers from a number of conspicuous gaps in logic. It seems contrived that the ship would crash-land on a planet just as it was about to undergo an eclipse, and have amongst its passengers a man possessing enhanced night-vision. I also find it difficult to believe that these nocturnal creatures would be able to survive underground for extended periods for 22 years between feedings without becoming extinct. In addition, there are several instances where the story has the audacity to forget its own internal logic, such as where one character in low-light conditions is quickly devoured by the aliens, while another in even dimmer lighting conditions is left alone and free to move about.
Overall, "Pitch Black" is a passable effort that runs with an interesting concept, albeit with a few stumbles along the way. While not entirely as effective and engaging as Twohy's underappreciated directorial debut from a few years ago, "The Arrival", "Pitch Black" is a decent sci-fi/horror popcorn flick that goes to prove 'what you can't see can hurt you'.