Thursday, October 28, 2004

Review: "Pitch Black" (2000)

One of the new TV shows that is getting a lot of attention this season is ABC's "Lost". In it, a passenger plane flying from Sydney to Los Angeles gets diverted 1,000 miles of course and crashes. The survivors are left to fend for themselves, but this is complicated by unseen beasties in the jungle and bitter secrets held by members of the crew. People can look at this scenario and scoff that it's been done so many times before, but the important thing is what they do with an old scenario. The makers of "Lost" have put new twists on it and, oddly enough, they're not the only people to do so recently.

One of the surprise hits back in 2000 was "Pitch Black", a smallish budget sci-fi/horror film. A passenger spaceship crashlands on a barren desert planet surrounded by three different suns. Among the survivors are the docking pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell), the dangerous prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel) and Johns (Cole Hauser), the man escorting Riddick back to jail. They initially have the basic problems of finding water and such, but soon discover that dangerous creatures inhabit tunnels below the surface. They also learn that although the creatures hate light, there will soon be a total eclipse and that the survivors will need to get off the planet before the long nightfall arrives.

The beginning of the film is very conventional, complete with narration by Riddick to introduce the setting and a few of the characters. However, there are a few touches that set it apart once the ship lands on the planet. The overlit, washed out visual technique for the sundrenched planet's surface goes to heighten the contrast when does go dark (I can only imagine how wonderfully effective this was in a theater). Scenes move very quickly and don't seem to be stuffed with filler material. When a quick fifteen second scene can effectively put across a plot development, they don't lengthen it to one or two minutes.

Most of all, with a few exceptions, the characters in the film are a notch above the fodder in other horror films. Only the British antiques collector comes off as annoying, and even he gets an interesting death scene that adds some pathos to his character. The rest of the characters are believable, including a family of Muslims and a kid who begins to emulate Riddick. The cliche of infighting within a group that sometimes claims as many lives as do the enemy is smartly addressed by the film. At one point, Riddick tells Fry, "I do know that once the dyin' starts, this little psycho family of ours is gonna rip itself apart". Riddick's pessimism about human nature doesn't play out here as it has in other films (as with the previously reviewed "Chato's Land")and it's not as easy to guess who the remaining survivors will be as with other horror films.

One last point to discuss is Riddick himself, played by Vin Diesel. For better or worse, this is the role that brought him his greatest attention, from which "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX" would follow. He does a fine job here as the criminal who can see in the dark, but I fail to see why people got so excited about him. There's a desire to see a new musclebound action star who could fill Stalone's or Schwarzenegger's ammo belts. Vin Diesel and The Rock have lately become the prime candidates. Diesel's career has recently stalled, hurt no doubt by the failure of the totally unnecessary "Pitch Black" sequel. Viewers should skip the bloated, messy "Riddick" and go back to this initial work.

The basic gist of all this is that the film, despite the pedestrian plot, remains surprising throughout, and that's unusual. Moviegoers can become jaded, including your truly, so a film like this is a breath of fresh air. It's simply good stuff.

Eight out of Ten

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