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Grade: BPitch Black (2000)

Director: David Twohy

Stars: Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser

Release Company: USA Films

MPAA Rating: R

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Twohy: Pitch Black

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I had missed seeing Pitch Black originally in the theaters but later discovered it may This may play better on the small screen. Added footage for the DVD release may also account for the disparity in ratings between theatergoers and home theater viewers.

The audio commentary is relatively shallow, as the hulky action star of the movie, Vin Diesel, dominates the conversation (as he does the film) with numerous "insightful" comments of "love this shot." He says "this is my favorite shot of the movie" so many times that director David Twohy pokes fun of this near the end. But the film is a hoot. Take the film as a freakshow ride at the amusement park, release your brain from the thought process, and have some fun watching this relatively low budgeted sci-fi horror story.

The most obvious comparison to Pitch Black has to be Alien since both begin with freighters drifting in space with crew in hypersleep, a leading lady as captain, and survivors fighting for their lives against a bloodthirsty alien creature. Pitch Black just multiplies the monster by several thousand and increases the gore factor a great deal, going way beyond the dinner table scene that highlights Alien. After a meteor shower wakes two of the ship's captains and kills a third, the ship is plunging through fiery special effects to an alien planet that has three suns of varying colors—red, yellow, and blue.

We have a menagerie of survivors: Captain Fry (Radha Mitchell), a mercenary drug addict named Johns (Cole Hauser), a muscular serial killer named Riddick (Van Diesel), a Muslim named Imam (Keith David) on pilgrimage with his three sons and one other (Rhiana Griffith), an entrepreneur named Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) who actually worries about getting a receipt for his liquor, and some other assorted characters. Most are doomed.

We soon discover that the planet is basically dead outside of some strange creatures that only come out in darkness. That shouldn't be a problem with three suns continually bathing the planet's surface in various shades of light unless there's a total eclipse on the way. Of course there is, and that's where the action picks up with some expected and surprising results.

The film may be low budget and filled with tried and true plot devices, but a few innovations should be credited. The washed out appearance achieved through a skip bleach process seems a little weird, but makes more sense when realizing that the director attempts to show the different red, yellow, or blue shadings of the planet's three suns. It doesn't always work, but I can't fault him for experimenting. Most of the highlights occur in darkness anyway when they don't play around with the bleaching process.

The dialogue is fairly mundane, but the concept and characterizations provide pleasures. Suspense permeates the film, and even though the hero has to pull through in the end--the thing is, we're not even sure which character(s) will be the eventual hero. They all are flawed, providing a wonderful ambiguity that may cause distress for people who want clear cut people to root for.

We all need some of that security, but writers Jim and Ken Wheat supply a treacherous enemy in the bizarre bat-like beasties that fly in swarms like piranhas and turn any human that gets in their path into bloody leftover meatloaf. Being creatures of pitch darkness that avoid sources of light, they don't find their prey by sight but by sonar (represented by some cool CGI). We end up rooting for any of the humans to survive after seeing people getting chomped in half. And we especially root for Riddick whenever he goes one on one with a creature WWF-style, but can he handle two simultaneous monster attacks?

Twohy gradual builds suspense with glimpses of the coming horror. Just what is that bone graveyard and what could have killed these huge elephant sized creatures? When one of the crew members gets mysteriously ground up into hamburger underground, we know we're in for trouble

Adding to the tension is the fact that none of the potential heroes is pure. Each is flawed. Most obvious are the two natural rival strongmen, Riddick and Johns. Riddick is the most mysertious with his deep voice and his specially designed eyes for night vision that were useful during his underground work in prison. He's a serial killer and an escaped convict, and he may be a rapist as well. So who do you trust? As Riddick points out, "All you people are so scared of me. But it ain't me you gotta worry about now."

His enemy Johns is another case. Johns first passes himself as a law officer, but it turns out that he is a mercenary, looking to turn a profit by returning Riddick to the authorities. He seems intent on helping the crew survive, but he's also a drug addict who gets his fix of morphine by injecting it into his tear duct. (I had to look away when he was about to perform that operation).

Johns has also discovers a weakness in Captain Fry's character. She is the one who tries to jettison the crew members into the fiery atmosphere in the opening sequence to save herself (she is NO clone of Captain Kirk). That incident plays heavily into her conscience and drives much of the action. We feel her pain and guilt and understand her later commitment to saving every possible crew member, so her actions make sense to us.

The fact that the film does spend some time developing these characters humanizes Pitch Black more than the highly regarded Alien does. Most critics must regard this as near blasphemy, but I prefer movies that do more with the characters than plop them into the machinery and fail to add some humanity.

Pitch Black has been under rated. It contains unpredictable nuances that make for thrilling amusement, yet don't implausibly violate science fiction/horror conventions. If you saw the original version at the theaters, check out the director's cut on video or DVD and see if it works better on the small screen. Just don't go in expecting thought-provoking Kubrick fare.

 


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