Pitch Black (review)

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They Mostly Come at Night — Mostly

Is it an active contempt for the audience, I have to wonder, that propels a movie like Pitch Black through production, or is it mere laziness on the part of the filmmakers combined with the unspoken assumption — generally an accurate one — that moviegoers will watch just about anything with spaceships and lots of gore? Did some executive, considering greenlighting this script, chuckle evilly to himself while calculating precisely how insulting a movie he could produce and still have a decent opening weekend? Or was everyone so gung-ho on making a stylish sci-fi flick that it never occurred to anyone how nonsensical and even amoral the whole thing was?

Aliens meets The Fugitive meets Con Air,” is probably how writer David N. Twohy pitched his script. (Also credited as writers are Jim and Ken Wheat, which simply screams of fanboy brothers who wrote and, god knows how, managed to sell a spec script that had to be even more horrendous than what’s onscreen, if the more experienced Twohy had to rewrite it.) Twohy — who actually did write The Fugitive, with Jeb Stuart — is also responsible for writing and directing another piece of junk science fiction, The Arrival, which is at least enjoyable on a Mystery Science Theater level. With Pitch Black, though, he descends to a new level of awfulness, in which even the film’s highly derivative nature cannot make for campy fun. Pitch Black is not good clean bad fun — it is an insidious offense to any even halfway-demanding movie fan.
Pitch Black starts out, if not exactly promising, then at least momentarily gripping. A commercial freight and passenger ship, traveling through deep space, encounters a meteor storm — the small projectiles that rip through the ship are enough to do it serious damage, as well as kill the captain as he sleeps in his cryo chamber. The pilot, Fry (Radha Mitchell), awakened by the ship to deal with the emergency, finds her ship already burning up as it screams through the atmosphere of a planet. In an intense, protracted sequence, the ship breaks up as Fry fights for control of it and manages to guide it to a not entirely disastrous crash landing on the planet’s surface.

It’s the kind of sequence at the end of which you find yourself breathing a sigh of relief along with the characters. But Pitch Black immediately thereafter starts a long slide downhill that doesn’t stop until the end credits roll.

Only a handful of the ship’s passengers have survived, including Johns (Cole Hauser: Good Will Hunting), a law-enforcement type, and his prisoner, Riddick (Vin Diesel: The Iron Giant, Saving Private Ryan), a thoroughly psychotic multiple murderer who, natch, has escaped his industrial-strength restraints in the crash. Besides Fry, there’s also a Muslim imam (Keith David: Armageddon, Volcano) and several of his young sons, a teenage boy, and sundry others.

The planet, a seemingly lifeless, endless desert under brutal assault by three suns, fortunately has an atmosphere entirely breathable by humans. The unlikeliness of humans landing by chance on a planet capable of sustaining them is typical of the kind of disregard for reality science-fiction films display, and it could be forgiven if that disregard didn’t get much worse.

There are, our little band discovers rather unpleasantly, nasty creatures living underground, big, flying things with huge teeth that look like a cross between bats and H.R. Giger’s aliens. And they have a taste for human blood.

My question is, Why? Why would these creatures be the least bit interested in humans? Predators and their prey develop in symbiosis, and humans and the aliens are products of entirely separate lines of evolution. Okay: I’m getting too egghead. I’ll ask a simpler question: What do these things live on when there are no humans around, which is most of the time? This planet has no ecology to speak of — these creatures are the only living things around. There is nothing for them to eat. Nothing. It makes no sense.

Okay — still too intellectual. I shouldn’t be thinking this much about what’s meant to be a check-your-brain-at-the-door flick. But how much brainlessness are we meant to endure? After the discovery of the hungry creatures, Pitch Black becomes a standard “and then there were none” sci-fi horror flick. But it relies entirely on characters doing stupid, illogical things for no reason other than, if they didn’t, there’d be no story.

Did I mention that there’s almost always one sun in the sky of this planet? There is no night — except once every 22 years, when an eclipse blots out the suns. (Earth years? This planet’s years? The concepts are used interchangeably, which, again, makes no sense — the chances of this planet and Earth having years of the same length are next to nil.) Fry discovers this when the group stumbles across a long-abandoned camp obviously used by a geological survey team, where Fry finds a model of this planetary system. It’s vitally important for them to know how long the dark will last — they have no power to make artificial lights, and those creatures come out at night — but does Fry or anyone else advance the model along its track to see how long before the suns come up again? Of course not.

When one of the Muslim kids goes missing, the first place it is suggested they look for him is in a building where they have to blast through the locks to get in. Now, the audience knows that the kid found a way inside, but if the characters in the film didn’t know about that other way in, and thought the place was inaccessible, why would they look there first for him? How do they think the kid got in?

I could go on and on with the list of character idiocies, but the truly offensive thing about Pitch Black is the fact that Riddick — remember, the psycho killer? — is the hero here. This is a man who obviously enjoys threatening everyone around him. He is not someone who committed a murder, say, in self-defense or even inadvertently in commission of another crime, like a robbery, and that’s why he was in custody. This is a man who gets off on the fear he instills in the rest of the movie’s characters. And his menacing is played for laughs. He taunts Johns, thrusting a gun in the other man’s face, and cracks a catchphrase-style joke. When the teenage passenger starts to emulate Riddick, shaving his head like Riddick’s and sporting the same sunglasses, this is meant to be an appropriate, and humorous, homage to a killer. And lest we be tempted to try to find something to soften Riddick as a character, to try to make him more palatable, Pitch Black‘s posters and advertising remind us to “Fight Evil with Evil.” And this is the character we’re supposed to cheer on. I can’t remember when this kind of positioning of a character in a film made me this angry.

If Pitch Black has anything going for it, apart from the opener, it’s that it’s beautifully shot, at least in the scenes before the suns go down. Sure, it looks like one long Nike commercial, and no, a blue sun would no more make everything take on a bluish tinge than our yellow sun makes everything look yellow, but so what? It looks cool. So, in the words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Zaphod Beeblebrox, Pitch Black gets ten out of ten for style , but minus several million for good taste.

Please read the already-posted reader mail before you send me a nasty email complaining that this review is proof positive that I’m a horrible bitch with no understanding of science fiction or horror. I won’t reply to any new mail that covers ground I’ve already dealt with. I’m getting sick of repeating myself.< [reader comments on this review]
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