2/4, 2000s, Action, David Twohy, Horror, Review, Science Fiction

Pitch Black

Amazon.com: Pitch Black POSTER Movie (27 x 40 Inches - 69cm x 102cm)  (2000): Posters & Prints

I’ve never quite understood this movie’s appeal. It’s fine as a little sci-fi thriller. It works on a purely technical level narratively, but it’s not the most engaging thing in the world. It’s not terribly scary, or emotional, or thought provoking. It’s okay but over stylized and unfocused.

In the future, a commercial interstellar ship with everyone in cryogenic sleep and months away from their destination runs into a the trail of a rogue comet, killing the captain and sending the ship on a crash course for a backwaters planet in the middle of nowhere. The pilot, Radha Mitchell’s Fry, manages to crash land the ship safely enough to save herself and several of the passengers, even after trying to dump the entire passenger compliment in an effort to even out the ship. Together with the survivors, she has to find a way to survive and get off the rock.

What’s interesting about the film from a point a couple of decades removed from the original release and after the release of two sequels is that Fry is actually the central character. Marketing and the sequels would tell you that it’s Richard B. Riddick, Vin Diesel’s growling anti-hero with sunglass goggles perpetually attached to his head. Reading up on the history of the production, Fry being the hero extended to the originally scripted ending, but as production started everyone realized that Riddick had the potential for sequels instead of Fry, and they rewrote the ending to replace the focus on Riddick rather than Fry. This ends up feeling kind of unnatural to the story.

Fry has to learn to lead this ragtag group of survivors (all with different motives and desires, creating a discordant effect on the overall story that I find distracting), to go from trying to dump all of the passengers to fighting to save as many as she can. This is a strong arc to build a story on. That she’s suddenly cast aside in the movie’s final moments for a character that was obviously designed as a secondary character is odd. Riddick is an escaped felon and murdered, captured by Johns, a bounty hunter (“merc”), and released from his chains in a desperate effort to survive.

The group finds a geological research station nearby and an escape vessel that needs just enough power from their ship in order to fly, but no one is around. Something happened to the people who manned it, and with the escape ship still there, they didn’t leave. The planet is in perpetual sunlight with three suns, but they are due for a once in every twenty-two years eclipse that will send the planet in total darkness for a long time. Combined with the monsters they discover in the tunnels under the surface that flee from the sunlight, this is a recipe for disaster unless they can get that escape vessel running.

This is all fine. The coincidence of landing right before the next eclipse is the sort of things that stories are built off of, so I can’t complain too much about that. The stakes are clear and the path towards the resolution of the plot mechanics is unambiguous. My problems really are with the character based storytelling.

I think it was a mistake to have the group of survivors being so ragtag and unconnected to each other. There’s nothing connecting these people except the desire to get off the planet. Then they’re all pretty thinly drawn, and the path to the resolution doesn’t bring their desires together in any meaningful way. It doesn’t help that this is essentially an Alien clone and the object is to pick off characters in genre satisfying ways more than telling a story. Their base desires as characters never merge in the rare instance when they even come to the surface. Sharon is a tough woman who might be going to a new space settlement. Paris is an antiques dealer with a bunch of booze (that survives the crash in a sarcophagus somehow) who wants…to die in Paris? I think. Jack is a young kid that suddenly idolizes Riddick. Riddick is a convict who wants to be free of his chains. Johns is a merc who wants to capture Riddick for the money and, maybe, another unstated reason. This is chaotic, and I think it would have been better to condense a lot of these. Make it Riddick, Johns, Fry, and a small group of settlers. Interconnect their desires so they all want variations on something similar (like freedom), and make the fight to survive a fight for that, providing a far more interesting subtext. Instead there’s no subtext and it’s just random people getting picked off by aliens while Riddick growls.

There’s appeal to that. The aliens are interesting in concept and designed well, even if the late-90s computer generated imagery can only go so far. The kills are gruesome in a fun way. The clear line of the plot keeps things from getting unnecessarily confusing. I just don’t really engage with the film. It’s fine, but it feels wrong in a couple of ways. I spent half the movie bored and the other half mildly interested.

Rating: 2/4

11 thoughts on “Pitch Black”

  1. Oh good. I’m glad I’m not the only one who “didn’t get” this film. (Though to nerdy nitpick – I’d say Alien genre, not a clone.)
    I mean not that it’s bad. It’s almost a perfect, solid b-movie. A mid-level film that’s worth a watch now and then on cable, but the foundation of a franchise? I’m trying to remember that era (because I sort of do) and I don’t even remember if Vin Disel had that much charisma to spark off a franchise, or if the public was just starved for good scifi content.
    If I may suggest a comparison? Go find and watch Spacehunter. Which feels like what Pitch Black wanted to do character wise, but I think pulls it off better.
    (GBF video on the film)

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    1. Vin Diesel has never been more compelling than in Saving Private Ryan. Riddick is more compelling as an idea than in execution.

      He’s a situation where the people in charge of his creation were convinced of his coolness, so convinced that they never made an effort to actually make him cool.

      I’ve never heard of that, though I’ll see if I can manage to get my hands on it.

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      1. I have totally forgotten Vin Disel was in Saving Private Ryan.

        Otherwise you are totally right – he works better in theory than practice. Still we’ll check the box office and… 53 mil world wide on a 23mil budget? Going by the usual advertising rule, that implies the movie barely broke even.

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  2. The real tragedy of Pitch Black is that they didn’t do enough with Claudia Black. I know, she wasn’t a name yet, Farscape hadn’t made it out, but I really wanted more of her. She’s my type.

    I’ll be the fanboy and say I really like this movie and I understand the focus on Riddick. Not to get all Roundhead Ryan, but this movie subverted at least a couple of expectations. One, that the tough chick main character was going to make it. I really appreciate that they basically killed the ‘main character’ AND that her death was a meaningful sacrifice, one that actually made an impact on Riddick.

    I like Vin Diesel. I like his voice, his attitude as Riddick. Riddick is NOT a nice person. No matter how much people seem to want to make him a hero, he isn’t one. Sharon is. Riddick is evil used against evil (or nature, if you’d rather). Riddick is an outsider, making him an interesting commentator on his fellow survivors.

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    1. The thing about the switch in main characters, Fry dying, is that they came up with it on set. They didn’t write it that way, only discovering during filming that they loved the character of Riddick. I think he’s an interesting character in concept, but they didn’t actually make him interesting until they had to completely reset the franchise in the third movie.

      I have nothing against Diesel specifically (though I suppose his over earnest nature rubs me the wrong way from the little I’ve seen of the Fast and Furious franchise), but I have this trigger against self consciously cool things that don’t actually earn the coolness. Riddick comes in too cool too fast without demonstrating it enough to sell me on the idea. If they had rewritten the movie from scratch before filming with the idea of switching the main character to Riddick at the end, they might have made it more compelling for me. It kind of reminds me of the late in production switch on Frozen that turned the Ice Queen into a good character, leaving no antagonist for the ending so they squeezed another one in.

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