Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Pitch Black



US 2000
dir. David Twohy
scr. Jim & Ken Wheat, Twohy (story by the Wheats)
cin. David Eggby
stars Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell
108 minutes

Though essentially yet another Aliens rip-pff, Pitch Black delivers the goods as an energetic crowd-pleaser, with just enough original touches to lift it above the general sci-fi run.

While it would be going too far to say the film has much depth, there are themes being explored here mainly to do with perception and ways of seeing and the whole production has clearly been very carefully put together, with every shot, every cut, every plot twist the result of meticulous planning. The results are occasionally over-cooked and over-directed, but more often they’re unexpectedly successful.

It also helps that Pitch Black is full of eye-popping sequences, right from the start: a huge spaceship falls out of orbit and crashes onto an inhospitable planet where three suns mean its constantly daytime. Early scenes recall stranded-in-the-desert pictures such as current dogme epic The King Is Alive, as the survivors headed by pilot Fry (Mitchell), bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser), and Johns dangerous prisoner Riddick (Diesel) get their bearings.

Plot kicks into gear when the party discover they’re far from alone the planet turns out to be inhabited by Starship Troopers-style flying bug-lizards. These vicious, subterranean carnivores are, fortunately, allergic to light but, as Fry calculates, a total eclipse is only minutes away

Like all high-concept pictures, Pitch Black treads a dangerous line between invention and contrivance: it just so happens that, after 22 years of light, an eclipse is due hours after the travellers crashland. It just so happens that musclebound psycho Riddick can see in the dark, thanks to an operation he had while locked up in a shadowy prison. It just so happens that there’s the possibility of escape, but to fire up the ship some batteries must be dragged from one part of the planet to another, and so on.

But swallowing such implausibilities goes with the territory this is, at heart, a tarted up B-movie, an updating of the kind of story youd find in thoughtful 50s TV show The Outer Limits, specifically the Invisible Enemy episode. And Riddicks eye operation does enable Twohy to switch between three very different perspectives those of Riddick, his fellow humans, and the creatures to show the same events in audaciously unusual ways.

This pays some big dividends: the first half of the film builds and builds towards the eclipse, which doesn’t disappoint as a vast, ringed planet rises out of the horizon to blot out the suns. This, in turn, allows the creatures to come flocking up out of the ground and swoop in clouds over the planets surface lethally dangerous but, as Riddick along can see, oddly beautiful.

The planet-rise sequence has an unlikely grandeur but its striking effect is matched by a much more intimate flourish later on: a character finds himself marooned in the dark, takes a sip of spirits then blows the liquid out over a flame, revealing the creatures, just for a moment, before darkness swallows him up again. Its a breathtaking blast of pure cinema.

But Pitch Black doesnt quite have the courage of its convictions. The imposing Riddick is set up as a vicious badass, but when push comes to shove he turns out, predictably, to have chinks of compassion in his armour. Theres an uncomfortable scene in which this a walking caricature of black virility, imposes his physicality on the very blonde, apparently vulnerable Fry. The scene is about power rather than sex, and Fry turns out to be tougher than she looks but the cultural-racial aspects of the characterisations, though promising (several of the survivors are, in an unusual touch, devout Muslims) aren’t followed through.

Likewise, though the vision theme adds interest and structure to proceedings, it doesn’t really add up to much what the film seems to be saying is nothing is what it seems, appearances are deceptive, which is just about the most obvious message films can possibly convey. Full marks for effort, though.

by Neil Young