Film Review: Pitch Black
A surprisingly good Sci-Fi thriller crash lands...
Low budget sci-fi films have often heralded the coming of new talent. The combination of shooting cheap special effects to make them realistic, and the necessity of relying on character to drive the plot rather then enormous set-pieces has brought us classics such as Mad Max and The Terminator. Pitch Black isn't quite in the same league, but its intriguing, pulpy premise and effective characterizations mark it as one of the most enjoyable thrillers of the year.
The plot concerns a group of marooned space travelers, who struggle for survival on a seemingly lifeless sun-scorched world. Led by the resourceful Fry (Rahda Mitchell), the group includes Johns (Cole Hauser), a man transporting condemned killer Riddick (Vin Diesel), Imam (Keith David), a holy man with three child disciples and three territorial prospectors (Claudia Black, Rhiana Griffith and John Moore). However, their attempts to leave are threatened when they discover that the original inhabitants didn't leave voluntarily. Something killed them, and that something might be coming back.
Pitch Black refers to the fact that this force will only come in the dark, and, wouldn't you just know it, the planet is about to experience a complete solar eclipse
The plot is pure comic book, but writer/director David Twohy (along with co-screen writers Jim and Ken Wheat) have crafted a relentlessly efficient piece of pulp fiction. The script is lean, with the group's inner dynamics believably played out. It's good to see a script which doesn't offer pat characters, and there is no signs reading 'GOOD' and 'BAD'. They also manage to throw a decent twist or two into the mix.
Twohy's direction is remarkably assured for somebody so new to the medium. His decision to keep whatever is attacking the survivors secret adds to the sense of menace. Like Robert Zemeckis in What Lies Beneath, he often relies solely on effective aural effects to build tensions. He manages to craft two distinct looks for the world during its period of daylight (helped immeasurably by the inventive cinematography of David Eggby, who also shot Mad Max), whilst also managing to shift the tone from intense action to quieter moments which would make many more experienced directors ashamed. His visual pyrotechnics hide the low budget, whilst the subjective camera work is often instrumental in building audience identification. The important thing, is that we actually care about these people surviving.
The casting of new comers allows the makers to play tricks on the audience. We have nobody to cling on to as the 'star'. Nobody is certain of getting out, perhaps not even the cute kiddies.
And while Twohy and the Wheats do their best, at the end of the day, the actors are surpassingly good for this type of film. Diesel as Riddick gives a star making, bad ass performance, dominating any scene he is in through sheer charisma. He is definitely the guy you don't want to give any crap to, or he might just gut you. But as good as Diesel is, praise should also be given to Mitchell as the troubled leader Fry. Continuing in a long line of string sci-fi females, she manages to make Fry feminine as well as tough - not just as one reviewer put it, 'a man with tits'. She is intelligent, yet has her own dark side. As the film unfolds, we find out that several of our comfortable preconceptions about the characters are stripped away. Top of the pile in supporting actors is Keith David, an actor whose face is instantly recognisable, but whose acting is all in his eyes - from quiet dignity to a flash of tortured doubt.
The action sequences are extremely well handled. Tense, tight and hauntingly shot, they are a relief from the hyperactive style taken by many directors nowadays. The opening crash sequence is stunning considering how few shots of the ship there are. But my vote for best sequence of the year is a simple dash of a few hundred yards which the characters take to get some fuels cells back to a ship. Sound easy? Wait until you see the film.
I may be guilty of over-hyping the film, but it is a genuine surprise when you discover one which actually goes beyond any opinion you might have about it. It isn't art, but it is a genuinely enjoyable Saturday night movie, with no pretensions to be anything else.
Ian O Sullivan