Pitch Black (2000)

D: David N. Twohy
S: Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel

Grungy but effective US/Australian sci fi horror flick directed by writer David N. Twohy (Waterworld, The Fugitive). A space ship carrying miscellaneous passengers and one psycho killer crash lands on a planet with three suns. The survivors (including the psycho) attempt to find a means of getting off what seems to be a lifeless desert only to find that there's life there after all, and it's not friendly. Luckily for them the bat-like carnivores who inhabit the place only live in dark corners so they're safe so long as they stay in the light. The trouble is that there's an eclipse on the way and it's going to be a very long night. Familiar ingredients, to be sure; characters that we've seen before in one form or another, yes; a structure which lends itself to the old 'who's going to get it next?' effect, but for all that the film manages to add a few wrinkles which sustain interest and it makes good use of a limited budget to create atmosphere and generate suspense.

The script by Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, and Twohy is quite tight and does not condescend to its audience. The characters are rounded enough to stay interesting for as long as each of them lasts and though there are many moments where the film threatens to tip into predictable story arcs, it is usually quick enough to get away with it. For a start there's the docking supervisor who becomes a reluctant captain (Radha Mitchell) even though her first instinct during the crash was to ditch the passengers altogether. Then there's the psycho (Vin Diesel), a man with eerie polished eyeballs which allow him to see in the dark, making him their best hope of survival during the eclipse. Meanwhile we have a fair-haired, blue-eyed security officer (Cole Hauser) who, though he seems tough enough to handle the killer, may not be all he's cracked up to be when the chips are down. The types are familiar enough and each of the characters is presented with internal contradictions which allow the story to develop with a good measure of tension from both within and without. The script is clever enough not to dispose of supporting characters quite when you expect though, and the finale works surprisingly well as you try to figure out just who among the principals won't make it and why.

Cinematographer David Eggby and production designer Graham Walker succeed in giving the film an arid look. The desert locations are used well in conjunction with overexposure and filters to make the audience feel as parched as our heroes do. The low-rent look of the equipment, costumes, and buildings contributes to the feeling of abandonment and isolation which permeates the consciousness of all concerned, (though their relatively pragmatic response to their situation avoids the sense of oppressiveness which might easily have resulted). The pace is fast. Editor Rick Shane cuts around the computer-generated special effects to keep things believable in the absence of an extensive creature budget. Twohy maintains tone well throughout, and the film is not without its moments of gallows humour, psychological tension, and hardcore action. Overall it is a slick package in grungy clothing which will prove worthwhile for genre fans.

Casual viewers will probably find it all too familiar though. The rewards here are all in the subtleties and minor variations on formula and character. The broad strokes are to be found as readily in straight-to-video programmers as in big-budget class acts like Aliens. The performances are satisfying but unspectacular and the creatures will not excite the interest of ordinary viewers in search of something really unusual. Boiled down to its essentials, it is quite literally a 'slimy things in the dark' tale which may or may not appeal to non-devotees depending on their mood. But, if you are willing to take a chance on it, there are certainly worse films out there, and Pitch Black is at least sincere enough in intention to avoid the taint of snigger-up-the-sleeve exploitation which mars so many genre films working with this level of budget.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.