Friday, February 25, 2000

Pitch Black / ** (2000)

"Pitch Black" is the first movie I've seen that tries to mix elements of a slasher film and an "Alien" sequel to get its thrills. It may also be the first film to arrive at the conclusion that, if a planet has three suns in its scope, they can all have simultaneous eclipses every 20 years or so. That certainly doesn't seem like a big deal, but for the characters who discover nocturnal aliens who feed on human flesh, the event is anything but welcomed with anticipation. In a landscape of brightly pale colors and peculiar ancient ruins, survivors of a crashed space vessel must come together and set aside their past differences for survival; once the suns have moved behind a planet circled in rings, the shrieks of alien beings and the crunch of eaten bones will be the only sounds they hear.

The movie is a result of peculiar intentions; director David N. Twohy builds up incredible tension during the first hour, only to completely extinguish it by having his characters roam around in the dark like victims of a horror movie. It is a picture that wants to combine formulas for its own benefit, but loses the nerve and abandons all hope once it becomes too dark to see anything clearly. To say the movie could have been great is most accurate; unfortunately, neither the characters nor the story have anywhere to go once the nightfall has settled in.

Kudos to the script for trying anyhow (which is something more than I could say for "Supernova"). Our story opens up in an undisclosed location deep in space, where a space craft carrying several individuals begins experience turbulence as it speeds through a stream of asteroids. One of the vessel attendants, the fetchingly strong-willed Fry (Radha Mitchell), tries to subvert the problems at the main control panel, but the ship enters the atmosphere of a hot planet and crash-lands in the dirt at the cost of a captain and many important supplies.

The ship is torn completely apart--even one of the onboard individuals, a killer named Riddick who has been placed under maximum security watch, turns up missing. Seeking out water, and hopefully shelter, the survivors of the ship begin a trek across a wide-open desert that features desolate cemeteries, underground tunnels and three different suns keeping the planet's atmosphere lit up like Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the killer Riddick (Vin Diesel) remains missing; without a dead body, the survivors presume he is hiding somewhere nearby.

During their journey, they hope to find some form of life that can help in their journey off of the quiet planet; what they find instead is an abandoned outpost of human space ships, and some sort of hissing alien species that creeps through the ground hiding in shadows. There is no great explanation as to where they came from or why they're there, but their thirst for living blood (as demonstrated by one of them grabbing a human being and dragging him inside a dark passageway) certainly explains why everything else on the planet is dead. One of the forms of this alien-being even boasts a set of wings; when a beam of sunlight breaks into a room in which they nest in, they scatter in fright and take down anything that is in their way. Unfortunately, a curious youngster is in the room when this incident occurs.

The adequate plot device asks that the survivors of the ship retrieve energy sources from the ruins of their vessel, and use them to board an abandoned one in hopes of leaving the planet. Alas, an eclipse of all three suns is approaching; in total darkness, the aliens will surely come to the surface and feed on any organism that dares make a move. How will they survive? For starters, they must learn to trust the killer Riddick, who knows a great deal about the aliens' behavior, and is blessed with extensive strength and high intelligence (not to mention eyes that are supplied with night vision).

The characters and their worries are fused by the approach of the eclipse (they are concerned both about the aliens and Riddick's uncertain behavior), but all begins to unravel once an attempt to cross the desert to get to the space vessel causes many of the important people to get picked off by nearby alien beings. Here, the writer switches to a most depressing venture; some of our favorite characters essentially get hand-fed to the aliens, and the ones left standing are those that have no real significance in the thickening of the plot. I will not give away who dies or who lives, but for many of those who saw the film the same time I did, the selection of victims was not that pleasing to them, either.

The immediate benefit of all this is actor Vin Diesel, who, with this role and the one in "Boiler Room," proves to be quite an observant new star. Both movies are, in their own ways, depressing letdowns; but Diesel displays a variety of talents in both that determine his importance as an actor. His performance in "Boiler Room" reveals much dramatic flavor--here, his portrayal of a killer who must set aside his murderous instinct has "action star" written all over it. But don't confuse him with those Schwarzenegger/Stallone action stars; unlike those studio creations, Diesel is intelligent and strong, using both his mind and his physical attributes to help in sticky situations (not many characters like him, for example, would even think of grabbing hold of an alien and slicing it up to death). His intelligence and swiftness allow him to survive such incidents without hardly a scratch left behind. Words cannot appropriately describe this guy; he is something that has to be seen to be believed.

Fascinating as all this may seem, "Pitch Black" is not one of those endeavors in which your expectations are met or surpassed, but mercilessly slashed by predictable twists and depressing climaxes. Had the movie retained its tight pace and style for a good duration of the second half, the ending might not have seemed so unforgivable. Then again, how can we appreciate any ending when there isn't even enough light to see what exactly is going on?

Written by DAVID KEYES

Sci-Fi (US); 2000; Rated R; 107 Minutes

Vin Diesel: Riddick
Radha Mitchell: Fry
Cole Hauser: Johns
Lewis Fitz-Gerald: Paris
Rhiana Griffith: Jack
Sam Sari: Hassan

Produced by Tom Engelman, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf and Anthony Winley; Directed by David N. Twohy; Screenwritten by Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat and David N. Twohy

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