Shades of Gray
Pitch Black Sheds Some New Light on Sci-Fi Clichés, but Not Enough
It may seem like damning with faint praise to describe a film that so energetically aspires to be a terrifying sci-fi roller coaster as merely interesting. But despite a veneer of sleekly nightmarish images and some decent monster-show thrills, Pitch Black's best moments come when it's being, well, interesting.
Taking more than a cue from Isaac Asimov's classic tale "Nightfall," Pitch Black tells the story of a motley crew of space-farers who crash-land on a desolate world illuminated by three blindingly bright suns. It's a place of decades-long day, rendered here via a unique, bleached-out film-processing technique. But like sitting in a dark room and then being forced into the noonday sun, the effect grows visually enervating. Still, it's an interesting idea.
The spaceship's crew is a refreshing lot as well, including an Islamic preacher, a junkie, and a multigendered child. They're led by sinewy Riddick (Vin Diesel), a convicted murderer with glowing cybernetic eyes and vestigial conscience, who plays nicely off ship captain/reluctant humanist Fry (High Art's Radha Mitchell). Despite looking like a bantamweight Melanie Griffith, Mitchell's Fry overcomes her neat physique to render a tough, Ripleylike heroine. If Jim and Ken Wheat's script had provided some tangible reasons why these two are in such perpetually lousy moods, they'd be fabulous characters. As is, they're merely . . . interesting. Unfortunately, the plot they inhabit is less so.
The crew find a deserted mining excavation, complete with almost-working mini-spaceship, a mile from their craft. Night falls, and gazillions of light-averse but bloodthirsty flying Alien-esque aliens awake, slaughtering everything in sight. The film becomes a minimalist nightmare as our heroes work out their personality disorders while trying to reach the other ship without getting snarfed.
Screenwriter-turned-director David Twohy, who survived the film versions of his scripts for both Waterworld and G.I. Jane, deserves props for taking the genre road less traveled. He offs characters you think will live, and conjures a palpable atmosphere of creeped-out claustrophobia like nobody's business. A scene of survivors protected from the winged creeps by nothing but the blue glow of some trapped luminescent wormswell, that's a fine scene.
Twohy's insistence on breaking the rules of the standard Alien game are admirable. Unfortunately, his failure to forge viable new twists or get beyond vague or rote character development results in Pitch Black being a watchable and interesting near miss.