Futuristic Movie Month: "Pitch Black"

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The space transport vessel "Hunter-Gratzner" carrying 40 people on-board crashes on a desert planet when the ship is struck in a meteor storm. Not only must they find food and water and worry about Riddick, the survivors find themselves being hunted by the planet's flesh-eating alien inhabitants when the planet is engulfed in darkness, which happens every 22 years, as they emerge from underground to hunt and eat all signs of life.
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Rating: R
Length: 190 minutes
Release Date: February 18, 2000
Directed by: David Twohy
Genre: Action / Sci-Fi / Thriller

Hollywood has done space movies before, and some of them are really imaginative. Surprisingly, few feature aliens, as many of the plots of these films focus on human conflict rather than alien conflict. "Pitch Black" focuses heavily on both, which is a really nice and effective surprise that keeps audiences captivated until the surprising ending.

The film starts on a space ship with a human crew that is in cryogenic sleep. Their years-long slumber is interrupted by a meteor shower that severely damages the ship and claims the lives of important crew members, including the ship's captain. The highest-ranking survivor is Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), who assumes command and crash lands the ship into a desolate planet with three suns, one of which is always shining. She commands the crew, which includes William J. Johns (Cole Hauser) and Abu 'Imam' al-Walid (Keith David), to find out more about the strange planet while she figures out a way to deal with the ship's lone prisoner, Riddick (Vin Diesel).

At some point during the crew's time on the planet, they realize that the sun does set, but only once every couple of decades, when all three suns are in eclipse together. The result is pitch blackness, rendering the survivors helpless. This becomes even more of a problem when dinosaur-like creatures begin to come out during the eclipse, bent on killing the humans who have inhabited their planet uninvited. The only one who might be able to give the humans an advantage is the mysterious and somewhat uncooperative Riddick. Among his many talents is the ability to see in the dark, so he can hunt down the aliens. The story leaves audiences wondering if he and the dwindling crew members can put their differences aside to fight against a common enemy, or if he will always be nothing but a suspicious prisoner in their eyes.

In any movie where lots of characters die, the audience expects the more anonymous characters to go first and the lead characters to eventually survive. "Pitch Black" doesn't conform to these expectations and instead chooses its own path, thanks to the slickly written script by Jim and Ken Wheat along with director David Twohy. The film makes it obvious from the start that anyone on the crew of the ship can die at any time. As the aliens close in and start picking off crew members, viewers start to feel that each character's death is a matter of when, not if. This keeps the excitement and mystery levels high, so the audience is engaged throughout the whole film. There really aren't any slow or boring parts in this film, as it is well paced thanks to the screenplay.

The performances are solid across the board, with Diesel taking the lead but almost being outshined by Mitchell, who puts on a very convincing accent. In fact, directory Twohy thought she was an American after seeing her previous work, though the actress hails from Australia. Quite a bit of the outdoor shoots for the film were done in a very desolate-looking part of Australia, so perhaps Mitchell felt right at home. Whatever it was that inspired her, it made her a standout character in the film, though costars Hauser and David more than hold up their end.

The director of a film doesn't often handle screenwriting duties as well, but in a film like this, it is almost a necessity that Twohy had something to do with the story. He clearly had a very specific vision for what "Pitch Black" would look like before he ever stepped behind the camera, and the film is all the better for it. It's a stylized, more updated version of "Aliens" with equally compelling characters and bloodthirsty alien predators. The stylized part comes courtesy of the set decorators and cinematographer David Eggby, who had previously worked on "Mad Max" and "Dragonheart." He uses colored lenses to give the planet a washed-out look that is completely foreign and helps set the characters on edge. Eggby's use of color is symbolic and is as important to the plot as the characters and aliens.

The film launched the career of Diesel, who had previously only been known for a small supporting role in "Saving Private Ryan." With that film, he showed he could do high drama and period pieces, but with "Pitch Black," he became a bona fide action star, playing an antihero before antiheroes were all the rage. In this way, "Pitch Black" was a little before its time, which is probably why it has deservedly become something of a cult classic since its release.