If you ever wondered what it might feel like to be inside a spaceship cracking apart during a violent crash landing, Pitch Black gives you the experience bright and early. The camera jiggles around spasmodically, the actors shout unintelligible gibberish at each other, the sound hammers us. Unfortunately, this describes too much of the rest of the movie, too, without a crash landing as an excuse. Pitch Black is yet another insecure hissy fit of a movie — a thriller without enough confidence in itself or its characters to calm down for two seconds and let the actors speak to each other like human beings.
Movies like this copy the who-goes-there thrills of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing without those films’ grubby, everyday, human-scaled group dynamics. Here, the spaceship in question is carrying a motley crew mostly headed for someplace called “New Mecca”; in addition to the expected Muslims (led by Keith David, of The Thing), there’s a geologist, an antiques collector, a morphine-addicted cop, a teenage boy who’s not what he seems, and a serial killer. This all smacks of gimmickry — these aren’t people, they’re conflict units. In Alien and The Thing, the people confined together were allowed personalities which could then flare up.
The only people in Pitch Black with anything resembling a personality are the serial killer, Riddick (Vin Diesel), and the ship’s pilot, Fry (Radha Mitchell), whose soft features juxtapose nicely with her tough nature. Mostly, the people wander around on the parched, godforsaken rock they’ve landed on, squabbling over how to escape, while gradually being picked off by slithering monsters who thrive on darkness. Of course, this planet has three suns and thus no darkness, but wouldn’t you just know a total eclipse happens to be approaching?
Pitch Black does have an imaginative look. Whenever the characters step outside into the alien air, cinematographer David Eggby (Mad Max) bleaches out everything, which makes sense: These are alien suns whose light is passing through an alien atmosphere, so of course things will look different. And I liked how Riddick, whose eyes have been doctored to allow him to see in the dark, emerges as the unlikely hero who alone can see the ravenous monsters. The Riddick’s-eye view of the beasts is a neat touch of psychedelia.
Problem is, you may wish you could see through Riddick’s eyes all the time. Pitch Black, like so many other horror movies in recent years, is too often so dimly lit that you can’t tell what’s going on. Yes, the latter half unfolds during an eclipse, but a film can be dark and still be visible (perfect example: Carpenter’s Halloween). The expensive, computer-generated creatures lurk around in the dark, revealed to us only in teasing flashes — perhaps for the best, considering that what we do see looks heavily indebted to H.R. Giger’s Alien/Species designs. And the editing, as usual, is far too jangled; if you don’t like a shot, wait two seconds and it’ll change.
I always chuckle at these movies, because the characters are just food delivery; you wonder what the creatures would do for sustenance without the occasional crash landing. (Here, they cannibalize each other too.) How about an alien movie where human flesh turns out to be poisonous to aliens? Then the conflict would be about who in the group should sacrifice himself so that the aliens could eat him, get poisoned, and die. The movie would be short, but at least it’d be different.