Mama, could you leave the hall light on tonight?
One thing I love to see in a film is definition of character without the need for a windy, Oscar speech or the death of a loved one that prompts an "emotional release." The only genre that gives you that type of character is the Western. The Western is littered with good men with bad hearts and bad men who struggle for a clean conscience. The words of these men carry a heavy emotional burden and clearly define and expose the true nature of the person. Pitch Black is one of the best films I have seen in a very long time, and it carves its roots from the essence of a Western, providing amazing clarity with a direct narrative prose.
From the moment the lights dim, the audience is thrown into an emotional situation where innocent people go to "meet their maker" and survival is their first instinct. In those first moments, Pitch Black wraps its hands around your neck and never lets go. To wit: A passenger spaceship carrying 40 people hits some type of space debris and crash lands on a barren, desert planet with only 7 people walking away. The survivors include a convicted murder with infrared lenses for eyes, a marshal with a hidden agenda, a selfish pilot focused on saving her own ass, a religious leader with three followers, and various odds and ends of characters. The three suns shine brightly on the planet's surface, and the hodgepodge of survivors form a loose collation to survive. The only problem is that something is hiding in the shadows, waiting for them in the dark.
This simple plot lets the script take shape and lets the characters develop and define their own prerogatives. With amazing cinematography that resembles the work of the David O. Russell film Three Kings, director David Twohy gives the planet a barren, washed-out look, and all of the interiors of the wrecked ship a cool metallic tinge. One of main elements that gives the film such a film grip on the senses in the presence of Vin Diesel, currently seen in the new film Boiler Room and from last year's Saving Private Ryan. His cool, somewhat haunting prose littered with poignant words reminds you of the gunslinger who has killed one too many people and has lost touch with the human race: A man of honor who provides the main catalyst for defining his fellow characters' personal attributes and motivations.
By underexposing the terror that lies in wait for the survivors, the feelings of suspense and claustrophobia are astonishing. What lies beyond the circle of light? What lies beyond the light bears a strong resemblance to the aliens designed by Geiger and the movements of the creatures mimic those of the raptors of Jurassic Park. But Twohy lets us also "see" through the eyes of the aliens and take part in the hunt for food. (The concept was first employed in the Schwartzenegger vehicle from the '80s, Predator.)
The most attractive element of Pitch Black is how beautiful the cinematography is, while developing a real sense of an alien world. You can almost feel the heat from the ground and the dizziness of the humidity in the air. The mish-mash of B-actors pull together some terrific acting, and no loose ends of the storyline are left hanging in the lurch. It's pretty amazing when you realize this script came from the guys that wrote the riveting drama, The Birds II: Land's End.
For the ride of your life (or at least just two hours of mayhem), Pitch Black will leave you with the sudden urgency to leave the hall light on when you climb into bed that night. But it's a lot scarier to not know what's in the dark, waiting for you to turn the corner. Wes Craven and John Carpenter taught us that a long time ago.
DVD features all kinds of extras, including two commentary tracks, featurettes, trailers, and more.
Aka The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black.
Black and light.