Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Pitch Black

By Marc Savlov

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

D: David Twohy; with Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black, Rhiana Moore, Simon Burke, Sam Sari, Firass Dirani. (R, 107 min.)

It's sci-fi season once again, what with this opening volley from Twohy (The Arrival) and a deuce of Mars films on the event horizon. Pitch Black, however, offers precious few twists on its timeworn storyline. Mankind's innate fear of the night is at the heart of Pitch Black: It's Wait Until Dark in space, with the razor-blades-and-scotch vowels of Vin Diesel fronting for Audrey Hepburn, and several thousand omnivorous proto-swallows nicely filling Alan Arkin's shoes. It's also more than a tad reminiscent of James Cameron's Aliens and perhaps even Jurassic Park ­ but this last is meant in a good way. (The film wears its homages on its sleeve like a badge of honor.) Most of the time, the film coasts by on dollops of gore and weak suspense, but it's impersonal to the point of being almost existential, which makes the whole thing adrenally invigorating, sort of like a closed MRI with scary pictures taped two inches above your eyes. The film opens with everyone's hyper-sleep being rudely disturbed as a space transport ship carrying 40 passengers is knocked off course by the tail of a wayward comet. Docking pilot Fry (Mitchell, of High Art)manages to land the ship on an desert planet that features three suns which cause permanent daylight. The survivors include bounty hunter Johns (Hauser) and his murderous prisoner Riddick (Diesel), who is chained, blindfolded, and has a bit in his mouth. A trio of others, including a young stowaway, make up the rest of the landing party, and while the first business at hand is to find water, there's also the disturbing matter of what, exactly, killed all the giant creature skeletons that litter the dusty landscape. As it happens, the bone-owners were stripped of their epidermals by a subterranean, nocturnal species that resembles more than anything flying hammerhead sharks crossed with spiders, and as the planet enters a total solar eclipse, guess who's coming to dinner? That's the setup, and things follow more or less predictably from there to the film's resolution. Much of the fun in Twohy's film (and it is fun) comes from his clever use of sound; for a film that takes place in so much darkness, Twohy wisely teamed with Lucas Digital Ltd. Inc. to provide the myriad howlings and hootings of the planet's native species (as well as some well-done opening disaster shots) and the enhanced audio makes a world of difference. Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby (Mad Max) also make the most of some interesting film stock choices, going for a hideously washed-out look during the film's overexposed triple-daylight scenes and then wiping it all out with the deep, organic blacks and blues of the night shots. Say what you will about the story, but Pitch Black at least looks and sounds stunning. As Riddick, Diesel makes the most of his character's gruff otherness (The angle? He can see in the dark) and Mitchell is, as always, easy on the eyes. The rest of the cast, though, might as well have the word "victim" stamped on their foreheads. Not at all a bad film, as these things tend to go, Pitch Black is instead a very streamlined exercise in interplanetary mayhem and the logistics of the body count. Its lack of a backstory (who, exactly, are these people and where are they going?) makes it even more mysterious, which I suspect was Twohy's intention to begin with. Is it a fun time killer? Sure. Is it scary? That depends on the extent to which you're afraid of the dark.

2 Stars

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