“Pitch Black” is a Last Stand in a Haunted House movie with a couple of variations on the formula: the haunted house is a sun-scorched planet with 3 suns and the ghosts are alien creatures that shuns light. Writer/director David Twohy, who chooses a bleached-out look for the film, gives the impression that the alien planet is permanently awash in bright sunlight, and the stark look is inspiring.
You see, the planet has 3 stars (What? Is that possible? I know, but just go with it.), and once in a long while, all 3 stars line up and the planet is covered up in darkness provided by a temporary eclipse. This is the only “night” the planet knows, and the only time the light-sensitive creatures hiding underneath the planet ever comes out to play. Now you may ask yourself: how did animals that shun light manage to evolve on a planet that is nearly permanently drenched by the solar flares of 3 suns? My answer: that’s why they call it science fiction.
It just so happens that a ship carrying miners and a dangerous convict crashlands on the planet just as it (the planet) is about to go through one of its eclipse. Of the survivors of the crash, there is Fry (Radha Mitchell), one of the ship’s pilots; Johns, a bounty hunter; Iman, a Muslim holy man and his young followers; two miners; an antiques dealer; a young boy; and last but certainly not least, Riddick (Vin Diesel), a prisoner who Johns is escorting back to a space prison. Riddick is obviously the most dangerous of the bunch, and besides being fiercely anti-social, he has engineered eyes that allows him to see in the dark. This is a useful trait once the planet goes through its eclipse, and the entire planet is bathed in darkness. The convict, it turns out, might be the survivors’ only chance at survival. That is, if he doesn’t kill them first, or vice versa.
The movie establishes the planet’s situation, the approaching eclipse, and the fact that there are creatures living inside the planet’s many caves, hiding from the sun, very early on. When night falls, the fun begins, and our survivors must carry power cells from their crashed ship to another ship in a deserted colony, where all the previous colonists had been killed off 30 years ago by the aliens. (Give or take on those years. I was never entirely sure about the time interval for the eclipse.) The survivors’ trip from their ship to the colony becomes a death gauntlet because they have to fight the swarm of creatures in their way, with only Riddick’s night-sight to guide them. And who says you can trust a murderous escaped convict?
“Pitch Black” has become a surprise star vehicle for Vin Diesel (“XXX”), whose character is no doubt destined for cult favorite status ala Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the “Evil Dead” series. And in fact Riddick is the most intriguing character of the bunch, even if not much is known about him. Co-writer Twohy keeps the film moving at a fast clip, and backstory is not a luxury many Last Stand in a Haunted House movie have, and “Pitch Black” is no exception.
There is a subplot with Fry, the pilot, who had attempted to dump the ship’s passengers during the crash but failed, and how she attempts to make up for that would-be murderous act by shouldering all the responsibility of getting the others off the planet. Unfortunately Radha Mitchell (Fry) is not up to the task, and thus seems along for the ride like everyone else. The real tension comes from Riddick and Johns, the con and the bountyhunter. The two are at odds — Johns is paid to bring Riddick in, and Riddick doesn’t want to return to prison. There is no doubt that their conflict will end with a final, bloody duel, and Twohy handles their stare-downs before that inevitable climax with great effectiveness.
But I do have some quibbles with “Pitch Black”. For one, it’s not nearly as action-packed as I would have liked, and the secondary characters are cardboards meant to only add to the bodycount. Twohy does manage to keep the film moving with nice camerawork, and the enigmatic and unpredictable Riddick proves to have star quality.
In this case, the “bad guy” is the “real” good guy — that is, if he doesn’t stick a knife in your back first.
David N. Twohy (director) / Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, David N. Twohy (screenplay)
CAST: Vin Diesel …. Riddick
Radha Mitchell …. Carolyn Fry
Cole Hauser …. Johns
Keith David …. Imam