Well, I thought that I’d bend the rules slightly for the next review in my “1990s Films” series and look at a sci-fi/horror/action film that was originally released in February 2000 (but probably made in 1999) called “Pitch Black”.
On a practical level, I decided to bend the rules because “Pitch Black” was a film that I got on DVD ages ago but never actually got round to watching, so I was curious about it. On an intellectual level, I mostly consider “1990s-style” films to be ones made in the time between 1989 and 2001 (eg: between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11). So, this review is within the spirit of this series, if not the letter.
So, pointless justifications aside, let’s take a look at “Pitch Black”. This review may contain some mild SPOILERS, and I should also warn you that this film contains FLICKERING LIGHTS during an early part of the film (although I don’t know if they’re fast/intense enough to cause problems).
“Pitch Black” begins with a spaceship that is transporting cargo and forty passengers (in suspended animation) that is struck by micro-meteorites. The ship’s emergency systems kick in and rouse a pilot and one of the officers from cryosleep, but the captain has been struck by one of the meteorites. Struggling to control the ship, the pilot suggests jettisoning the passengers, but the officer won’t allow it.
So, spotting a habitable desert planet nearby, the pilot makes a dangerous crash landing and manages to save some of the passengers. However, one of the survivors is a dangerous convict called Riddick (played by Vin Diesel) who soon escapes into the desert. The man who is supposed to be guarding him insists that the survivors hunt him down before he attacks them.
However, during the search, one of the survivors finds an underground cave system… and is promptly eaten by something. When Riddick is captured, the survivors initially accuse him of murdering the dead survivor but, after one of them explores the caves and is nearly eaten by a creature, they soon realise that having someone as tough as Riddick on their side might not be a bad idea – especially since he’s even got night-vision implants in his eyes.
A while later, the survivors stumble across an abandoned geological station, whose inhabitants disappeared 22 years earlier. Whilst several of the survivors work out how to get the station’s spacecraft working again, the pilot uses an nearby orrery to calculate that there was a solar eclipse 22 years ago.
Another encounter with the creatures in the station’s drilling room also teaches the survivors that light is harmful to the creatures.
Still, the station’s space shuttle just needs new power cells. So, it’s a simple matter of lugging the cells from the cargo ship’s wreckage to the geological station. I mean, what could possibly go wrong….
One of the first things that I will say about “Pitch Black” is that it reminded me a lot of both “Alien 3” and “Tremors” in terms of style, atmosphere and concept. It contains both the suspenseful, mysterious desolation of the “Alien” films and the inventiveness (and emphasis on rules-based survival) of the “Tremors” films.
The film also plays with the concept of space quite expertly, contrasting the vast agoraphobic expanse of the sun-bleached desert with the claustrophobic darkness that the solar eclipse causes (where the characters have to remain near light sources at all times, lest they be eaten). This really helps to add a lot of suspense and tension to the film. And, yes, this is more of a suspenseful sci-fi horror thriller than an action movie or a splatter movie.
Although the film contains some action scenes, they are relatively few – with the survivors sensibly realising that running away from, repelling and/or hiding from the creatures is the only sensible way to deal with the situation. This also has the effect of making one scene where Riddick does fight one of the creatures (armed with nothing more than a knife) seem even more dramatic by contrast.
The survivors are a fairly interesting bunch too, including a rather posh British antiquities dealer, an imam who is an expert on desert survival, several members of the imam’s congregation, a rather badass Australian couple (one of whom is played by none other than Claudia Black from “Farscape” and the later seasons of “Stargate SG-1“!), a young girl disguised as a boy, Riddick, the guard and the pilot.
Many of these characters get at least a small amount of characterisation and they mostly seem to be a fairly realistic group of characters, who react to the situation (and each other) in complex and realistic ways, and have realistic motivations. Seriously, although a couple of the characters (such as the antiquities dealer) are a little bit on the stylised side of things, the fact that many of the characters are relatively realistic really helps to add a lot of drama to this film.
Riddick, on the other hand, is something of a mystery. The audience gets a few hints about his past but he’s played as a rather ambiguous, extremely tough and fairly mysterious character.
Whilst a lot of films contain morally-ambiguous heroes, Riddick is an especially good example of this type of character. Throughout the film, there’s a genuine unpredictability about him which helps to add to the suspense. In fact, my only criticism of the character is that he sometimes tends to speak in a rather quiet and gravelly way that is occasionally difficult to hear/understand (even with headphones).
The alien creature design is also suitably menacing, with the mysterious creatures resembling a cross between giant bats, hammerhead sharks and the xenomorphs from “Alien”.
The fact that they are sensitive to light is a key part of the film, although one other interesting element of their physiology (eg: that their “vision” is motion-based) is only briefly exploited in one scene. Likewise, the creatures are also shown fighting with each other at one point.
Another interesting element of this film is that it shows both lifeforms on the planet that didn’t adapt to the presence of these creatures and lifeforms that did:
In fact, Darwinism is one of the key themes of this film – with a dialogue segment between the pilot and Riddick about the “survival of the fittest” being one of the film’s more dramatic scenes, which also helps to define both characters’ outlooks on the world too.
The film’s pacing is reasonably good too, although it is a very slightly more slow-paced film than I had originally expected. But, given that the emphasis is on suspense and exploring a mysterious planet, then this is understandable. Plus, at about 104 minutes in length, this film is just about short enough not to outstay it’s welcome. Still, the pacing of this film is closer to that of a disaster movie or a horror movie than a thriller/action movie.
The special effects are also relatively good too. However, the film’s late 1990s/early 2000s CGI effects are somewhat noticeable. Still, given that many of the CGI-based scenes take place in dark and gloomy locations, the old CGI often isn’t as noticeable as you might think.
As this is a film about light and darkness, it goes without saying, but the lighting in this film is brilliant! The awesome 1990s-style high-contrast lighting in many parts of the film is also complemented with lots of cool-looking “used future” set design that is very reminiscent of both the classic “Alien” films and “Blade Runner“.
In terms of the music, I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. However, the creatures’ bat-like echolocation noises often provide suitably ominous, and almost musical, background noise during many scenes.
All in all, “Pitch Black” is a suspenseful, claustrophobic sci-fi horror movie that is filled with well-written characters, an intriguing premise and some really cool visual design. Like a lot of classic sci-fi horror films, this one also often relies on not explaining everything in order to create a sense of intrigue and drama. Yes, it was a slightly different film to what I had expected – but it’s still a really good one. If you like the “Alien” films, then this one is worth watching.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about four and a half.