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Pitch Black, written by Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, and David Twohy, directed by David Twohy, 2000, 110 min.

A movie like Pitch Black is a difficult one for me to review. In retrospect, Pitch Black seems like pure trash in my mind -- witless, illogical, filled with false scares, and smug in its own sketchy characterization. Amusingly, of the friends with whom I watched the movie, none can remember the exact title. Black Night? Big Black? An interesting sign that the movie had little to distinguish it in memory. However, I was enthused about the film while in the theatre, and perhaps even, though I am embarrassed to say this, gripped. I certainly consider myself to be a cynical moviegoer in general, but sometimes a movie will subvert my inner critic despite my best efforts. During Pitch Black, I sat there slack-jawed, eyes glazed, as the explosions and chases flashed in all their lowbrow glory on the screen. Oh, scary aliens! Please give me some laser beams and big spaceships! I have no critical defence for Pitch Black, and when most science fiction films are considered objectively, they are junk of the worst kind, bottom feeders of the genre, crass commercial exploitations of the so-called tropes of the field with, ironically, little chance of commercial (or critical) success. The connection with science fiction, real science fiction of the purist type present in print, becomes tenuous. I love science fiction, and I love the leading edge found in print, everything from the most beautifully written literary sf to the hardest hard sf. So how is it possible that I keep going to sf films, when the market is a dumping ground year after year for worthless tripe like Battlefield Earth, Hollow Man, Virus, The Faculty, and so forth? Such films fail even as eye candy. My faith in the genre becomes harder to justify. Fortunately, Pitch Black had enough of its own rhythm as spectacle to gain an advantage over the other witless dreck that couldn't even hold my attention the first time around. But Pitch Black is by no means one of the two or three films a year that will be worth watching again. Spectacle wears itself out quickly, and there's always a replacement waiting in line.

As for the movie itself, Pitch Black is pretty basic. Some humans crash land on a planet, and they get chomped one by one by aliens with big teeth and sharp claws. Why would aliens want to eat human flesh? As usual, if the movie had an answer for that, it would destroy the entire basis of the plot. Pitch Black also lacks anything in the way of an ecological underpinning. The aliens only come out during darkness, which only happens every 22 years on this particular planet (and thus the title). How do they survive without handy humans to munch on? How did they evolve? And if they had already eaten everything else, how did they survive until the humans arrived? Don't ask! A threat is necessary, and the planet is the place of no escape. It's essentially a big haunted house, and the spaceship is the means of escape. All very familiar.

Twohy tries to apply characterization to the thin thread of plot present in the film. No luck there either. Fry is the pilot of the spaceship and she does her best Ellen Ripley imitation, with close to good effect. But it's hard to outdo Sigourney Weaver at her specialty, and the film inevitably suffers as a result. Riddick is a convicted murderer who was being transported onboard the ship before the crash. The other members of the crew come to rely on him because he can fight aliens with his bare hands and still be ready with a snappy one-liner. Coincidentally, he also has eye implants that allow him to see in the dark. But the plot gives the characters no room to maneuver, and events march forward as if the whole crew were wearing red shirts.

The special effects were mostly convincing, with a nice look to the planet scenes and the varying colours of sunlight from the different suns. But the lesson doesn't get through -- effects don't make the movie. Pitch Black works overtime to get us to care about the characters, which would be the key to making the things that happen to them matter, but it simply doesn't happen. And so the monsters and the planets and the spaceships mean nothing. I might have enjoyed the film while watching it, but I'll ascribe that to my character flaw -- namely, an occasional lapse in my critical faculties.

DVD Note: Pitch Black is available in 2 DVD editions, one the rated edition that was released in theatres and the other the unrated edition that has an extra 4 minutes of footage, mostly extra gory bits in the violent scenes. The two editions are otherwise similar and include: two audio commentaries (one with David Twohy and some cast members, and the other with Twohy and some crew), a short making-of featurette, and assorted trailers and promotional items.


First posted: November 10, 2000; Last modified: March 30, 2004

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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