October Horrorshow: Pitch Black

I’m a sucker for Alien ripoffs. Really, I am. Something about the shared stories (monsters whittling down hapless cast members) strikes something elemental in my brain. The formula for films like Alien seems so fundamentally sound to modern storytelling that I bet, had he been alive in the era of science fiction, the Bard himself would have come up with it.

Pitch Black, from the year 2000, has, since its release, ensconced itself as both a cult film and a classic entry in the sci-fi monster subgenre. I’m having a hard time recalling a film that held so little promise yet ended up being quite so watchable. I remember heading to the theater to see it thinking I was in for a real shitfest, but I was wrong. Sure, Pitch Black won’t make most critics’ top 500 lists anytime soon, but for a film with such a derivative nature, and therefore incurring such dismal prospects, it was pleasantly surprising. In a less backhanded way, if a viewer refuses to compartmentalize the flick into preconceived notions of what a good science fiction film is supposed to be, they should discover that Pitch Black is a good science fiction film.

Sometime in the future, a passenger vessel way out in space somewhere takes damage from a passing comet and has to crash land on a barren, desert planet with three suns. Most of the passengers die in the crash, but a small number survive. Among them is Riddick (Vin Diesel), an apparently superhuman criminal of unrivalled ferocity. He was supposed to be making the journey in chains, but because the ship has crashed, he finds himself free to terrorize the other survivors. That on its own probably would have been enough to sustain the film, but director David Twohy had other ideas.

Every once in a while, the planets in the system conspire to align in such a way to deprive the planet the survivors are on of sunlight for extended periods. When this happens, the dead world springs to sudden life, its nocturnal creatures no longer forced to hide from the suns underground. For the survivors, these animals are a menace far worse than Riddick. So much worse, in fact, that they have to enlist Riddick’s help in order to survive.

From that point on, Pitch Black rarely deviates from the Alien formula, and that’s okay. It’s a bit of a curveball to switch up the story like that, but it’s a far less bizarre and surprising twist that what went on in something like From Dusk Till Dawn, for example. Riddick may have been the bad guy of the first act, but there is still plenty of setup happening to let a viewer know what’s coming.

Much that follows is predictable as the cast is winnowed further, but it’s still satisfying. The pace of events feels a little weird, though, like events have been condensed a little bit too much. It’s rare for me to write this, but the film probably could have benefited from being a bit longer. Jumps in logic and location happen too quickly in some instances. It’s the film’s jumpy nature that does more than anything else to keep Pitch Black from being better than it is. That, and the CGI.

Oh, boy. The CGI monsters of Pitch Black are integral to the story. In fact, they are the story, only outshined by the character of Riddick. (That character proved popular enough to justify a convoluted sequel starring Riddick that defied coherence. It was such a miss that when the third film in the series came out late this summer, the filmmakers threw up their hands and put Riddick back amongst some monsters. And I’m fine with that, really. In fact, I would love to see an Aliens vs. Riddick movie. Hollywood, make this happen.) But the CGI is pure 1990s. It’s cheap, largely unconvincing, and overused. In some spots it’s used to good effect, such as when the sun and planets are rising, or when showing Riddick’s unique, cat-eyed view of the world. Elsewhere, it is holding up poorly. In fact, it didn’t look all that great when the film was released, either.

The CGI is bad, the plot is a bit of a mess, Vin Diesel has a unique take on ‘acting,’ and sometimes the film feels woefully cheap. Why do I like this thing? Because it’s simple fun. It makes no effort to do something new or change the face of cinema (they tried that with the sequel and failed miserably). It’s a film that is comfortable with itself, and if a viewer is in the mood to see some monsters chase a bunch of people, Pitch Black is a good option.