PITCH BLACKMOVIE REVIEW
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JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
The dullwitted comments of producer Tom Engleman (THE TEMP) in the Jan. 2000 issue of Fangoria Magazine did nothing to encourage me ("I'm aiming for Scream in space.").
Obviously his highest aspirations were to do nothing more than try and imitate a movie that was both a send-up and a condemnation of all the slasher movie clichés that had come before. SCREAM was Director Wes Craven's attempt to expose and finally lay to rest all the tired old Horror movie clichés (particularly Slasher movies) that had been used yea unto death: possibly in order to infuse Horror with wholly new blood and new criteria.
Arguably, his success with SCREAM and SCREAM 2 may have ushered in the new face of Horror. 1999 was, without a doubt, the year for Horror movies. From Sommer's witty THE MUMMY, to the amateur but startling efforts found in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, 1999's top grosser's were all Horror (as well as some of the worst failures). Disney gave us THE SIXTH SENSE and Artisan came back from BWP with a second helping in the form of STIR OF ECHOES. Warner Brothers gave us the intense THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and gothic old Tim Burton finally cut his first true Horror movie with SLEEPY HOLLOW. But with all this vibrant new energy and creativity, Engleman merely wanted to copy someone else who was copying someone else.
Engleman also doesn't know the difference between a slasher Horror movie like SCREAM and a Monster Horror movie like the script he bought.
Yet I saw this movie and actually liked it. Why?
Luckily, Director and co-writer David Twohy (THE ARRIVAL and as a writer: CRITTERS 2, WARLOCK, THE FUGITIVE, LAST GASP) was at the helm of PITCH BLACK. David's skills at movie making aren't that sharp yet, but his movies always give me the feeling that he's a man of unshakable sincerity. He really wants to make a great film. As such the ideas he presents, while not always as deep or devastating as the Thriller / Horror movie crowd may like, are never-the-less creative and original. David never goes for the expected "Cat-in-the-closet" trick. It's a mark in his films that sets him apart and makes me look forward to his next one. His humor is also unique and fun.
PITCH BLACK starts off with deep space transport ship Hunter-Gratzner on a very long journey. The folks inside are in deep sleep - no warp factor five here - as their ship glides through the tail of a passing comet. The tail of a comet is largely made up of ice with some solid debris (thus the "dirty snowball" moniker). It's this debris that shoots right through the hull destroying the integrity of the ship. The ship computer aims the craft toward the nearest planet and wakes the crew. As they awake they are surprised to find themselves falling onto the deck. The gravity of the planet has taken hold and they are spiraling down through the atmosphere, their hull, not made for such a thing, burning away. The ship has emergency air brakes for cases of crash landings and the pilot attempts to control the trajectory of the ship. The whole scene is pretty hairy though not without a few bad gaffs.
When all is said and done, all the crew but one are dead. Fry (Radha Mitchell) is now the Captain and the few passengers left are in her care. Among them are Johns (Cole Hauser) who isn't what he appears to be, and Riddick (Vin Diesel: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), an escaped convict murderer who is exactly what he appears to be.
Also among the cast of potential victims are Keith David (THE THING, THEY LIVE, THE PUPPET MASTERS, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) as Islamic holy man Imam and Lewis Fitz-Gerald as the delicate dealer in Antiquities. It is his cargo of esoteric trinkets that help save the folk. And do these folk need help.
The planet they've crashed on is inhabited by cave dwelling creatures. Most of them are ferocious varmints that are such excellent killers, they have nearly stripped the planet clean of all other life. Now these creatures, with little else to prey on than each other, are dying out. The dying planet has three suns. Two of which revolve around each other and a third in a faraway orbit. In this system however, all revolve around a massive sol sized ringed planet. Such are the dynamics of this part of the Universe that the planet our protagonists are on, only sees night once every twenty two years. It is at this time that the cave dwelling animals come out and wreak havoc. Our troupe has picked a bad time to crash.
As Nightfall descends and the humans realize their fate, so the tension picks up. They must survive the night, and no one knows how long that night will last. Days? Weeks? During this time of stress and panic loyalties will be traded, trusts will be broken, and secrets will come out. The survivors will have to stay together if they are to survive the odds.
For those among us who are fans of the late Good Doctor, yes - this movie acknowledges its plot device from Isaac Asimov's Hugo winning short story, NIGHTFALL. That was the working title of PITCH BLACK and while the movie has little in common with the story, it is still a damn sight better than the actual movie Nightfall which was released during Dr. Asimov's lifetime (and left him unimpressed with Hollywood).
Among the standouts in PITCH BLACK are the Giger-esque creatures of this planet. Blind, they use sound and the photosensitive ability of their skin to navigate. The idea of a mind that "sees" with sound was put to good effect thanks to the imaginative works of Peter Chiang (KRULL) and Richard Bain (DOLORES CLAIRBORNE). Knowing how the varmints can "see" makes us understand the potentials for survival and death among the survivors all the better.
Another stand out is Vin Diesel. As the primal and murderous Riddick, Diesel's part was written with little beyond a few threatening diatribes and the expected thuggish sound bite. Yet Diesel infuses his character beyond the script. The movie calls for him to remain enigmatic and hide his eyes behind dark glasses, the whole TERMINATOR sh-bang. Instead Diesel portrays his killer with a human soul. He admits to killing before and he may do it again if it means his survival, but like a true predator he doesn't kill unless he feels threatened - or hungry. David Twohy must have noticed Diesel's ability too because there is a definite shift halfway in the movie with Riddick going from a secondary to the main character.
The story was written by the Wheat Brothers, Jim and Ken, whose banal credits include SILENT SCREAM, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, THE FLY II, THE BIRDS II (TV), THE STEPFORD HUSBANDS and worse. The script was most likely elevated by the hand of Director/Writer David Twohy.
Though it misses several moments where it could have gone from interesting to stark staring scares for the audience, PITCH BLACK is still a fun movie and gets 3 Shriek Girls.
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