Pitch Black

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Pitch Black has a great premise: it's an SF story in which our heroes have good reason to be afraid of the dark. Visually, it's impressive. We have different kinds of darkness, vision and light on this planet, with three different-coloured suns. One comes out, everything's blue. Another comes out, everything's yellow. It's a relief when they get back to the ship and we can see normally again. Some of this might make you thump your television ("come on, you're faulty; they wouldn't make their film look this crap deliberately!") but it's certainly different. I can't think of any film so brave and experimental in this way.

At times it's like a return to the black-and-white era, except that it's blue-and-white. I was a little disappointed here. Visually it looks like a colour film from which the red and green have been leached, making no attempt to do anything with monochrome. Watch a great black-and-white movie and you'll see cinematography which doesn't come naturally to colour. This film went monochrome purely for story reasons rather than artistic ones, which I thought was a shame. Ah well.

However the big disappointment is the script. It feels like a short story, with the bare minimum of characterisation and plot required to eke out ninety minutes. The characters are largely differentiated by their accents (American, English, South African, Australian, African, etc.), with little effort expended on creating people we care about. When they start dying, one doesn't give a toss beyond the basic human instinct of "yikes, death!". Not good enough. The sole interesting person is the sort-of captain (Radha Mitchell), who's not only good-looking and rather sweet, but gets to make some tough decisions. I liked the way that the end of the film harked back to the beginning... until they underlined it explicitly with a tinted flashback, at which point I rolled my eyes. Still, she's a good character.

But of course there's Vin Diesel. The video box boasts that he was in The Fast and the Furious, which is a bad sign for two reasons: (1) personally I wouldn't be too proud of being associated with The Fast and the Furious, and (2) real stars don't need memory-jogs like that. Vin Diesel (weird name!) actually isn't bad. He's got a body that's probably spent more time in the gym than it has in sleep. He has reasonable screen presence, though he wears daft little sunglasses even in the dark. However the character he's playing made me cringe - an armed and dangerous convict, being transported in high security until he escapes! Gosh, I've never seen that hoary old chestnut before! Then the film gives him almost nothing to do for thirty minutes as it tries painfully hard to make him look cool. Eventually he becomes relatively interesting (being the top-billed star part, it was a gimme that he'd get plenty to do) but boy, those first thirty minutes were a millstone around the character's neck. If overmuscled "I'm-so-scary" action heroes are your thing, *RUN* (don't walk) and watch Pitch Black!

In fairness I should say that after I first posted this review, many people came forth to defend it vigorously. It was praised as a lean, mean scaring machine, with inventive, powerful direction from David Twohy and in Vin Diesel's character "the greatest sci-fi action hero since Snake Plissken". A quote: "You claim that nothing's done with him for the first 30 minutes... did it occur to you that there may have been a reason for that? Watch it again and listen to the way the characters (especially Johns) build him up in his absence, and tell me that the film is doing nothing with him. When he's offscreen all the others do is talk about him, and when he's onscreen all we can think about are the horrible things everyone's said."

I'll admit that's what the script is aiming for, but for me 'twas merely annoying. The first and last character to be scary thanks to offscreen build-up was Hannibal Lecter, and Silence of the Lambs was so brilliant that wannabe-Hannibals have been thrown at us in all media until we're sick of them. The problem with Vin Diesel's character is that his plot function would be obvious to a blind wombat and all that build-up is just old, old, old. It's been done. Once he got some dialogue and character interaction he expanded from one dimension (courtesy of Vin Diesel himself) and started to redeem himself, but a predictable character is a dull character and anyone who's watched a few genre films can nail Riddick in milliseconds. All that build-up is merely irritating.

Were they novels instead of films, Pitch Black would be an experimental piece of wannabe literature while something like The Lost Boys would be cheerful pulp nonsense... but that doesn't automatically make the former more successful at its given goal than the latter. The Lost Boys might aim (much) lower than Pitch Black, but I also think it basically hits its target. Pitch Black, for me, is flawed. The music is annoying and the different kinds of lighting will make you think you're watching a pop video. The film's bogeyman is kinda creepy for a couple of scenes, but more often overloads on CGI. Uh-uh. Not scary.

Curious trivia... Vin Diesel's character has eyes that can glow to give him night vision. For this the actor was given experimental silver contact lenses that really did let him see in the dark! Apparently they were briefly on sale to the public from Lens Quest (though Diesel called them "hubcaps" and had serious trouble getting them out after the first day's filming).

Some elements of this film are interesting, but the script ain't among 'em. The ending isn't bad. But this isn't a movie to watch with your brain engaged; just turn it on, admire the visuals and try to forgive the rest. It's not bad. It's certainly not much good.

Reviewed by Finn Clark