The scene is grim and very familiar: a hulk of a space ship crawls through the starry darkness, then runs into unexpected trouble, such that its crew is awakened from travel-slumber ahead of schedule. The camera ricochets around the chamber, dark and hard to read, save for the standard emergency beeper lights. The narrative voice over offers a context: “They say that most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep, all but the primitive side, the animal side.” Unidentified as yet, the speaker identifies his fellow travelers, a “hoodoo man,” “some kinda woman,” and, as he puts it, “my real problem, Mr. Johns,” while you see the usual fast-cut, skewed frame pod-shots. Then you see who’s talking or perhaps, thinking this introduction, an imposing musclehead wearing chains, jaw-lock, and blindfold, in the only pod labeled “Lockout Protocol.” For all the regular visual and narrative cues attending his preamble, this single shot suggests that this guy is not your averange narrator.
Damaged by something “unknown,” the ship crashes onto a planet surface, hunks of it burning and breaking off as it accelerates through the atmosphere. During this terrifying descent, you witness a conflict between the pilot, Fry (Radha Mitchell) and that problem fellow, Johns (Cole Hauser): she wants to save at least the front part of the ship by ejecting the “passengers,” he wants to try to save everyone. Her attempt is thwarted, not by his entreaties to her humanity, but by the fact that the mechanism doesn’t work. And so, everyone crash-lands together, excepting the Captain, who’s still in his pod when he’s pierced through by whatever it was that assaulted the ship. The survivors are understandably afraid and angry to be stuck on a desert planet, but they take a few moments to thank Fry for her excellent piloting, for saving their lives. Unsurprisingly, she’s a little uneasy with this display.
With this opening sequence, Pitch Black co-written by brothers Jim and Ken Wheat with director David Twohy asserts outright its derivative sources, quoting from the Alien, Mad Max, and Terminator series, Blade Runner, Fearless, Con Air, and The Fugitive, even Stagecoach, in the outlaw traveling with a group of “civilized” folks. Fry, the reluctant hero, recalls Ripley and Sarah Conner of course, but also most hard-ass guy-protagonists in recent sf-action movies, motivated less by morality than self-interest. Mitchell, the Australian actor last seen playing a callow New York photo editor in High Art, imbues Fry with contradictions: she’s girlish and stony, ambitious and careful, vulnerable and cruel. Resentful and confused, she finally accepts the role of “leader” out of desperation, defeated by her ostensible teammates’ repeated ineptitude, carelessness, or myopia.
In other words, Pitch Black is not about a motley crew that pulls itself together in order to triumph over common adversaries. Rather, it’s a study of illogic, frustration, and disharmony, the stuff that’s not supposed to happen in standard action pictures. Further, it examines community fractures arising from distrust, know-it-all-ness, and prejudice, all familiar territory for Twohy, whose The Arrival, while burdened by goony horse-hocked aliens and Charlie Sheen’s earnestness, made a strong and often thoughtful (sf-metaphorical) case against U.S. imperialism in South America. In Pitch Black, even those characters who survive long enough to converse with one another have no opportunity to bond in that mystical movie way. Their deaths are fast and rippy, and take place at distances and in the dark, so there’s no opportunity for intimacy or amends-making (the one up-close death is indeed, the film’s single instant of direct and personal communication between two characters, and that lasts 20 seconds, tops). Surely, there are examples of individuals making valiant or intelligent decisions, but most of what happens in the film is accidental, horrific, and irredeemable.
As soon as the ship crashes, it’s clear that the situation is dire: looking out on the blasted expanse of nothingness, Fry is moved to ask, “Is this whole planet dead?” The answer is, yes and no. The planet has three suns, which means it’s real hot (the visuals are composed of grainy video and film stocks, bleached out by cinematographer David Eggby, who also shot George Miller’s Mad Max on the same location 20 years ago, Australia’s desolate Coober Pedy). It also means there’s no night; or rather, there’s no night until there’s an eclipse, for which these 12 humans have arrived just in time.
During this extended period of pitch blackness (which, you’re informed for no reason, occurs every 22 years or so), the planet surface is swarmed by the monsters who otherwise live below, winged, slam-headed shredders that resemble H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien aliens, altered by creature designer Patrick (Godzilla) Tatopolous and special effects supervisor Peter Chiang (whose special effects for Tim Burton’s Batman gave him useful experience working in the dark) peter to accommodate Pitch Black‘s plot premises. For one thing, these creatures pick up on David Fincher’s idea in Alien 3, in that they are granted a visual point of view (with scampering night-visionish camerawork). For another, they move very, very quickly (like the digital creations they really are), undeterred by physical rules of conduct. And for a third, they have an overt and specific human corollary (not Alien‘s Company, not Terminator‘s Skynet), who is, it turns out, your narrator.
Riddick (Vin Diesel) is the film’s best example of irredeemability. Even less sympathetic than his self-introduction would suggest, he’s also increasingly interesting: here’s a Hicks who never comes around, a Terminator who holds out as long as formula will allow, as his initial sick-fuck self. Surly and brutal, Riddick is a convicted killer who’s spent so much time in solitary black holes that he’s had his eyes surgically modified in order to see sans light: hence, he’s an important asset for the crew (like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), at the same time that he’s odiously and obviously a lot like their enemies, those awful night-predators. At the time of the crash, Riddick is on his way to some terrible “slam,” courtesy of the mercenary Johns. He escapes, threatens the other humans, then realizes there are other, uglier, more efficient stalkers around: “Finally found something worse than me, huh?” he sneers, watching the others discover a crew member’s tattered remnants. He sees before anyone else, perhaps, the group’s dysfunction, predicting that, “When the dying starts, this little psycho-fuck family of ours is going to tear itself apart.”
Riddick and Johns, no surprise, share a ferocious mutual contempt, displayed in several dick-swinging contests, which are easily the film’s least interesting points, except that they take to an extreme the kind of masculinity meltdown that’s insinuated in Aliens. These scenes in which Riddick and Johns hit and kick, or shoot at and knife, each other, with no small amount of swaggery self-importance tend to bring the rest of the action to dead halts. These interruptions are so conspicuous as to draw attention to their deviceness, the way that such scenes are typically used to reveal the greater man, physically or morally. In Pitch Black, these fights tend to serve as still more evidence that the guys are missing the point, that their focus on their petty competition decreases everyone’s chances to escape.
The film explores this macho dynamic explicitly, not only in the Johns-Riddick relationship, but more interestingly, in two other characters. The first is the “hoodoo man,” so summarily dismissed by Riddick at the film’s beginning. A Muslim cleric (Keith David) is shepherding three young boys, all turbaned, fearful, and seeking spiritual understanding. Confronted by the flesh-eating hordes, the group is hard pressed to fit their predicament into anything resembling “God’s plan,” and big meany Riddick never lets them forget it, hammering repeatedly at the uselessness of ethics and religious faith: “I absolutely believe in God,” he tells the imam. “And I absolutely hate the fucker.” The movie has some difficulty making the imam’s perspective clear, which David embodies more than he articulates, as the film’s stock dialogue affords few persuasive insights.
The other character who throws a wrench into generic gendering is the teenage-ish Jack (Rhiana Griffith), who looks up to Riddick, wants his cool eyes and admires his considerable skills. Of course, as the film goes on, Jack realizes a few things, and begins to waver, thinking perhaps that the elusive, anxious Fry is a worthy role model, much as the pilot repeatedly rejects the responsibility. It’s in Jack’s perspective (which, admittedly, doesn’t get much play) that Pitch Black offers some shrewd meta-commentary on the relations between celebrity and gender expectations, and adults and kids, as well as the hard-to-come-by faith that allows any of these cultural strands to come together, ever. Flawed and ambitious, Pitch Black‘s murky challenge to sf-action heroic conventions is its most redeeming feature.