Movin' on Up (The Genre Ladder)
The spirit of world class schlock-horror promoter William Castle was in the theater recently, during a preview screening of Pitch Black, as flashlights were given to a number of audience members. This is a terrific gimmick, if not quite worthy of the unbelievable marketing techniques of Mr. Castle (buzzers in the backs seats, skeleton’s on wires in the theater the John Goodman character in Matinee is a not-bad depiction of the man). How unfortunate then is Pitch Black‘s misleading (and ordinary) tag line, “Fight Evil with Evil.” The film in fact presents a conventional portrait of evil and good while raising a question: are the light-fearing creatures who pick apart the band of humans or the humans themselves more deserving of the label “evil”?
Pitch Black begins with a spectacular (and spectacularly noisy) crash scene which brings the humans to an unknown planet with multiple suns. The group consists of Muslims, led by an imam (Keith David); a policeman named Johns (Cole Hauser) and his captured convict, Riddick (Vin Diesel who has the name and physique of a professional wrestler); and a woman pilot named Fry (Radha Mitchell), who is suddenly promoted to captain when the crash kills two superior officers. Riddick escapes and the group unites both to survive and to capture Riddick. Soon they encounter creatures who live in darkness and are, according to Riddick, “worse than me.” These creatures live below the surface until an eclipse grants them darkness to spare and humans to eat. The only hope for our band is cooperation, as they try to leave the planet in a space craft they find on the planet.
Already, this film sounds like other films, but the sci-fi-horror genre feeds on itself regularly. This film draws on Aliens more than any other single film. In both films, the group, with a woman in a leadership role, finds the remains of an abandoned settlement. There are signs of struggle and a location where a “last stand” must have occurred. There is a young girl who looks up to a fellow group member. And the aliens here look a bit like H. R. Giger’s endlessly imitated work for Alien. In Pitch Black, the creatures’ viewpoint is rendered similarly to that of the creature in Predator, but the monsters themselves are shaped liked the spawn of Giger’s alien and a hammerhead shark.
Pitch Black also mimics Aliens in its treatment of the question asked above: who is evil’? In Aliens, the answer comes most clearly when the Company representative, Burke (Paul Reiser), double-crosses his crewmates in his attempt to take alien specimens back to earth, and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) says in disgust, “I don’t know which species is worse.” In Aliens, humans are “worse” because they choose evil, as they do in Pitch Black.
While the creatures in Pitch Black repeatedly and graphically kill and eat their human victims, the film never suggests they are anything other than carnivores. However, the humans work at cross-purposes and think mostly of self-preservation. Still, Jim and Ken Wheat and director David Twohy’s screenplay does present two examples of human growth. During the crash at the beginning of the film, Fry attempts to eject the passengers in the hope of stabilizing the ship to save herself. Johns prevents this. Later, after much trauma, Fry and Riddick share a moment (in the rain) where she says she is willing to die for the others. Riddick laughs at this but soon risks his life along with Fry for the sake of others (his own growth potential is established previously, when he prevents Johns from sacrificing someone else). Riddick’s physical prowess is never in question (he locates a blind spot in the creatures’ vision, allowing him to kill one with his knife in a scene worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger) but his moral growth gives the film a kind of moral weight. In Fry’s words, Riddick “rejoin[s] the human race.”
But this development begs the question: is the human race is worth rejoining? James Cameron’s Aliens redeems humanity by recreating a conventional family unit, when Ripley, Newt, and Hicks float toward Earth at the end of the film. Pitch Black presents another conventional, though surprising, fix for humanity: religion. And the representative for this possibility is the imam, whose sympathetic portrayal is surprising, not only in U.S. cinema generally, but in sci-fi horror films in particular. The imam openly mourns the loss of life and attempts to convert Riddick. The surprises continue. Riddick confesses that he believes in God and hates him due to the life God has given him. Observing their dire circumstances, Riddick asks, “Where’s your God now?” He gets his answer a few scenes later, when he appears to rescue the imam, who proclaims, “There’s my God.”
The issues of belief, redemption, and evil are apparent upon reflection, and admirably integrated into this expert specimen of the genre. After the noise and action, one admires these considerations, but only after. The film moves too quickly to permit audience reflection or, importantly, objection. Once the aliens attack, the film becomes all screaming and running and rapid cutting by editor Rick Shaine. There is not time to speculate on why the creatures scurry from small lights sometimes and ignore bright lights at other times. It is only after the film is over that one can wonder why only five or six creatures seem to attack at once, while the other thousands (millions?) are doing who knows what elsewhere.
The audience knows there are a lot of creatures because we see the swarm coming out of the ground as the planet goes dark due to the eclipse. They are a massive swirl of black blurs as though the bats’ exodus from Carlsbad Caverns has been filmed multiple times and the footage overlaid. The eclipse itself is a moment of great beauty. As a ringed planet slowly blocks out the two suns which bleach the screen with light, the audience might catch its collective breath, admire this image, and almost forget the horror that it signals.
This moment of visual splendor also hints at the filmmakers’ respect for the genre and their ambition. Twohy and company provide realistic gore, impressive special effects, and spectacular setting. The Wheat brothers and Twohy have worked previously in the field of sci-fi-horror, steadily climbing the genre ladder. The Wheats helped bring It Came From Outer Space II and The Fly II (among other films) to the screen, working their way towards greater control and freedom. This is true for the director as well: Twohy has moved up from writing Critters II to Waterworld to writing and directing the Charlie Sheen film, The Arrival.
This collaboration between the Wheat brothers and Twohy demonstrates an increase in budget and prestige while remaining well within the genre. Cameron’s career path stands as a possible model: his directorial debut’s title would not look out of place in the list of films by Twohy and the Wheats: Piranha II: The Spawning. And his Aliens is, of course, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Cameron also established a lucrative franchise with the Terminator series, which led to his becoming the “King of the World” with Titanic. It could be that, in putting the issue of moral choice at the heart of Pitch Black, the Wheats and Twohy might be working their way toward a similar opportunity.