Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pitch Black

All I remember about my first view of the trailer for the movie Pitch Black (2000) was that it looked like just another excuse for a horror flick, albeit a good one. Who hasn't been afraid of what lurks in the dark at some point in their travels? It was just a teaser trailer that was mostly a black screen with people screaming and a few quick shots of creatures jumping at you. That was the last thought I gave it for several years until I saw it in a rental store and decided to give it a shot. The cover seemed to indicate it had a science fiction element to it. What an understatement that turned out to be!

Pitch Black is first and foremost an extremely well written and well directed science fiction thriller. Yes, there is a lot of scary monsters and situations to keep you on edge for most of the film, but the context in which it takes place gives everything a reason that makes good sense, rather than just an excuse to make you jump. Still, I would not recommend it for kids or the faint of heart. << spoiler warning >> Set in the future, it begins with a space craft crashing on the surface of a desert planet and killing most of the people on board, including the captain. If you really want to see how a crash landing should be done on film, you'll be blown away by this one (an impossible clip to find on the web, but this link will show it to you with commercial breaks). Right from the start, we are provided with at least two reasons to be nervous. First, there's an underground monster that causes some trouble and second, one of the few survivors is a dangerous convict who escapes. The convict is Richard B. Riddick, played very nicely by Vin Diesel who seems made for the part. In fact, this is the film that allowed Vin Diesel's career to take off.

The main plot involves the survivors' efforts to get off the planet alive. The first challenge is finding food and water, and this is difficult because the star system they have landed on has three suns which results in there being no night, no dark side of the planet, and no apparent clouds in the sky. They do, however, stumble upon an abandoned settlement with some supplies and a ship that needs fuel. They also find a working model of the trinary star system and, in a very cool scene, the acting captain, played by Radha Mitchell, winds the model forward and determines that they are about to be plunged into 30 days of darkness due to a planetary line up that occurs only once every 22 years. This event causes all three suns to be simultaneously eclipsed. How you can get a 30 day eclipse in a trinary system is beyond me, but I digress. When it finally happens, that's when the fun starts.

There is a huge population of voracious creatures that live underground because they cannot stand the light. I suppose it represents some type of underground ecosystem because there are several types of alien creatures. The ones that give them the most trouble are the flying types, including bat-like swarms and very large bird-like creatures. When the darkness hits, they all come out like a swarm of locusts looking to eat everything in sight. The CGI is a bit disappointing with regard to the creatures, especially when various survivors get eaten by them, but it is still effective.

Now I'm not going to claim that a lot of thought went into the science in this film, but the story plays out well partly due to the personalities of the characters and their interactions with each other. You have an antiques collector who is a nervous wreck, a holy man and his three sons who stop to pray to Allah every now and then, the female pilot who feels responsible for the ordeal, a young girl stowaway who is pretending to be a boy, the escaped convict Riddick and the bounty hunter who had captured him.
All these people must learn to work together to stay alive and I think how they do that is the most redeeming aspect of the script. They end up having to rely heavily on Riddick for two reasons. The first is that he is the most survival savvy of the bunch. The second is that his eyes have undergone a special operation that allow him to see in the dark, a remnant from his days in solitary confinement.

The film developed a following and since Riddick turned out to be such a bad-ass character they brought him back in a sequel in 2004 called The Chronicles of Riddick. The sequel is also a very good science fiction adventure film in its own right and was directed by the same guy, but it has very little connection to the first film except that it involves Riddick and a few of the other prior cast members. I'll mention what I thought were the most enjoyable aspects of the sequel. First, some of the best scenes in the film are the ones in the beginning involving Riddick's recapture and subsequent time spent in the jail from hell. It really establishes him as the true bad-ass of them all.
Second, the enemy in this story is a planet conquering race called the Necromongers that drive these giant space pylons into a planet, land and take over, and then try to convince everyone to convert to some half-living half-dead state or be killed. The main highlight is the initial invasion which really conveys a sense of "nowhere to hide" terror and I love the cool soldier helmets which completely cover the head with four mock faces looking in all directions. It looks quite intimidating. The rest of the story is pretty much your average defeat the bad guys fare so it doesn't quite measure up to the first script in originality, but it is still a good film and if you liked the first one, you'll certainly enjoy The Chronicles.


  1. I wonder why nobody is puzzled by the fact that in both Riddick movies there is oxygen on planets that could never have any. Especially Crematoria where the 700 degrees would make all oxygen disappear in a blink of an eye. I liked the movies a lot, but such 'details' spoil a lot.

    1. I love snaking out those physics violations. I have not heard this one yet, can you provide a reference? How would 700 degrees make oxygen disappear?

  2. Well, oxygen disappears by oxydation. The only reason there is oxygen on earth is because it is constantly produced by plants and trees. On Crematoria, there are no plants or trees, so no oxygen either.
    Suppose something else produces oxygen. Oxidation at room temperature would slowly absorb it. Speed of Chemical reactions increases with temperature (exponentially if i am not mistaken) so at 700 degrees it should disappear in a blink of an eye.

    1. That makes more sense to me - it did seem that there was no plant life (or any life) on the surface of Crematoria. And if there was enough other material to provide oxidation, then you have a case. Either way, I think I agree now that oxygen in any quantity on a 700 degree planet probably needs some alternate explanation. Good catch!

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