Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pitch Black Review (feat. 1990's Tremors)

Pitch Black was made in 2000 by David Twohy. It was created as a star vehicle for possible modern-Schwartzeneggar-replacement Vin Diesel. In many ways, it tries for the same feel as James Cameron's Aliens. It fails to match the quality of that 80's film, and my friends and I have often clashed over it.

You'll really get used to that silver-white image. They use it all the time.
I say Pitch Black is "a nice try," mediocre at best. In a fit of lazing on the couch with work-out soreness, I rewatched it, and my opinion hasn't really changed.

Pitch Black is set in the distant future (27th Century) that is credibly lived-in and realized. A ship is flying through space, and meets a pocket of fast-moving rocks that tear through the ship. These little collisions are deadly. Even tiny objects can move so fast that they go through walls and people, killing the captain and forcing the vessel to crash land.

With only two crew members surviving the attack of debris, the docking pilot, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), is left to try to save the ship, which is starting to enter the atmosphere of an unpopulated planet. Fry jettisons various sections of the craft, and realizes that her last, best hope is losing a section that carries 9 people in suspended animation. Desperate to save herself, she pulls on the lever that will toss them into the searing heat of reentry. Nothing happens.

The other living crewman jammed the controls that would let Fry do that, and she's forced to steer the ship to as good a landing as she can manage. Right from the start, the audience is asked to suspend belief that the ship could be completely totaled, yet the passengers aren't turned into a sticky paste of flesh, bone, and blood.

So the first thing to note before things get extra-crazy is that PB has issues with its tone. It's the difference between meeting someone who's really versatile and meeting someone who simply has a problem focusing on one thing. The biggest strength of Pitch is its quiet, muted attitude. Some pictures feel like they rush through everything, full of people shouting at each other, whereas this movie takes its time, mostly at a normal volume or whisper.

That style is great for drawing an audience in, and the sudden bursts of action and horror might actually be more jarring for it. Still, there's something about Pitch that comes off as a bit boring. There are moments when the movie moves from developing the plot to having the actors glare at or talk with each other, but (to me) they are just well-acted scenes that lack impact because of the hastily-defined characters. Once you throw the action in, the movie starts to look silently all over the place. 

Back to the story: the survivors look around, finding little-to-no sign of habitation. They realize they're in the middle of a desert with few supplies. And that they don't have much water on a planet with THREE suns. Ouch.

Of course, the movie was filmed in Australia. That continent is famous for having two specific film settings: (a) lovely beaches and (b) barren, hell-like landscapes. The survivors are in immediate conflict, as Carolyn Fry deals with her guilt, the passengers lament their semi-lucky fate, and one man reveals that he's a bounty hunter with a wildly dangerous prisoner in transit.

This is where Riddick (Vin Diesel) comes in. He's a quiet, growly, vicious life-long criminal. He's cool and patient, and the dialogue goes to great lengths to make him sound both manipulative and smart. He's clearly supposed to be as dangerous as the Alien from Ridley Scott's classic horror pic, but with Hannibal Lechter's twisted mindset.

Riddick breaks out and starts stalking all the people he's trapped with. This section of the film is both effective and silly. At some points, Diesel's Riddick is hearing what the characters say to each other, hidden behind a bit of terrain. There is some tension, as he might kill any of them, any time, but he just flaunts his stylish, muscular self, then disappears unseen. Maybe he makes a snarky comment to himself... At one point, he sneaks into the chair someone just left, sits under a big umbrella, and downs the guy's drink. I wanted him to twirl that girly umbrella.

But, oh surprise! The bounty hunter recaptures his supposedly super-human, inhuman prey. This happens around the same time that one of the crash victims stumbles into a dark area and then screams. The survivors make an uneasy truce with the dangerous murderer that they're not sure didn't kill the missing traveler. They learn what they can about this new planet - it has a settlement that's been completely abandoned in a spooky way. They all gather supplies, and find another ship that needs repairs. And they also find concrete evidence of real, murderous creatures that live on the planet.

Apparently, this sun-drenched planet has creatures on it. Creatures that are physically injured by light itself. The planet has a vast cave system, and this is where the animals hide out. This is great for the survivors, because the three suns guarantee constant daylight. And yet - a moving solar system display shows that the planet will experience one month of total darkness every 28 years. And this celestial event is just about to happen, leaving the crew utterly screwed.

It's one thing to have aliens that sort of look or act like the Aliens of Ridley Scott/James Cameron fame. It's another to see that the film is populated by characters that exist so they can be picked off as the picture goes on. So one role is a tough female with a very pragmatic viewpoint - Claudia Black looks at the mile-long wreckage of the crash and thanks the pilot, telling her that she did a good job of keeping them alive.

This is pretty much all the development that Claudia's part will receive, and she's good enough an actress to invest her role with some personality. But it's not enough to really pull you in, or invest you in her in the time before she bites the bullet. And then it's just a matter of counting down the survivors and watching them fall... This is a major aspect of Alien and Aliens, and it's been done to death. 

This movie is over 2 hours long, and these developments all come to a head at the 45 minute mark. The quirks that set this picture apart are that (a) the survivors are with Riddick, someone who could kill them all without effort and (b) Riddick, a human version of the alien from Alien, is about to meet actual aliens that are just like the aliens from Aliens. Already, I think you can start to see why I'm less impressed with this flick than my friends were.

The good things about Pitch Black are that it has a diverse cast and takes time to have its characters talk and interact. A lot of movies seem to be waiting for the moment when heavy/death metal guitars can wail away while violence happens. This picture takes its time in showing us a fleshed-out environment and the semi-fleshed-out people who find themselves in it. Diesel is actually a charismatic lead, and an impressive movie character. He gets good support by people who know how to play their roles, especially Rhiana Griffith (the girl who plays "Jack"), Radha Mitchell, and the always-excellent Keith David.

Th bad parts are that the roles are really pretty stereotypical. They're not well-developed, which fails to pay off all that time spent with them talking to each other. I mean, a bunch of stereotypes talking for 80% of a scifi/horror film is still just a bunch of stereotypes talking. The stylistic novelty doesn't work because there isn't as much payoff to it as you'd think. And you can't get invested in the characters.

Also, the film is long enough that its running time mutes any sense of action. The visual fx are a big part here, and the movie spends a lot of time on putting us "behind the eyes" of both the aliens and Riddick. This viewpoint is used often, and it's a  shimmering, radar-like grey screen. It looks like a constantly-shifting video feed with bad transmission. Between this and the low lighting, we're left with few solid shots of the creatures that are supposed to be driving this story.

And really? They're a bunch of flying hammer-head shark-type monsters that don't seem to care about things like mass and consistent methods for catching and killing prey. Their look is new yet derivative and not exciting.

There's also the practical issue of "how have they been alive all this time?" It's one thing to hear that an "earth colony" has gone silent and then find murderous beasts running around. It's another to develop this idea that beasties are injured by sunlight, but live underground with no other obvious signs of food. And there's a regular eclipse that lets them run around and kill at will.

These ways of developing your villain don't work very well when you can easily ask, "why didn't they starve to death centuries ago?" How do they know when people are around? Why doesn't the light injure them more, and how much is it supposed to hurt them if they fly toward light anyway?

If the movie is supposed to be interesting because these monsters are different, then why isn't there difference more consistent? Or are they simply there to look cool and trim down the cast?

PB is a good effort. The fx are well-done, even if the "vision" sequences should've been done better or used more sparingly. The cast is full of people who can act well with little material. There's a claustrophobic aspect which is a lot like The Descent.

I also love that Keith David plays a devout Muslim who's on a journey with his sons. Their non-caucasian presence and mentality is refreshing and helps develop the crazy future-universe that we're thrust into as quickly and inexplicably as the film's crew is thrust into peril. The camera and story uses them a lot, developing good images of their prayers and beliefs without removing them from the same story as the other crash survivors.

However, Pitch spends a lot of time on different elements which don't come together to form a really good movie. The characters should've been given more depth, the action should've been handled better, and the monsters should have been used differently (or given more time). For a supposed scifi film the "light hurts them" aspect is only a tool to build tension with the audience. I haven't seen many animals just swim into battery acid in order to kill something, but the monsters' main deterrent only works on occasion.

This whole experience is kind of limp, despite the neat ideas. The unusual (if uneven) tone and direction are also a nice surprise; I can see how they pulled other people in. But I think those people were hungry for something different, which this experience certainly is. For all these reasons, I say Pitch Black is "ok," and not the sort of thing I'd see twice. I can write that even though I have now seen it twice. & I still mean it.

Is that phallic, or anti-phallic?
The amazing thing is that there's this 1990 movie called Tremors, which starred Kevin Bacon and the great Fred Ward. Set in the Nevada desert, it involves a small community and their two local handymen (Bacon and Ward), who suddenly find that giant, man-eating, tunneling worms have infested their little piece of paradise. In short, that movie had almost every element that was in PB, except for the modern "dark" vibe where people blame themselves. And yet, Tremors sort of has that too, but not in the same way the theme plays out in Diesel's flick.

Best of all, Tremors was actually fun, despite being silly or possibly stupid. It had humor and action and weird-ass monsters. It never made me think that it was trying to rehash Aliens. Tremors stood on its own and it also had a quirky, unique tone - a tone it used better.

And somehow, the characters felt more real, and more personally-engaging, than all the stereotypes and tortured-people that Pitch threw onto the screen. Perhaps best of all, it was actually easy to tell what was going on, since it was filmed mostly in daylight and didn't use weird "alien vision" or "Riddick-vision" images. Tremors did all that on a fraction of the budget, and all these reasons give it the edge over Pitch Black. Also, Kevin Bacon.

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