(David Twohy, US/Australia, 2000)
In the distant future, a spaceship carrying a disparate bunch of characters crash lands on a remote and barren planet. The survivors include one of the ship's crew (a woman), a dangerous murderer under the custody of an enforcement officer, an antiques dealer, a devout religious man and his children, a forthright female and more. Realising that they will all need to pull together to survive on the harsh planet, the criminal, Riddick, is freed and the group set about finding food, water and shelter. During their search they discover horrific flying creatures that ruthlessly slaughter their victims. Fortunately, these hideous are burned by light. Unfortunately, the planet's twenty year three-sun eclipse cycle is due in a few hours and will plunge the planet into darkness for weeks.
The plot is staple SF fiction stuff and has several 'convenient' coincidences. First, that they arrive when they do, that one of them has the ability to see in the dark, that the person who can see in the dark is the bad guy so they have to rely upon him etc. etc. If you accept these as par for the course, then the screenplay that is built upon these dodgy and cliched foundations and the director's approach to the material are both remarkably fresh, imaginative, and most of all extremely entertaining. Typical of how Pitch Black overcomes and exceeds its b-movie trappings is its thoughtful portrayal of the survivors. We have the regular assortment of characters, but thanks to the writing they largely avoid the standard set of cliches one expects from such a grouping. Even the young kid who is impressed by and emulates the criminal is never annoying - a remarkable achievement in itself as anyone who has watched enough 'bunch of different characters thrown into peril by extreme circumstances' films can testify.
What the rudimentary plot might lack in originality is more than made up for in great character writing. Most, if not all, are developed far more than one would expect and emerge as not only three-dimensional but as believable people with their own, realistic nuances both good and bad. This provides the film with an uncommon sense of human interest, it is this that drives the plot rather that the (excellent) special effects, their interaction delivering some great character dynamics. Whilst the film's basic structure inevitably means we are in familiar Agatha Christie territory - guessing who will be the next victim of the planet's nasty inhabitants - the character development not only introduces more than a few unexpected turns but delivers some genuine shocks - one in particular that packs an all-too-rare emotional punch.
David Twohy's directing builds upon the better than average script and his memorable visual style adds a great deal without ever falling into the TV commercial gloss that hampers too many mainstream SF films. Kinetic editing, striking use of colour, some truly brilliant imagery and the ever apparent focus on the characters for a change all help deliver on of the best films of the year. Graeme Revell's industrial-tinged score adds another distinctive edge to the proceedings. The performances are uniformly strong form the largely unknown or supporting level cast. Vin Deisel (who provided the voice for The Iron Giant) is one of the best (and coolest) big screen villains for years. Radha Mitchell as the far from perfect Fry does a first-rate job of portraying someone who straddles the extremes of Sigourney Weaver's kick-ass Ripley in the Alien movies and the countless others that have to reply upon the macho men in their midst for salvation. Yet again we have the top-notch writing of Jim and Ken Wheat to thank for Riddick's serpentine twists of character and unlike most genre entries, you're never really sure where he stands and whether or not you would trust the guy if you were in their shoes. Ultimately limited by its familiar plot structure, nevertheless, what Pitch Black does within the boundaries it has chosen to operate is great. An unexpected delight from start to finish.
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