Sometimes, watching a taut, modest horror or sci-fi movie provides more truly avant-garde thrills than an entire season of Eat Carpet on SBS TV. Films such as Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1994) use their extravagant plot elements as a handy excuse to merrily violate the conventional codes of Hollywood production.
Pitch Black also works this way. An American production shot in Coober Pedy, its barrage of trippy visual effects recalls such contemporaneous mind-benders as Three Kings (1999) or Fight Club (1999). But instead of making grand statements about war, society and identity, this film is content to spin a story from random elements of Alien (1979), Jurassic Park (1993), Predator (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and numerous other successes.
On one level, it is a shamelessly trashy and opportunistic patchwork, akin to the prolific Z pictures of Albert Pyun (Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, 1994). A spaceship, piloted by Fry (Radha Mitchell), crash-lands on a forbidding planet. Only human remains, a mysterious astronomical display and the menacing underground activity of a clan of bird-like predators hint at the problems facing our motley crew of survivors.
Fry finds herself uncertainly poised between two men: Johns (Cole Hauser), a laconic law enforcer, and the bad guy locked up in the spaceship's hold, Riddick (Vin Diesel). Like Hannibal the cannibal, Riddick has a gift for psychological manipulation and a relish for murderous perversity. But setting him free seems the only way to ensure group survival on this alien terrain.
The various national accents, whether real or faked, fly about in a Babel of confusion. The unevenness of the acting matches this odd, unreal texture – from Mitchell's rock-solid, tough-girl presence to Lewis Fitzgerald's irritatingly campy turn, reminiscent of Dr. Smith from Lost in Space.
But this is not a film about people, ideas or credible, imaginary worlds. It is almost purely about light and dark. On this scorched earth, the continual presence of three, burning suns keeps the winged predators underground. Unfortunately, a string of nearby planets are about to line up for an eclipse.
Directed and co-written by David Twohy (The Arrival, 1996), this is, in its proudly schlocky way, a vigorous and inventive film. The surprise factor rules, whether on the level of plot and character, or in the marvellous split-second revelations allowed by the constant play of light-flares amidst pitch blackness. Riddick's voice (a low growl) or the zany point-of-view shots (what the killer birds see in the dark) never fail to jazz up proceedings.
All the suspense and horror – and the film generates considerable amounts of both – depend on the precarious ability of the characters to strike up a light and keep it burning. Just as cinema itself (camera and projector alike) depends on the power and gift of illumination. Pitch Black is simultaneously a no-nonsense entertainment and a formalist-minimalist gem.
MORE Twohy: The Chronicles of Riddick
© Adrian Martin May 2000