The Test of Time: Pitch Black (2000)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: David Twohy

Starring: Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, and Radha Mitchell

Vin Diesel is a hard guy to hate. Each time I get annoyed with the endless Fast and Furious releases, he does something surprising. He doesn’t always chase the easy film or easy paycheck, but he’s one of the few guys that has “passion projects,” which few action stars have. He seems like a decent dude, and always connects with his fans, often giving first glimpses of stuff wayyyy before anything actually gets filmed. I remember all his talk about another Riddick feature someday…despite the last one bombing big time. I (like probably everyone else) thought…fat chance.

But then he and director David Twohy did at least two things that few franchises ever get to do. 1) Get a third chance (without going to straight to DVD). 2) Trimming a budget by nearly $100 million. Talk about shedding ego. Their latest adventure, Riddick, opens September 6th, and while folks might not care, I think it’s interesting to look back at the first Riddick flick (a modern horror/sci-fi classic) to see whether it can still avoid being ghosted by the Test of Time.

Under the examination: Pitch Black.

(And by the way. I realize Pitch Black isn’t sci-fi classic like 2001 or Blade Runner, but it’s a film that will continue to find fans, followings, and new stories. That makes it classic. Besides, how many new sci-fi classics do we get anymore?)

Group work builds character. Unless the group kills each other. 

THE STORY: A space transport ship crashes on a mysterious planet after a meteor storm makes the ship its bitch. Most everyone on board is killed minus a group of ragtag survivors including the female pilot (Radha Mitchell), a bounty hunter with issues (Cole Hauser), a religious guy (the great Keith David), an antique dealer (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and then some other folks. Oh, and a real bad guy with weird eyeballs named Riddick (Diesel, obviously). Lucky for them there’s another ship nearby, but unlucky for them there’s nocturnal killer creatures running loose. Oh, and an eclipse is about to happen, meaning the creatures can come out to play. Riddick and company try to make it to the other ship without killing each other before the monsters in the dark do first.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: The first time I saw Pitch Black I had just started writing reviews, and I had no idea what to expect. Now years have passed since I first saw it, and the first thing that struck me was how big they made it look on a $20-something million budget. The use of lighting is extremely effective: the glaring brightness, the whitewash colors, the contrasting darkness all make the average Australian desert (supposedly where Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome was filmed) look alien. We never see anything actually epic, but the implied vastness of the desert is enough to feel the scope.

Not the way that I shave my head, but I'm no Vin Diesel.

At the same time, the alien creatures play as original even while resembling Alien rip-offs. Just by adding that little detail of them being vampire-like (they sure don’t like the light) makes them standout. Even better, the limited budget meant we rarely see the creatures. We get glimpses. We get noises. We get to see clusters of them in the distance. Twohy smartly left them mostly to our imagination. Even when we get the big reveal, everything remains so dark that it doesn’t reveal too much (though I’ll complain about showing too much below).

More than anything, what really still holds up 12 years later is that this was Diesel’s coming out party. Dude hasn’t changed much in a decade plus, but here he showed he could own a movie. If he had been around a decade or so earlier, he would have been up there with Stallone and company. He’s got his own persona, and it shows here as Riddick. I can understand why he’s fought to get the character back on screen. It’s clear he digs playing him.

The most epic staring competition ever!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Well, with this being a 12-year-old modestly low-budget sci-fi film, a few things blow. Now the space sequences that start the movie off stand up quite well, and why shouldn’t they? Old school 1966 Star Trek still looks decent, so there’s no excuse for not pulling off memorable space scenes. What I wished Twohy would have done would have been to ease off the CGI. While I praised the alien effects above when kept to a minimum, it’s when too much is shown that the CGI immediately looks dated and cheap. The puppets and men-in-costumes from Alien still look fantastic because they are practical effects. I know money probably ends up the issue, but it seems they could have effectively blended the two because the moment the monsters get all up in our faces…damn. It just waves and says, “Hello, we’re CGI creatures and we’re here to scare you.” It pulls me from the moment, reminding that nothing seen is real. Which kinda sucks, right? (I know it’s not real, but still…)

Early training for all those Fast films.

Then there’s the dialogue, which remains all pretty bad. At times, it forces anyone watching to perform sequenced eye rolls. The worst moment comes from the man-to-man conversation when the bounty hunter releases Riddick despite constant death threats. Its kinda painful, especially when Riddick suggests to the bounty hunter, “Ghost me, mother f*cker. I’d do it to you.” I think we’re all used to Diesel deadpan delivery now, but still too much of the traditional tough guy routine. Or how about: “All you people are so scared of me. Most days I’d take that as a complement. But it ain’t me you gotta worry about now.” Ugh.

THE VERDICT: Pitch Black managed to find an audience and create a franchise that no one was looking for. We look back now as Diesel and company have expanded the character beyond what’s probably possible, but this movie still holds up. It’s such an unusual sci-fi flick. It is part horror, part survival, part space adventure, part crime drama (about 25% per part?). I’m looking forward to see what they do with the latest adventure. Can they maintain the unique factor that Pitch Black had? Or attempt to be all epic like the Chronicles of Riddick? We’ll find out soon, but it doesn’t matter because Pitch Black is still a hell of a movie, one that’ll continue to please folks for years to come.





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