To be sure, the 2000 genre film Pitch Black is a rattletrap old spook show, with a debt to Alien that's extreme even by the standards of the "extraterrestrial monster devouring people bloodily" genre. It boasts a mixture of stock characters and regrettably "clever" characters that, all things considered, would have been better off with a few more clichés wrapped around them, with performance ranging from the perfectly adequate to the largely unfortunate. It is plagued by dialogue that fails to give any character a differentiated style of speaking, nor anything to say that resembles human speech rather than screenwriting exposition. And yet it's a pretty terrific film all around, regardless. One could dance around, trying to come up with many different reasons why this is the case, but it's actually pretty simple, at the broadest possible level: Pitch Black was made by a director, David Twohy, who plainly likes the kind of generic hybrid (sci-fi, action, horror, creature feature) that he put together here, and was very concerned to make this one as effective as he possibly could. It's junk - sheer, unmitigated junk - but it was made with absolute respect for the junk that it was; that cannot be faked or replicated in any other way, and Pitch Black is so committed to the story it's telling and how it's telling it, that it simply works. It's a crisp, well-oiled machine, and I honestly can't think of any way to improve it without requiring that it be something totally different than itself.

It helps a lot that the film, at heart, has the kind of pared-down high concept that rings out like a heavenly symphony: a spaceship crashes on a planet with three suns that has a certain species of predator that only comes out in absolute darkness. The crash happens to coincide with an eclipse that only occurs once every 22 years, and is the only time that the planet surface is ever actually dark. Moreover, one survivor of the crash is a brutal murderer with surgically altered eyes that permit him to see in total darkness. Shake well, pour over ice.

Yeah, it makes some dubious leaps: they crash right before the once-a-generation eclipse? - but this is the kind of movie where a faintly ludicrous scenario is secretly part of the fun; if contrivance is what it takes to pit an army of murderbeasts against a musclebound action antihero with glow-in-the-dark eyes, then contrivance it is to be. For that is, at any rate, a scenario worth getting to: in Twohy's hands, this high-concept nonsense is fun and thrilling, wildly propulsive (the 112-minute director's cut - I have not seen the shorter theatrical cut - blasts by with the crammed urgency of a far shorter, more efficient picture), and full of just enough creativity in the setting and production design, headed up by Grace Walker, that you don't have to feel guilty about liking it; if I call it one of the more fleshed-out science fiction movies of the 2000s, that's absolutely an indictment of that genre in that decade more than it's praise for Pitch Black, but the fact remains that it exists in what is obviously a deeper and more complex universe than what the circumscribed scenario of this one film has room to explore. Of course, there's more to sci-fi than just world-building; but I happen to really quite like world-building, and the way it's smuggled into this film is particularly gratifying.

The film has something of a four-act structure, divided into two halves, and these halves are distinguished by the identity of the main threat. To begin with, a freak meteor storm puts some holes through a space freighter, killing the captain, and sending the vessel plummeting towards a desert planet. It's only due to the considerable skills of the new acting captain Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) that it lands in enough shape that any of the 40 cryogenically-frozen passengers survive, and even then, she would have jettisoned every one of them, over the objections of co-pilot Greg Owens (Simon Burke), if the release lever hadn't jammed. By the time everybody still living has pulled themselves together, Fry has been stuck with a big case of guilt over this, which partially explains the zeal with which she acts as leader, making it her business to make sure that everyone gets off the rock in one piece. First, though, they have to attend to the problem of escaped convict Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), who was being transported by bounty hunter William Johns (Cole Hauser), but was able to sneak off God knows where during the crash.

The "hunting Riddick" half of Pitch Black is surely the weaker one, if only because it feels considerably plainer: I admire the elegantly simple way that cinematographer David Eggby creates two entirely different personae for the planet based on which sun is shining on it, pushing the color balance way into yellow or way into blue as is necessary, and that's the exact kind of simple but smart filmmaking technique that more low-budget films ought to employ. The old geological survey site that serves as the survivors' base of operations is a pretty neat location, too, with fun future-low-tech touches that are woven into the film rather than pointed out be loud dialogue (like the way that we intuit how the solar energy collectors work). The problem, basically, is that Riddick is far and away the most interesting character in the movie, with Diesel, perhaps surprisingly, giving the best performance (only narrowly passing by Radha Mitchell, who, bless her, never seemed to figure out how to emote and cover up her Australian accent at the same time; given that Claudia Black is right there in the cast, Aussieing up a storm, I don't even understand why Twohy required her to try). And for a long stretch, he's only a shadowy background figure, flickering around as attention is divided by far too many dull, tedious placeholders, or Keith David being far too dignified for the movie's good as a wisely religious space Muslim.

When Riddick becomes a prominent character, it's at the same time that three other important events occur: the "stylishly" ragged editing starts to fall into something a bit more streamlined, the film's monsters make their first kill, and the discovery is made that darkness is very bad news. And just like that, a somewhat typical, though nicely-appointed sci-fi thriller shifts, piece by piece, into a survival-horror creature feature, and this new movie is simply better: Diesel's glacially-delivered sarcasm makes him far and away the most fun character, the encroaching night is achieved through truly astounding visual effects (I daresay the effects in Pitch Black hold up as well or better than any other movie from 2000), and the monsters are presented perfectly: flashes of movement, then full body shots, then long enough full body shots that we can see their design, something like a cross between a hammerhead shark, a bat, and the xenomorph from Alien, and derivative as they are, they're still among the best sci-fi monsters of the decade.

Twohy is certainly not trying to be massively creative and challenging - it's a solid creature feature, but not at all a revelatory one, this isn't The Descent. Even so, just being solid genre fare is achievement enough, and the wonderful thing about Pitch Black is how well it moves through all the usual stops, whether they are narrative (the snobby Brit who dies because of his snobbery; the fake-out where the anti-hero looks like he's going to abandon everybody) or technical (the atmospheric gloom that is, maybe, a bit brighter than script would seem to indicate, but somehow manages to be gloomier as a result). The movie only really wants to do a small number of things, but it's very hard to imagine them being done with more skill, especially if you think about all the many films on basically the same model that were a fixture of Saturdays on the Sci-Fi Channel around that time (unlike now, when they're all set in Florida and have titles combining waterborne predators like German chemical names), which were not too much cheaper than this but far more lazy about their story. Pitch Black, undeniably, cars about keeping its story upbeat and moving, and populated by active people.

The monsters are fun to look at, the darkness in which they are shot is appropriately moody, and Vin Diesel's nastiness in taking them down, and baiting the people around him as he does it, is just about the best example of his particular breed of action acting that I have seen. It's not the most inspired monster movie you will ever come across, but once Pitch Black gets going, it really doesn't commit a single error worth mentioning, and as superficial as it all might be, it's exciting and handsome, and as utterly satisfying as contemporary B-movies come.

Reviews in this series
Pitch Black (Twohy, 2000)
The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy, 2004)
Riddick (Twohy, 2013)