A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 537 – Pitch Black

Pitch Black – August 19th, 2011

Would you believe I hadn’t seen this movie before tonight? Wild, right? Because I’ve seen the sequel about eighty million times and I’ve got a family connection to it. How could I not have seen it? I have no idea. There is no reason, logical or illogical, for me not to have seen it. I just didn’t. I knew of it, of course. I knew the basic plot, I knew a couple of twists, I knew that the writers who came up with the story are Andy’s uncles. Yeah. I knew all of that. And yet this somehow never made it onto the television while I was in the room. I never flipped past it while exercising. I had never seen it. A truly bizarre situation, if you ask me. But I suppose I have only my own laziness to blame for never putting it in when I had the time. Except in the past year and a half, because we’ve been saving this.

Going into this I already knew I liked the main character. Riddick is one of the baddest of bad-asses and he’s snarky too. I do love a snarky bad-ass and I hope you do too. So I was excited to see the movie where he was introduced. Sure enough, he’s a bad-ass here too. Which is to be expected, but I was definitely not disappointed in him here. He’s a good solid character and Vin Diesel does a great job with him, so I think he works as a center to the movie, which he has to be, because the rest of the cast might as well be named Prey.

We start out with a ship full of passengers getting ripped a few new holes thanks to some space debris pinging through the hull and acting like a bullet in a torso. I’m not going to quibble with physics here, so let’s just run with the fact that while there is a lot of damage and there are a few casualties, the ship is largely intact and can be landed. The ship’s pilot wants to jettison the passengers to save herself and the other surviving crewmember, but he stops her and then dies when the ship lands so she doesn’t have to tell anyone she doesn’t give two shits about them when it comes to her own survival. Anyhow, moving on! The survivors are a motley bunch whose notable members are a merc, an unattached minor, a group of religious pilgrims, a fussy rich dude and a fairly generic couple who don’t get nearly enough time on screen to give themselves distinguishing features before they die. Oh, and the pilot. And Riddick.

The ship has crash landed on a desert planet orbiting multiple suns, so when one sets another is rising, leading to a lot of blindingly bright scenes in the beginning. The survivors quickly realize they’ll need to salvage supplies from the ship and make a shelter or find one. Riddick gets loose, of course, so when one of the survivors dies while digging graves everyone assumes it was him. Which come on, that’s a logical assumption given that he’s known to have killed people before. They find an abandoned geological research station with a model of the solar system and a little emergency ship they decide to try and use. The trouble is that they’ve now realized that there’s something alive on the planet, below the surface, and when a huge planet rises to eclipse the suns, those somethings come out to play.

From there on the movie becomes a survival action movie. I mean, it was to begin with too, but the beginning of the movie is a stark contrast to the end. Where the blinding sun and white-yellow palette of the beginning combined to make the movie feel oppressively hot and tense, the darkness of the eclipse and rush of the alien creatures makes the rest of the movie cold and claustrophobic and fast-paced. Honestly, I can’t praise the visuals enough. There’s a really nice sense of environment in this movie and the contrast between the two sections is, while a little obvious, necessary to the specifics of the creatures and nicely done.

So we’ve got survival horror/action/sci-fi going on here, but an added bonus is that the hero of the movie is a criminal. Sure, he’s a bad-ass who actually faces down one of the creatures near the end, but he’s also a killer. And there’s some question as to whether he’s actually going to help save the people with him or leave them to their deaths. And I like that extra tension. The aliens on their own are pretty good monsters but with an additional human monster? And one we’ve been guided to like with the help of snappy dialogue and snarky attitude? That’s well done. My only real complaint there is that the pilot, Caroline Fry, is also set up to be someone who’s been willing to sacrifice others for her own survival. And there seems to be something there. An attempt to set the two, Fry and Riddick, against each other. Two rogues who care mostly about their own survival, one a criminal no one expects to care and one a pilot who was supposed to. But it never quite works. The material is there but the plot never makes enough use of it to really impact the movie in a meaningful way.

There’s a heck of a lot this movie does right, so I don’t really want to bog down my review by nitpicking things that don’t work quite so well but here are a few issues: Some of the characters are pretty shallow. I wanted a little more time spent on the “It’s been 22 years since that geology station was abandoned – maybe that means something!” deal, because I assume that was a reference to the eclipse, but it’s never really explained. Where did the rain come from? Given the notes I’ve read from Ken and Jim Wheat, they had a whole ecosystem in mind for the planet but it didn’t make it into the final product. Which is understandable, given that the movie as is exists mostly on the surface, so explaining the underground ecosystem would have been hard to work in. The tricky thing is that when things like that are stripped out, a concept like this planet with its dark-dwelling denizens ends up without as much depth to explain things left in because they’re necessary. The rain provides a good additional mood to the darkness and a contrast to the stifling dry heat of the light, but without the ecosystem, it doesn’t make as much sense.

The one other issue I have with the movie is the character of Riddick himself. Now, I’ve already made it clear that I love him. I think he’s a fantastic character and Vin Diesel inhabits him very well. The shiny eyes that see in the dark are only a bonus, really. They give the character something distinguishing that sets him apart from the norm, and they make him essential later on (and I do love his night vision – the visual effects of his vision and the creatures’ vision are nicely done). But were you aware that the main character wasn’t going to be a man named Riddick? As written, the original main character was a woman named Taras Krieg who was supposed to be more of an outlaw than a murderer, but still. Much as I enjoy watching Vin Diesel be awesome, I would have loved to see a bad-ass woman being all awesome and cocky and morally grey just as much if not more. And I find it frustrating that the movie didn’t get made with her. There are all sorts of reasons why it didn’t happen. Why it got changed. Reasons I don’t have the energy to delve into. But I can’t help but sigh wistfully at what might have been.


August 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitch Black

August 19, 2011

Pitch Black

I get a special thrill watching this movie. Not because of the movie itself, but because this, with the second Ewok movie, is one of the most famous projects that my uncles have been involved in. Of course this is not completely their film. Indeed if David Twohy had his way they’d have only been given story credit for it. After a bitter battle, and arbitration from the screen writer’s guild, it was determined that they had written enough of the screenplay and had created enough of the story that they get a credit right at the start of the movie. “Written by Ken and Jim Wheat.”

I never read their original script but I do understand that this movie isn’t exactly what they had envisioned. It’s mostly there. They wrote a cool sci-fi horror movie about a stranded group of people on a planet about to descend into a lengthy night haunted by vicious monsters. Most of the cast of characters is, from what I understand, directly from them. There’s one notable character death near the end of the movie that they didn’t write. And the biggest change is that the villain at the heart of the movie who turns out to be the hero – the wanted unstoppable serial killer – was not written to be played by Vin Diesel. Riddick was originally written to be a woman. What a cool idea that was.

My uncles have stressed to me however that for most people in Hollywood it doesn’t pay to get too attached to your particular vision of a project. Pitch Black was a big time hit for them, and getting that recognition (and that paycheck) sometimes comes at the price of losing creative control. (They also often bemoaned the fact that they chose to use the pseudonym Scott Pierce for the re-writes they did for Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – which until this movie came out was one of the biggest commercial successes they had anything to do with.)

I’m glad I can claim some familial connection to this movie because it is steeped in cool. What we have here is a somewhat familiar horror movie story with several cool twists. The first twist is the setting. This movie is a futuristic sci-fi film about passengers on a space freighter that crashes on a distant planet after being riddled with holes by a meteor shower – or something. The ship is struck while the crew and passengers are in suspended animation and right at the start the captain is killed, leaving his second in command and a brash but not used to command pilot in charge. The pilot, Fry, (whose name made me expect Philip from Futurama even though she’s a woman named Carolyn) manages to bring part of the ship down for a landing after jettisoning much of the cargo and threatening to jettison the remaining survivors to save her own hide. There aren’t many people left here – and that’s just the very beginning.

So now we’ve got our collection of misfits on a deserted desert planet. There’s the pilot (her co-pilot associate is killed in the crash) and an Imam making a pilgrimage to New Mecca with a small group of followers and a wealthy dealer in antiquities and a young child who seems to have run away from home and a bounty hunter and Morrigan from Dragon Age. There are also a few red shirts just along to be chomped. Then there’s the anti-hero of the movie: Riddick. He’s a wanted killer with a price on his head who was being brought in on the freighter, and now he’s loose.

At first it appears that the biggest problem the survivors have to contend with is the escaped killer somewhere out on the planet’s surface. Well, that and finding a way off world. They do find an abandoned research station, but there’s something else going on. The planet has more than one sun and never experiences night, until there’s a massive eclipse that throws the entire night side of the planet into darkness. Then it becomes apparent that there are subterranean monsters that mostly come out at night (mostly) and these people need to find a way out. They only have one hope – to get some power cells from their crashed ship to the little skiff at the abandoned camp before they’re all eaten. Luckily (for some of them) the meanest monster on the planet is not one of the nocturnal flying hammerhead sharks – it’s Riddick himself.

So much of what is fabulous about this movie is in the cinematography and the extensive special effects work. The monsters are awesome. The look of the planet with its constant heavily hued color correction. Riddick’s night vision and his shiny eyes. It’s all slick visuals, awesome badassery, and deadly digital monsters. I can’t help loving this sci-fi horror mashup. I just wish I knew how much can be attributed to Ken and Jim Wheat and how much to David Twohy.

August 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment