| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Movies began as a sideshow novelty, where a nickel
bought you the exquisite sensation of light dancing across a screen. The thrill was in
sheer kinetics, the novelty of images in motion. Storytelling was an afterthought.
As cinema begins its second century, we seem to be closing the circle.
Narrative is increasingly abandoned in favor of spectacle, and movies begin to resemble
arcade attractions again. Pitch Black takes this even further than The Matrix: the only way it could feel more like a video game
would be if you had to pay for your ticket with quarters.
Pitch Black is Alien
without the distraction of real characters. A cargo ship crash lands on a planet with
three suns and a vicious flock of carnivorous beasties who shun the light. Once every 22
years, there's a total eclipse and the creatures come out to play. Those who've survived
the crash can escape if they can survive the onslaught.
For all its disinterest in outmoded
conventions like character development, consistent tone and coherent plot, Pitch Black
is rather entertaining. Like a good video game, it's insanely energetic, bludgeoning the
audience with deafening explosions and eye-popping special effects. The plot is an excuse
for yelling "Boo!" at us for two hours, but it delivers its shocks with skill
and a playful sense of fun.
The characters have names, but
you'll remember them instead by the single attribute that defines them: there's the spunky
blond, the cop, the fop, the Muslim, the kid and the lady scientist. (The expendable
crewmen don't even get one distinguishing characteristic. You know from the second you see
them that they're nothing but creature snacks.) The only name we do recall is Riddick, a
psychotic prisoner, since the other characters talk about him whenever they're not
screaming and running from the aliens. Most of the characters get a moment of doubt or
revelation to give the illusion of depth, but it doesn't add up to much more than a second
attribute: guilty spunky blond, kid with a secret.
The actors are caught somewhere
between the gritty realism of Alien and the camp hijinks of The Matrix. Vin
Diesel has the most fun, playing Riddick as a superhero/killer so amoral that his
nastiness is funny. Cole Hauser, Keith David and Rhiana Griffith play straight men to
Lewis Fitz-gerald's comic relief. Radha Mitchell, as the spunky blond, has the unenviable
task of providing the film's emotional center. This means she grits her teeth, swears and
sweats a lot, all the while looking magnificent in her skintight pants and vinyl vest.
The opening half of Pitch Black
has a lush, distinctive look. Like the harsh desert photography of Three Kings, the exteriors are severe, with blinding white
skies and sickly yellow light. Waves of heat seem to radiate from the screen. Once the sun
goes down and the attacks begin, however, the visual style becomes so dependent upon
computer-generated imagery that the characters seem to be stranded not on an alien planet
but in a trendy graphic designer's portfolio.
Since it can't be bothered to flesh
out its characters, Pitch Black doesn't amount to very much. We're never
invested enough to care who lives or dies, so our reactions don't go beyond the purely
neural: we jump, we twitch, we turn away. But on the level it chooses to operate - pure
visceral thrill - it's a pretty exciting ride. It may not linger in the memory any longer
than your last Nintendo session, but it's an exhilarating two hours.
- Gary Mairs