Pitch Black

Alien, the now-classic 1979 Ridley Scott sci-fi epic, is possibly cinema’s most cloned movie. Almost every 90’s monster flick can be traced to the archetype, from Mimic to Deep Rising and even to the 1998 remake of Godzilla. But as Alien clones go, I’ve seen far worse than the newest one, entitled Pitch Black, an exciting, reasonably intelligent outer space/monster movie that, like its title implies, takes place mostly in the dark of night. At least as much as The Blair Witch Project before it, Pitch Black shows us how disconcerting total darkness can be.

Without the benefit of a single big star to carry it, the movie strides confidently into a bizarre plot without giving even so much as an opportunity for us to get acquainted with our new vicarious surroundings. A disasterous crash landing sets the plot in motion. Carolyn (Radha Mitchell) and Johns (Cole Hauser) are in charge of an interstellar transport ship carrying a relatively small group of civilians and one convicted murderer (Vin Diesel, seen also in Boiler Room)when something goes terribly wrong. They are forced to make a makeshift touchdown on an apparently deserted planet.

They find an abandoned colony, previously inhabited by scientists, but it is of little help since their vessel was rendered unusable by the crash, the planet has three scorching suns and they have no food or water. To make things even worse, there are strange creatures lurking in the caves below the planet’s surface and they immediately kill one of the ship’s passengers. The humans quickly deduce that the aliens are restricted to darkness, so as long as they stay in the light, they should be okay. But by making use of some equipment in the scientists’ laboratories, Carolyn discovers that they’ve landed just in time for a once-in-every-22-years phenomenon — a complete trisolar eclipse. Oops.

Now, the group must trust the criminal, conveniently equipped with astute night vision to lead them to safety with only fragile candles and gas jets to protect themselves against the aliens who really are, it turns out, deathly afraid of light. They must also keep their own personal grudges and hostilities at bay if they are to have any hope of getting out alive.

Yes, granted, this is not the most original of plots. But director David Twohy, who directed the decent genre film The Arrival with Charlie Sheen a few years back, knows what he is doing. The aliens are your garden-variety shrieking slimy creatures with big, scary teeth but Twohy keeps the scares coming. He doesn’t rely on “Boo” moments as much as on the idea of darkness itself. The aliens are shown in a bunch of different ways — close-ups, fleeting shots, even what looks like infrared vision, but never clearly. The characters can’t see them so why should we? Twohy toys with us, cleverly avoids the obvious and before we know it, we’re completely wrapped up in the movie’s traditional but riveting adventures.

Without pretending to be Shakespeare, the script, by Twohy, Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat gives us characters we can sorta kinda care about instead of just stick figures and meaningless plot devices. While a few of the supporting members never evolve beyond simple caricatures, the main players, while not the stuff of complex drama, resemble real people. Their terror is palpable — we care about what happens to (some of) them. And the criminal character, played by an imposing and extremely effective Vin Diesel, is not as predictable as you might think.

Some people have praised this movie for being enjoyably cheesy, in a B-movie sort of way. I think it deserves more credit than that. It’s derivative as hell, yes, and it could have used a more distinctive villain, but viscerally, it is a gem. David Twohy took a promising plot and made the most of it with his visual style. I can’t wait for his next movie.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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