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.