A busy screenwriter in Hollywood during the ’80s and ’90s, when he churned out various horror, science fiction, and action pictures (CRITTERS 2, WARLOCK, THE FUGITIVE, TERMINAL VELOCITY, WATERWORLD), David Twohy made his directorial debut with 1992’s TIMESCAPE and followed up four years later with THE ARRIVAL, starring Charlie Sheen (during the decline in Sheen’s movie stardom that eventually led him to turn to TV sit-comedy in the form of TWO AND A HALF MEN). THE ARRIVAL was an interesting take on the old alien invasion scenario, using the structure of a paranoid conspiracy thriller instead of the global destruction sceen in INDEPENDENCE DAY the same year. However, the film lacked thrills and could not find an audience, even in an era primed for that kind of thing thanks to the popularity of THE X-FILES. After scripting G.I. JANE, Twohy returned to the directing chair with a script he rewrote from a draft by Jim & Ken Wheat. PITCH BLACK is another science fiction tale involving an alien menace, but this time the approach is of a more straightforward variety, emphasizing action and special effects; the result is a fairly efficient science fiction monster film, somewhat in the mold of an old 1950s B-movie. In fact, with its high concept premise, limited cast of characters, and isolated location, PITCH BLACK suggests an old fashioned Roger Corman production, but with improved production values, special effects and performances.
The plot follows the survivors of a transport spaceship that crash-lands on an arid, desert world surrounded by three suns. It soon becomes apparent that some ravenously efficient predators decimated the planet, but they are confined to the darkness of underground tunnels. As fate would have it, the planet falls into the shadow of a solar eclipse once every twenty-two years, and (you guessed) the eclipse is due within hours. The film becomes a race against time as the characters struggle to repair an escape craft that will take them to safety. Needless to say, they don’t make it in time, and find themselves having to outrun the voracious aliens eager to make a meal of them.
With writing credits on WATERWORLD and TERMINAL VELOCITY, Twohy has a penchant for big action set pieces, often at the expense of a strong narrative. That problem doesn’t arise here, as the simple story allows for a string of action scenes driven relentlessly forward by the characters’ need to keep moving or die. As a director, Twohy also shows a good eye for the strong visual, one that is not just flashy but which has a genuine dramatic impact. Particularly memorable is the revelation that what looked like trees from a distance are actually the rib bones of dinosaur-sized skeletons strewn like some vast elephant’s graveyard across the desert plain.
Characterization is also reasonably strong for this kind of film, thanks to the help of the cast, particularly Vin Diesel, Claudia Black, and Cole Hauser. In the film’s perverse moral scheme, we’re supposed to relate to Diesel’s homicidal convict because his survival skills are so essential under the circumstances, while many of the characters we expect to be “good guys” turn out to have moral failings of their own. In fact, the film is set up as a fairly interesting dramatic thriller even before the intrusion of the monsters, which creates a pressure cooker effect, boiling previously unseen aspects of the characters to the surface.
The special effects are strong overall, but the aliens themselves (designed by GODZILLA’s Patrick Tatapoulos) are fairly generic. (It’s hard to tell whether a flock of smaller creatures is a different species or simply younger versions of the ones already seen.) The telltale CGI look is also in evidence; a little bit more live-action work would have helped sell the danger even better.
In the end, Twohy wants to present his film as a story of redemption. In a fun, popcorn movie kind of way, he pulls it off. Grafting themes like this onto the story help raise the film from being a standard issue monster movie, but it is still a monster movie. The obligatory genre touches are all there: bloody deaths, wisecracking comic relief, and a cross-section of characters types who serve as potential victims. The one-liners aren’t always that funny, but most of the dialogue works; it’s as if the film were afraid of taking itself to seriously, and felt the need to play down to genre expectations. The result may not be a blockbuster of ALIEN proportions, but it works on its own level, generating enough screams and scares to jolt fans with a pleasant rush of fear, while those who prefer suspense and decent characterization will be pleasantly surprised as well.
PITCH BLACK (2000). Directed by David Twohy. Written by Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat and David Twohy, story by Jim & Ken Wheat. Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore, SImon Burke, Les Chantery.