Pitch Black is one of those films that becomes a distant memory while you watch it. Not only does it barely register as you sit through it -- the film feels so distant, it occasionally seems as though it's being shown in a neighboring theater -- but it recalls a dozen other better (and worse) films you've long since filed away. No, recalls is too feeble a word; Pitch Black borrows from other movies the way a burglar borrows your jewelry. It's a film built upon a fragile foundation of rented videotapes and rewound recollections, owing its entire essence -- its look, its feel, its action, its half-witted dialogue -- to a corner Blockbuster. And that is where it belongs. Were it not for the slightly rising stock of its star, Vin Diesel, that's no doubt where this film might have ended up, direct to video. Right next to Predator, Anaconda, Deep Rising, Virus, Species, Event Horizon, and a dozen other films assembled from the ashes of Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien.
From its opening scene (the phallic sleeping spaceship cruising through silent space) to its up-up-and-away finale, Pitch Black is nothing so much as Alien and its 1986 sequel Aliens filtered through a handful of Macs. Not since last year's The Haunting have so many actors played second fiddle to second-rate computer-generated effects. And what were Alien and its offspring if not variations on And Then There Were None? But perhaps most significantly, Pitch Black is an entire film constructed from six minutes' worth of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the scene in which Indy and Marion fend off a crypt full of snakes with a handful of dying torches. Imagine that drawn out for nearly an hour -- with the phlegmatic Diesel (who indeed speaks like a man full of gas) in place of the charismatic Harrison Ford.
Give them this much credit: Writer-director David Twohy (who directed The Arrival and co-wrote Waterworld) and co-writers Jim and Ken Wheat (whose résumé, including The Fly II and The Stepford Husbands, reads like a Saturday-night Cinemax listing) do not waste time. An earthbound ship full of tourists -- and one convicted murder, Diesel's Riddick -- in cryosleep falls prey to a meteor shower and is forced to crash-land on a planet with three suns, rendering the landscape in washed-out tones. (The whole thing feels like the first third of David O. Russell's Three Kings.) But the never-ending daylight soon fades as the planet falls into the shadow of a once-every-22-years eclipse, and the planet's native inhabitants -- a cross between H.R. Giger's aliens and the insects from Starship Troopers -- come out for a nosh. One by one, the survivors of the crash get plucked from the buffet table; to even name them would be pointless.
Twohy and the Wheats are perhaps so aware of how much they've stolen, they do away with such trivial things as exposition and character development. They give us credit enough to acknowledge we know this crap by heart. So the filmmakers give us a horrific execution early on (actually, they kill about 30 unseen passengers on the doomed spaceship five minutes into the movie) and, quite randomly, kill off stock characters one after the other. (Oddly, the children among the survivors are some of the first to go.) But these aren't inhabitants in a film -- they're cannon fodder, lambs for the inevitable slaughter. It's not about who dies or how, only when.
Playing anything-for-a-buck producer Jonathan Shields in Vincente Minnelli's 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas insisted it was better to hint than to show; rather than reveal five guys in cheap horror-movie costumes, Shields preferred instead to utilize the thing that scares people most -- the dark. "The dark," he said, moving his hands like a puppetmaster, "has a life of its own." Alfred Hitchcock built a career on obscuring the horrific in order to make it even more terrifying. Ridley Scott deleted some of the more explicit scenes from Alien to intensify the disquiet.
But Twohy and his co-conspirators want it both ways: to conceal and reveal at the same time, leaving nothing to the imagination. That's why they give Riddick the ability literally to see in the dark: so the audience can view through his reflecting eyes each grizzly dismemberment, rendered in psychedelic pinks and purples. It may be dark out, but never so shadowy as to veil the carnage. Were Pitch Black more fun, more honest about its larceny, perhaps it might have been a better breed of trash -- pulp nonsense, a bloody good time. But it's just a familiar bore, offering chills and thrills only to those who have never seen a movie before.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.