Sunday, June 19, 2022

Pitch Black (2000).

For the longest time, I thought this was a Dan O'Bannon film.  I'm pretty sure of where I got the idea.  Over at the Moria Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review site, there is a neat set of retrospectives taking a look at movies such as Dark Star, Alien, Heavy Metal, and Total Recall.  The one thing each of these films have in common boils down to just a name: O'Bannon.  He's become something of a known-unknown quantity for today's filmgoers.  He's a name that sounds familiar, like a memory on the very tip of the tongue.  It's just that no one can think of a good reason why that should be the case.  These days almost everybody can recall the impact left on them by Ridely Scott's haunted house film in space.  They might have a bit of trouble recalling every last scrap of that film's opening credits, however.  

No matter how iconic the damn thing is.  If any names stick out among that film's cast and crew, then it's a pretty short list, mainly consisting of the usual suspects.  There's the First Lady of Cinema Badasses herself, of course: Sigourney Weaver.  Then there's our favorite Chest Burster victim, the legendary John Hurt.  Beyond that, the memory palace is sometimes able to reserve reservations for the rest of the film's cast who lent their talents on-screen.  Names such as Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright.  A few may even recall the name of H.R. Giger, the man responsible for bringing the Xenomorph to life.  Beyond this, the rest is a blank, including who wrote the damn thing.

Such is the ironic fate of Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the original screenplay for Alien.  The fact that he has to dredged up from the clouded swamps of the attic storage files means that not only has the man (if not his legacy) been half-forgotten, it's also sometimes easy to confuse his own work with that of others.  This is what happened to me in the case of David Twohy's Pitch Black.  What happened is Richard Schieb, the owner and operator of, posted the following question at the start of a review:

"One of the great mysteries of the 1990s and 00s was “What ever happened to Dan O’Bannon?” As scriptwriter, Dan O’Bannon made two grandslams in the 1970s with the scripts for Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). O’Bannon then went on to deliver some fine hard-edged scripts, including the likes of Dead & Buried (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), Blue Thunder (1983), Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986), before making an excellent directorial debut with Return of the Living Dead (1985), which inverted George Romero’s Dead trilogy with a cheerful punk cynicism. However, in the 1990s, Dan O’Bannon almost entirely dropped from the cinematic radar. There were a number of scripts with his name attached – Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995) and Hemoglobin/Bleeders (1997) – but all of these were old scripts that had been reworked by other writers (web)".

In just a single paragraph, Schieb has given the reader what has to be one of the most succinct summaries of the ups and down's of one of the most distinguished, yet unjustly neglected careers in the history of movies.  For the purposes of this review, however, what it did was get cross-wired somewhere in the old memory banks.  The result is that I labored until just recently under the assumption that O'Bannon was the one responsible for helping to bringing Vin Diesel to a wider audience awareness after his first big break with Spielberg the year earlier.  Turns out I was dead wrong, while also being kind of right.  It's true that O'Bannon never had a thing to do with Pitch Black, however, I'm not the first one to see a link between him and the Diesel film.  Perhaps I'd better explain.

The Story.

Memorandum File: From the Offices of Hunter Gratzner Industries Inc.

Mission Statement: This missive is to serve as a briefing and update on recent events re: Company Property, and affiliated Clientele.

Item 1: Commercial Towing/Passenger Vessel, USS HG 7.  

Vessel services the Company and general public as an all-purpose transport freighter, capable of housing both human passengers, along with conventional material cargo (i.e. food, water, gas, building materials, weapons, etc.).  In addition to cargo transport, each Company ship is capable of ferrying passengers to all the requested destinations in the known Solar System.  The HG 7 was no different.  Travel across long distances has been facilitated through the perfecting of cryogenic sleep technology.  Therefore each Vessel comes equipped with its own cryo-sleep unit. These units are authorized to waken crew and passengers in the event of an emergency, or when the destination has been reached.

For the longest time, the HG 7 has performed its duties in a manner which is fitting to the mantra, policy, and pride of the Company, along with its shareholders.  This is why the sudden loss of the freighter is viewed as a glaring financial and commercial setback.  This report is hereby compiled in the hopes of helping to stave off potential commercial and public relations fallout.  What follows is a rundown of the HG 7, her crew, passengers, and all available information regarding its current status.

Crew Manifest: Captain Tom Mitchell (Vic Wilson), Pilot (2nd Class) Carolyn Fry (Rhada Mitchell), Ship's Navigator Greg Owens (Simon Burke).

Passenger Manifest: The HG 7 is known to have carried up to 11 passengers.  They are listed in the proceeding order: William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), Abu al-Walid (Keith David), Kyra "Jack" B. Badd (Rhiana Griffith), Paris P. Ogilvie (Lewis Fits-Gerald), Sharon "Shazza" Montgomery (Claudia Black), John "Zeke" Ezekiel (John Moore), Suleiman (Les Chantery), Hassan (Sam Sari), Ali (Firass Dirani), Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel).  No other known crew or personnel information is available.

Status report: Last known contact with the HG 7 reports the Company ship as operating on auto-pilot in the M-344/G Star System.  It's course vector was set for the New Mecca home world, in the Tangiers System.  The route of the HG 7 is worthy of comment, if only in regards to what happened next.  The M-344 System is a sector of the galaxy that is seldom traveled through, whether by personal, commercial, or government shipping, leaving the area as something of a relative, celestial backwater.

The repeated reason given for the neglect of this sector continues to revolve around the system's"strange" and "complex celestial dynamics".  The M-344 is seen as risky, and uncertain.  As a result, it remains well outside the normal shipping lanes.  This makes the crew's choice to charter the HG 7 through that particular quadrant all the more notable.  It is surmised that Captain Mitchell was of the opinion that the route offered the quickest shortcut to their destination, although all information on this point is sketchy and speculative.  What is beyond reasonable doubt is that at an approximate time (precise flight log data must be considered lost and irretrievable), the HG 7 encountered what appears to have been a disruptive meteor shower, an example of M-344's "difficult astronomical terrain".

It is one of the most common, and feared hazards in the field of space travel, something that each pilot dreads, and must maintain a constant vigilance against.  This time it happened.  Passing meteors were able to punch holes in the HG 7's hull, disabling its engines, and endangering its life support systems.  In accordance with its emergency protocol, the ship awoke its crew, however what data was recoverable suggests that Captain Mitchell fell victim to the damage suffered by the ship's systems.  Pilot Fry and Navigator Owens were alerted, however, and the last usable bits of ship's data suggest they were locked in a struggle to keep the HG 7 from crashing.  Their efforts proved both successful, and in vain.

While the HG 7 was able to survive the meteors, in a manner of speaking.  It was not able to stay afloat, or space worthy.  The damage from meteor impacts sent the ship off course, careening into the atmosphere of the nearest planet, M6-117.  While the accident, and following crash, seems to have resulted in the death of Captain Mitchell, and Navigator Owens, Fry herself seems to have found a way "land" in such a manner that while the ship itself must now considered a write-off, the one upshot is that she appears to have ensured the survival of the HG 7's passengers, with their lives and health seemingly intact.   That brings us to the mixed news of the remaining crew and passenger's current location.

Planet M6-117: Risk Assessments.

Orbital M-344/G System Body, official classification No. M6-117 is an orbiting satellite located in the middle of the astronomical vector 344.  Nascent explorations of the planet's surface have clarified that it is a mineral ore giant, with rich deposits of Cinder, Evaporite, and Gypsum.  Scattered data surveys reveal there are also traces of lead, iron, and silicon to be had here and there within the satellite's rocky, and mountainous terrain.  It has therefore been ear-marked for further exploration, pending possible future commercial enterprise.  It is for this reason that the geological survey team, Outpost T2, was dispatched to M6, in the hopes of mapping out the planet's surface for potential mining operations.

Furthermore, the final remaining data readouts from the HG 7's flight recorder indicate that the ship, her crew, and passengers made a "rough landing" less than ten clicks from the survey team's headquarters.  So far, all available information has yielded the potential for a general, positive outcome.  If this is the case, then all the landing party need do is make their way to Outpost T2, and radio for help and all the necessary assistance.  There is one troubling detail to contend with, however.  The last known radio contact established with the geological survey team was made exactly 22 years before the current Flight 7 incident.  The final communications with Survey Team 1 indicated that the planet was heading into a solar eclipse.  What makes this otherwise routine astronomical occurrence unique lies in the relation of M6 to the rest of its entire layout. "The planet is located between three suns in the system, and is in constant sunlight except during a lengthy total eclipse (some sources say the eclipse lasts a month; others say decades), when larger planets in the system block the three suns from the planet. During the eclipse, nearly all life on the planet is massacred (web)".  The information is disconcerting from here.

While radio communications and signals with Survey Team 1 end near the start of the satellite's eclipse, radar and sonar data equipment remained operational just long enough to gather data which tells the story of the geologists fate.  The final results do not paint a flattering picture.  It indicates that M6-117 is home to an almost singular predatorial species.  This life form is primitive in nature, a basic instance of an inter-planetary animal, such as those found in certain regions beyond the Milky Way.  The data on this creature itself puts one in mind of the extinct dinosaurs that used to inhabit the Earth.  With bodies like pterodactyls, and heads shaped near to those of a hammer-head shark.  This species, officially classified as "Bio-raptors", is believed to be the explanation for Survey Team 1's disappearance.

This places the predicament of the HG 7 survivors in a different, more dire light.  If they should reach Outpost T2, though they may find enough leftover provisions, it is doubtful that they will find any living member of the geological exploration group.  Furthermore, the lack of response from the equipment itself suggests they will be unable to establish contact with any neighboring or available planets, and radio for help. The closest star system with resources for a rescue operation is over a hundred, thousand miles a way, and would take more than that to reach the team with the technology available.  The schematics that Team 1 sent out previously indicates the possibility that the group's original space shuttle may still be intact, and in full working order.  If nothing has happened to the vehicle after all these years, it could be enough to provide the survivors with a functional exit

If Captain Fry is resourceful enough, she could be able to help the others rescue themselves.  There is one major hitch in all of these calculations.  The HG 7 couldn't have chosen a worst time or place in which to make an emergency landing.  Astronomical data suggests that M6-117's orbit has taken it dangerously close to the time of the planet's expected eclipse.  Once that happens, it's feeding time, and the local inhabitants will come out to play.  In addition, there is also the potential for one internal threat.  This hazard comes in the form of the passenger Richard B. Riddick.  According to a bounty report sent in by officer William Johns, he was originally traveling to his intended destination with Riddick as his prisoner.  The man has a textbook criminal record.  It is one that contains an alarmingly high number of offenses, with violent assault with intent to kill being the most predominant.  Riddick appears to have made a veritable career out of the combination of assault, battery, and murder.  Even when unarmed, the man should be considered violent, and highly dangerous and capable.

Some have even likened his general behavior and demeanor to that of a wild animal.  Prognostications are that it would have been safer, or better for the crew and survivors, if Riddick was not an issue to contend with.  Nevertheless, he is now listed as among their number.  This leaves the survivors of the HG 7 with a number of goals to accomplish, with few to little prospects in their favor.  They must make their way to the nearest port of rescue.  The team must try and outrace the setting suns of a hostile planet.  And finally, they must be on the lookout for killers both within and without their group.  In addition, each of these goals must be accomplished in the pitch black of an unforgiving solar night.

Conclusion: A Familiar Story, with Nothing to Distinguish It.

When I made the mistake of thinking that Dan O'Bannon had written this story, I made two claims.  The first was that it was a clear mistake on my part.  The second was that there might still be a reason for why I thought he could have had something to do with it.  While it's true that O'Bannon was never involved in the making of Pitch Black, there is a sense in which the movie could be said to be set in the same tradition as the kind of scripts he used to write.  What I mean by that is David Twohy, the film's director, has crafted the kind of stark and basic type of survivalist story that manages to straddle the fence between Horror and Science Fiction.  This in itself is nothing new.  The woods are full of other narratives of a similar type. To give an idea of just how old this story idea is, it can trace its lineage as far back as Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1967).  John Ford, meanwhile, filmed this very same idea in a Western setting, with 1939's Stagecoach.  It featured some young kid named John Wayne.

It is also possible to point towards the actual literary pedigree of Twohy's concept by citing A.E. Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950).  Philip K. Dick, also made good use of this narrative device at least three times in his career.  Once with Eye in the Sky, again in Ubik, and the final time with A Maze of Death.  What unites each of these examples together is they all depend upon the same basic setup, that of a group of characters caught in a setting that operates as a potential death trap, the Shakespearean stage setting equivalent of quicksand.  It remains one of the most simple, and vital ideas in the history of storytelling, and it was a literary device, or story note that guys like Dan O'Bannon was a bit more than just good at playing on.  Part of what makes O'Bannon such a notable practitioner in the field of both movies in general, as well as Sci-Fi in particular, is that he didn't have just a knack for what might be called the run-through-the-gauntlet-of-death narrative, he was also skilled at finding out or digging up all the best, or most interesting riffs available for the sub-genre.  It's a skill that very few writers are able to do well with consistency over the years.  The fact that O'Bannon kept up the same level of quality (most of the time) for all his professional years makes him stand out from the pack.

It is this same kind of story that Dave Twohy is trying his darnedest to replicate in the reels of Pitch Black.  It leads to something that has to be made clear, it's not the trope itself that is the problem.  The survival run through the death gauntlet is as old as time.  It can be dated as far back to the age of myths, when a troubled young individual named Theseus had to make his way through a dark labyrinth with probably nothing else except the feel of the walls closing in around, and just a spool of thread for company.  This is pretty much the same technique Twohy relies on as Pitch Black winds its way toward the final reel, and there is nothing wrong with that.  If there was no inherent value in a trope being used again for dramatic purposes, then characters like Sherlock Holmes would not be any sort of international icon.  There are a number of reasons for why writers and filmmakers keep coming back to ideas like this.  Some of them are more mercenary than others (tell the truth, and all that), and yet there is still a more legitimate, even creative reason for why we keep bumping into certain plot beats time and again.  That would be because the most obvious truth is that sometimes they just plain work.

In the hands of a skilled author, anyone (in other words) who can manage to gain the proper creative footing, it might still be possible to create an artistic masterpiece out of old materials.  It's the explanation for why a film like Alien is so well-loved, even as it follows the same basic premise as The Thing.  In each instance, what matters isn't the trope of confronting and extra-terrestrial menace, and more how well each artist can manage to bring old bones to life.  It's a tricky proposition, yet it's not an impossible challenge, by any means.  I can even point to a very recent example in a film such as Dave Made a Maze.  That whole film is just one, long, modern day riff on Theseus and the Minotaur.  It's also one of the most fun and inventive takes of the material that I've been lucky enough to stumble across for the longest time.  With these caveats in mind, the best way I can give my final thoughts on the Diesel film is to compare it with one of the examples listed above.  It seems as if Twohy is going for the same basic plot as the "Dave's Maze" film.  The major difference is that Twohy is determined to go for a more serious dramatic approach, whereas the director of Dave's movie kept things light-hearted.  The result is two films with similar sounding ideas, but with vastly different approaches, and results.

Twohy's whole approach, in fact, could best be described as a kind of cyberpunk survivalist flick.  We're never given many hints about the exact nature of the future seen in Pitch Black, except for the vaguest hints that it's trying to carry forward Ridely Scott's concept of a used and somewhat battered future of "Truckers in Space".  The space ship we see in the opening act is much cheaper looking than the Nostromo, for instance.  The irony here being that it's status as a passenger vessel means it is a higher class of transport, and yet it looks like you shouldn't mess with it too much, lest the whole thing fall apart with one kick.  This and a few bits of tech shown on the Raptor Planet all hint at a future that is somewhere between Blade Runner and Alien.  Neither the best, nor the worst.  Instead, everything is merely functional, and practical oriented.  Now granted, this setup can work in the movie's favor, provided there is some actual, decent writing on-board in order to help the cast and crew out.

It is just here, however, at the level of the script, where (no offense) everything just kind of seems to fall apart for me.  The one thing that seems to hold this film back from any real potential is this nagging sense that I'm watching less of a film, and more a series of check boxes on a quota sheet being filled in.  If I had to pinpoint the exact ways in which this movie falls short on delivery, then it comes somewhere not long after the start.  To give this film some credit, it really does have a good opening act.  The way it's main cast is set up, followed by the entire crash sequence, and its immediate fallout, are perhaps the best things Twohy has going for him.  In these opening moments he is able to craft a decent sense of this grim, cyber noir vibe that leaves the viewer wanting to know what sort of direction things might go.  I think it might be at some point immediately after this that things start to go south.  It probably happens when the film reaches that moment where it has to knuckle down, and get to know our cast of main characters.  If anything, this is where Twohy's grasp of the material begins to falter.

If the opening promised an intriguing sense of mystery, then the character delineation that follows it serves as a near text book demonstration of how to suck the atmosphere right out of the room.  The best examples of what I'm talking about are the traveling couple of Shazza and Zeke.  Right now I'm trying to recall just who these two were supposed to be.  Going by memory alone, my initial thought was that they were like, these soldiers of fortune types.  Individualists just roaming the galaxy looking for either adventures, excitement, or just whatever kicks they might happen to find along the way.  This character note in itself is pretty flimsy to begin with.  It makes each of them sound like they are in the story less for the sake of an actual arc, and more just so we can have figures that can be put to use in any generic slam-bang action sequence that can be thrown together somewhere down the road.  I had to go back and review actual secondary material related to the movie in order to discover that one was just a mineral miner, and the other was supposed to be an heiress to some billion dollar fortune.  I have said that my initial readings of both these characters comes off as flat to begin with.  Now this further information leads me to another question.  Did the official background info just provided come off as boring to you?

If the answer to that is yes, then perhaps we begin to see were things are starting to go wrong.  Each of the main characters are set up as these series of blank canvases waiting to be filled in, and Twohy either isn't up to the task, or else he figures he just can't be bothered with such details, even if they are the telling elements that will either make or break the film.  As things stand, it looks very much as if this decision to skimp on characterization is at least one of the key components that hurts this film's chances.  The one character who almost looks like he might escape this fate is Keith David's Imam.  For a minute there, it looked as if we would have an intriguing personality who could maybe lend the film some weight and gravitas.  Now, to David's credit, he does his best to give his character some dignity, especially in light of what happens to him.  However, even here, where it should arguably count the most, the script just lets things peter off into stock puppet aesthetics.  Like, there's this one moment near the end where the cleric voices a vote of skepticism for Diesel's character that just rings hollow because it manages to be a complete 180 degree variance for how he is portrayed throughout the rest of the film, and it creates a discordant note that rings hollow, and just takes me further out of the picture.

I think the only reason the Imam stands out among the cast in my mind is more because of David's skill and genuine talent as an actor, rather than any merit in the role he is playing.  The trouble is, that's not how it should be.  I can think of a lot of films where an actor was giving a good performance, and yet there was no substance in the script for them to really work with.  Instead, they were left just having to show off their thespian skills, and it went not further.  I'm left thinking, well, at least so-and-so can do his/her profession proud.  Sure wish they were given better material.  An actor, all by themself, remains just that.  The trouble there is I'm supposed to be focused on a work of fiction, not a celebrity, however high or low.  If I'm left thinking just about what the actors are doing, then it means there's little to no story, and that in itself is a very bad sign.  The job of the performer is to allow the make-believe to come to life.  In order to do that, they always rely on what's written in the script.  As a result, they depend on the writer for them to tell a good story.  It's the reason I've learned to tell the real difference between a good or bad film.  It has nothing to do with the visual quality or whatever tricks can be done with the camera, or even the talent of the actors.  If that were the case, I'd recall David's performance more fondly.  Instead, it always remains about the quality of the writing, the content of the words, and the plot beats and themes that they all go on to signify.  I've even come up with a good motto for this.

You can never escape the stage, and the stage can never get off the page.  What that means is that it is the story proper, and not the production or acting value which makes or breaks a film.  David's or Diesel's actions in the film amount to a decent performance.  They also stop at being just that, because neither of them has anything to work with.  The actors depend on the writer, and this is a case of the latter letting down the former.  As a result, all we're left with is a film that can pretty safely be labeled as more or less by-the-numbers.  I don't mind the limited CGI of the time.  It's just that I wish anything of substance was going on around it.  It's shame, too, because the initial set up left us with a situation that could have been a lot more fun, and enjoyable.  I get the impression that I'm looking at something which could have been entertaining at the same level of movies such as Outland, They Live, Demolition Man, or The Rock.  Films that manage to difficult feat of a genuine artistic statements couched inside that tricksyest of formats, the popcorn crowd-pleaser.

Instead, all I'm left with is a bunch of stock characters going through the paces.  What that means in practice is after the cast is unceremoniously tossed onto the main set, they start going about the exact sort of routines that you expect to happen in this kind of setup.  One half of the survivors scrounges for fuel, the others go and look for any possible source of electricity.  Keith David and his group strike out to look for water, and stumble across the alien equivalent of an elephant graveyard, etc.  Riddick, meanwhile, is just kind of there.  You catch shots of him, here and there, hanging out in the background, and he's just basically trolling everyone else.  There's a sort unintentional irony in those brief moments that come early in the film.  I know Twohy never meant it to happen, and yet inserting the shots of Diesel looking down his nose at the main action going on works as an unintended parable on the nature of the whole film.  Everything is so dull, and uninspired.  Or it can't even reach the levels of genuine invention, that it's like all you can do is sit back and mock the entire endeavor.  That's not exactly the sort of message you want to telegraph to your audience if you're hoping for your movie to succeed.

At the same time, I do wonder if I should go easy on the director here.  Writing any story is a work of what has to be termed unconscious confession, and because of this, it's often the case that the real, or full thematic content hidden inside of any story probably winds up on the page or screen with the artist never truly knowing it until maybe after the work is complete, and sometimes not even then.  With this fact in mind, I'm inclined to say those moments with Riddick making silent fun of everyone is this film's moment of unconscious confession.  It's something vital and internal alerting Twohy to the fact that he's dealing with a stillborn idea, and the message flashes right past his eyes, several times, without the director even being aware of it.  To be fair, it is possible to forgive such lack of awareness.  It also does nothing to improve the final product we've been given.  It's precisely the moment when night falls on the planet that things should start to get interesting, and yet Twohy still can't find the right idea that would help elevate things.  Instead, its more of what you expect.  It's the convicted killer Riddick who is the only one who can lead them through the dark.  There's a battle of wits between Diesel's character and the bounty hunter.  They wind up exchanging moral compasses, with the mercenary becoming the killer, and Riddick turning slowly into a rescuer, rinse, recycle, repeat, and it all looks so familiar.

That's because it is, at the end of the day.  There's nothing interesting to be had here.  If there ever was a real creative concept to be found anywhere within this film, then it's buried under so much uncreative detritus that all I can do is wish anyone good luck if they think they can find it.  I just know that I came in with, not any high expectations, yet I was looking forward to being at least, you know, entertained.  The fact that I wound up with a textbook example of a plot by the numbers says equal amounts about the possibilities left untapped by this film, and well as Twohy's inability to ever really create something with it.  It's with all this in mind that I'll have to recommend something other than Pitch Black.

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