Wednesday, 17 November 2010

HORROR WEEK: Pitch Black

" I'm not dying for them."

I don't think anyone is really going to argue that David Twohy is some kind of great film-maker. Dude wrote Waterworld. Any attempt he has made to write and direct a film outside the comfort zone of tried and tested genre material hasn't just been a failure, its been a catastrophic one. There's the Waterworld thing, which was a daring and novel concept that got everything so colossally wrong, it would have been much easier and required much less effort to be a much better movie. Then there's the Chronicles Of Riddick, which was Twohy's attempt to infuse political allegory and a transcendental air to sci-fi. Do you know what else tried to do that? Star Wars episode 1. And this was just as boring, arrogant and stupid as that movie. And frankly, you can't make a smart movie if you're stupid. So I guess the conclusion to take is that if you see the uniquely identifiable name Twohy on a film its best to go and see something less ambitiously awful.

And yet, the guy made one of the most exciting, surprising and even subversive horror movies of the last decade. Why and how, you all are no doubt asking in harmonious unison? Because the stakes are lowered, the grand ideas are gone and any and all attempt to be Stanley Kubrick has vanished, but what remains is Twohy's all consuming obsession with originality and subversion. And while his discernible lack of talent and ability to be coherent perhaps got in the way of that being best exploited in bigger films, with Pitch Black set against the rigid and familiar architecture of the sci-fi horror, and speaking to a generation with Alien and all the films that came after entrenched into their bones, that pursuit of originality feels starker, more satisfying and ultimately so much more successful. He knows the material so well that he knows what we expect at all corners, knows how the character dynamics usually play out and who usually dies and when. its this love and knowledge of the genre that allows him to do things in it that have never been done before, so if its occasionally brash, if its occasionally crude or inelegant, its vital enough to be forgiven. This, ladies and gentleman, is how a bad film-maker makes a great movie.

Pitch Black: Johns reminds Riddick that he's on a short leash.

" Somebody's gonna get hurt one of these days."

What's great about Pitch Black for me, I think more then anything else, is its depiction of selflessness as something that is difficult to do. Its a horror movie cliche to have people sacrifice themselves to save the group, often without prior context, thought or difficulty. Say, Walton Goggins in Predators, an entirely selfish character who just randomly decides to die for strangers he has no reason to care about. Not only does it make no sense and so often betray character, but it reduces the gesture for when it should matter. In a way Pitch Black is a film entirely about correcting this. The film opens with a fantastically executed crash sequence, where pilot Fry's (Radha Mitchell) spaceship is crashing down to a planet, and she attempts to jettison all of her sleeping passengers into space to righten the course, in other words killing forty people to save herself. And this is the heroine of this story. She is stopped by her co-pilot, and lands the thing right anyway. What's great about this sequence, aside from it being exhilarating, is the cold logic of that act. Its horrific but understandable. Detestable, but somehow humanizing. This isn't the superheroine, the incorruptible badass chick archetype. Its a character we are asked to follow after we witness her doing the worst thing she'll ever do in her life, and frankly that's kind of awesome. I'm not saying Fry is some super fascinating, multi-layered character or anything, but she's flawed, so when her heroism does come, it is so much more affecting because selflessness doesn't come easy, and precisely because it doesn't is what makes it such an admirable act.

Riddick, the breakout character who has since had two video games and a terrible movie about his misadventures, is that dangerous psychopath that always seems to come along on these asides so they can be hysterically insane and get a really nasty death, kind of goes past that. He keeps his shit together and reacts to the situation better then anybody, perhaps because he doesn't care about anybody. He's calm, rational and considered, and although he's a constant threat, he's not dumb and doesn't attack people just because you know, he's crazy and that. Vin Diesel, whose subsequent career has made him kind of difficult to compliment, is terrific. He's both awesome in the conventional sense and an intriguing character, but there's an intelligence to him, which I think was brought by Diesel rather then Twohy. But again, the selflessness doesn't necessarily come from him, but the situation around, meaning we get to see the context in which it is brought out of him and thus it isn't trite and meaningless.

" Did not know who he was fucking with."

Like the equally successful Cube, a lot of mileage is got out of shifting character dynamics, and people doing things you don't expect. Twenty minutes in one would assume that Cole Hauser's mercenary Johns, is going to be the hero of the piece and Riddick the antagonist. But as we progress, the worst it brought out of Johns and the best out of Riddick. Watching the two compete for the status of alpha-male is probably the movie's strongest suit too, because Mitchell's performance can be a little flat at times, particularly when she can't contain her Aussie accent, both Diesel and Hauser are having a ball, and its a shame they both went on to be so associated with bad acting, because they're both great here. Twohy is also acutely aware of which of his characters you're expecting to die first, and because of this you're genuinely caught of guard by kills at least three times. Claudia Black's 'Shazza' (because she's Australian, dummy) goes way before you expect her too and extreme British stereotype Paris (get it) sticks around longer then you'd expect him too.

But the greatest trick Twohy ever pulled is who dies last, in a way that it makes such perfect sense, yet catches you off guard by a mile. As Fry gets carried off into the darkness by the CGI Bat monster thingies, its a legitmately emotional and affective moment in a survival horror film. And you can count those on one hand. The thing isn't perfect of course. Twohy's dialogue always feels a little too on message, and the scenes post-crash and pre-bat annihilation kind of plod along, and while I appreciate the minor characters being real people rather then hot models in space, they can be kind of annoying, particularly tomboy Jack and the aforementioned Paris. I kind of dug Keith David's Imam character in spite of the writing and not because of it, and there are moments of clunkiness scattered about.

" It ain't me you've got to be afraid of anymore."

But its a movie with such balls, such intent, and one that genuinely cares about its characters for the most part, rather then just looking at them as pawns to be rinsed in awesome ways. Its tense, appropriately scary and mostly thanks to Diesel, deceptively subtle. Its not Shakespeare, but its a great example of how great horror movies can be when they're on their game. The clunks, fumbles and missteps are forgiven because Twohy's focused the ambition that far exceeds his talent to an area where that is an attribute. But sure enough that's such a specific area that he'll never be able to do it again, but I'm happy that he pulled this one out at least.

Rating: 7/10

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