Sunday 23 February 2014

Films: Pitch Black (2000), and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

I hadn't seen Pitch Black before, but it kept appearing on the TV schedules with reasonable ratings so I decided I'd give it a look. Warning – this review contains spoilers.

The basic plot is hardly new: a spaceship crashes on an uninhabited desert planet, with a small number of survivors. Just to liven things up, they include a convicted killer who had escaped from jail, and the bounty hunter who was bringing him in. When they explore, one man dies while investigating a cave and it is clear that dangerous things live underground. A mineral prospectors' base, which had been abandoned over twenty years earlier, provides more mystery. The survivors are tormented by the brightness and heat (the system has three suns, bathing in the planet in almost perpetual sunshine) but an orerry in the base reveals that from time to time there is a total eclipse that can last for quite a while. Needless to say, the eclipse occurs and all of those nocturnal creatures emerge from underground, very hungry…

There are no real surprises in this rather simple story, the main points of interest being guessing who's going to die next and who might still be standing at the end. We know of course that the criminal Riddick will survive as Vin Diesel has a sequel to make, but the rest are literally up for grabs. Despite the lack of originality, this isn't a bad film (as long as you don't examine too closely the mechanics of the eclipse); there's quite a strong cast featuring Radha Mitchell as the pilot, and it's nice to see Claudia Black, then in the process of becoming famous as Aeryn Sun in Farscape.

The Chronicles of Riddick is a direct sequel, but is a very different kind of film. Instead of being a pared-down horror thriller, it aims for epic fantasy status. Instead of just being a criminal who can fight well, Riddick becomes a survivor of a race of formidable warriors and the only chance of defending humanity against the ravages of an army of religious extremists, the Necromongers.

It is obvious that this was made with a much bigger budget than the original film, as it is packed with special effects and takes place a wide range of different settings. It also includes some class actors; Judi Dench, Thandie Newton and Colm Feore. Despite this, it doesn't really gel; it seems too concerned with emphasising the dramatic images, especially the iconography of the Necromongers whose mysterious religion never made much sense to me. The constant violent action means that there is no time for developing the characters (Vin Diesel was nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Actor), and a coherent plot is another casualty. Best regarded as a curiosity, and only worth watching if you have time on your hands. I gather that there is a third film in the series now out, but the reviews I've read do not encourage me to watch it.

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