One has regrets in life, and one of my mine — one that haunts me to this day — is refusing to go see Pitch Black in the theater with my friend Alex back in 2000. “Nope,” I said, “I don’t like horror movies.” Instead, I went for a run around Lower Manhattan and joined Alex later for dinner, where he did a very fine, even frightening impression of the pterodactyl monsters from the movie. I felt my first pang — could I have made the wrong decision?
Yup. I don’t like horror movies, it’s true — seeing people dismembered or tortured gives me no thrill but nausea, and if I wanted to shock my lower brain stem with sudden stimuli I’d just set a fog horn to go off at random intervals in my office. But Pitch Black, it turns out, isn’t a horror movie — it’s a monster movie, and an elegant one at that.
We know how monster movies work A group of people are locked in a house, or on an island, or wherever, with a monster (which could be perfectly human) that picks them off one by one. The particular charm of the genre is that it subverts one of the core expectations of movie watching: that the protagonists will survive to the end of the movie. A James Bond movie might be fun and his perils might be thrilling, but you know to a moral certainty Mr. Bond will make it to the final credits. But what if he — or anyone — could in fact be killed, quite suddenly and unpleasantly, at any moment?
In Pitch Black, writer-director’s David Twohy’s space monsters are relatively straightforward: innumerable, carnivorous flying reptiles inhabiting the caverns of a desert planet. The creative twist here, though, is not the monsters’ strength, but their weakness: they can’t stand light. And, since the planet has just plunged into a once-in-a-great-while complete eclipse*, it means the dwindling band of protagonists has a big problem, and only one way out: a murderer who, alone among them, can see in the dark. Vin Diesel has become a figure of ridicule in the last decade, a kind of post-millenial poly-ethnic Dolph Lundgren, but in Pitch Black he achieved something difficult: He makes a very unpleasant character appealing without compromising his native unpleasantness. Riddick is not misunderstood, not innocent, and he doesn’t have a heart of gold, but by the end of movie you’re rooting for him to be one of the few that survive.
Which is the other great thrill in Pitch Black. We’re not dumb, we’ve seen this movie or variations on it before, and as soon as we meet the Cast of Characters (or Menu of Entrees) we start mentally laying bets on who’s going to survive. Twohy and his team earn your loyalties and enmities early — aren’t those kids cute? Isn’t that cop handsome and brave? And isn’t that murderer vicious? — and then use them to keep you guessing and surprised. No spoilers, but I found the last death in the movie to be among the more shocking and upsetting I’ve ever seen in a genre movie. It’s one thing for a movie maker to create ways to kill people off creatively — it’s another thing, these days, to be able to make you care.
*The one thing about the movie that drives me nuts is the ridiculous scenario that an animal that cannot bear light could evolve on a planet that only sees night once every 22 years. Besides, if everything else on the planet is dead, what do the monsters eat during eclipses when spaceships carrying fresh meat don’t crash land there?**
**Well, maybe: Assuming there’s a vast cave eco-system underground, it’s plausible that a predator species would evolve with a sensitivity to visible light. Such predators might well evolve a higher sensitivity to radiated energy, like heat — and the movie suggests the animals do see with a kind of “heat vision” — which might make their eyes and skin sensitive to strong light in the visible spectrum. A heat-sensitive, light averse predator would have an advantage when the eclipses come — it could emerge from the cave, fly around, and eat anything that moved. As for why there’s no other life on the planet, maybe over the decades it was all hunted to extinction. Man, I can’t believe I spent so much time thinking about that.
Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! heard by three million listeners each week via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He is also a playwright and screenwriter, and once wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.