Killtoberfest 2 – #10: Pandorum / Pitch Black

In All, Movies by Kyu

Sci-fi and horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate–ie., not always, but when they work it’s delicious. Any horror film can incorporate sci-fi elements (what is The Terminator, for instance, if not Halloween + robots?) but not all science fiction can work as horror. Part of the sci-fi genre is inherently optimistic about human progress, and that mode doesn’t mix well at all with horror’s fundamental dourness. And supernatural horror rarely works well with technological advances, perhaps because it’s just too heavy a load of disbelief for audiences to suspend.

When they do work, though, sci-fi can be some of the best horror around: Alien, The Fly, The Thing… I think because they allow the kind of taboo-breaking, revulsion-inducing ideas that powers the best horror movies within a more literal, non-psychological context. Sure, on Elm Street there are nightmares; but in The Thing, the nightmare is real. Any way you look at it, sci-fi horror is often the most inventive, original, and awe-inspiring in the genre. That makes me optimistic, at least. Next up on Killtoberfest 2, two movies proving that even in the farthest reaches of space, there’s always going to be something worth screaming about.

First is 2009’s Pandorum, a good movie that would have been better if they’d just called it Space Madness.

I wouldn’t blame somebody for not liking this movie. In fact, the worst parts of the film are all the horror parts. See, when making this movie, something like this conversation must have happened:

Producer: So what’s this new concept you’ve got?
Filmmaker: Oh, well, it’s super neat. See, these two guys wake up on a spaceship–
P: Which two guys?
F: Well, we got Ben Foster, he’s great. The gay cowboy from–
P: Brokeback–
F: 3:10 to Yuma.
P: Oh, him.
F: And for the other one, Harrison Ford.
P: I’m not sure we can afford him.
F: Eh, Dennis Quaid, then.
P: That works. Okay, so they wake up on a spaceship, and?
F: And they were supposed to cryosleep all the way to their destination, a planet they were supposed to colonize. Only they’re waking up early; and the power’s out; and they have no idea how far the ship has traveled, or where they are, or what year it is. So while Ford/Quaid guides him, Foster has to venture into this vast spaceship the size of a city and figure out what the hell happened and how he can start the ship back up again.
P: I like it, it’s great! Only it’s missing something.
F: What?
P: Can you make it more like The Descent? You know, that horror movie?
F: Uh… well, the story is kinda creepy already, you’ve got the empty spaceship and all the lights are off and–
P: No, no, I mean more specific. Like maybe the spaceship is full of creepy white orc monsters.
F: Um–
P: Oh, and the characters use glow sticks. Glow sticks are awesome! Also can there be a scene where a character has to crawl through a tight space? And one where they have to hide from the monsters in a pool of murky water?
F: Um–
P: Oh! And make it so the characters have to fight the monsters with kung-fu and spears and stuff.
F: Um–
P: I can write you a check right now.
F: Done.

Anyway, if you took out the half-hour or so of people kung-fu fighting dumb monsters for no good reason, Pandorum Space Madness would be a good, eerie sci-fi movie with a really sweet twist ending. Instead, it’s merely okay.

Honestly, there’s a lot to like about it. The story is interesting and compelling, the acting is good, the world-building of the ship is really well done (and reminded me of Snowpiercer, in the way this weird society springs up in pockets in this isolated microcosm of a vehicle), and the movie is lit and shot with a careful eye towards claustrophobia, grime, and believable future tech. It’s main flaw is that lack of focus (why, exactly, did we need that scene with Norman Reedus?), but that doesn’t stop the good parts from being good. If you’re looking for quality sci-fi, you could do a lot worse. If what you want is The Descent in space, though, give it a miss.

From flawed to sublime, the pitch-perfect Pitch Black (2000).

Is it really theft if you have permission? Because Riddick (Vin Diesel) seems designed to steal the show. Although the movie keeps him at a distance for the first half hour or so, it primes you with the opening (Riddick’s voice over describing the other passengers on the ship) and uses him as an omnipresent boogeyman. How do you make an enduring film character–Hannibal Lector, Oskar Schindler, Rooster Cogburn, Andy Dufresne? First, you make them a side character evaluated by an audience surrogate protagonist (Clarice Starling, Red); then, and this is the key, you have everybody talk about them when they’re not in the room. That’s how you turn a person into a legend.

If what science fiction adds to horror is that the fear becomes the inevitable result of a fictional situation treated with absolute reality, then Pitch Black is one of the greatest ever filmed. It’s got as clockwork a plot as the orrery one of the characters finds on the planet where they’ve been marooned. The setup is right out of John Ford: an odd band of disparate travelers (Muslims on a pilgrimage to “New Mecca,” a runaway teen boy, an effete antique dealer, a cop and the convict he’s transporting) are waylaid on their journey and crash land on a desert planet. (Australia, shot and probably post-processed to create a harsh, overly bright outdoors, the product of multiple suns.) They’ve got to work together to solve their problems, but both “together” and “problems” may include Riddick, a feared but oddly reserved killer who soon escapes his chains and flees into the desert.

From there, the film moves with inexorable grace towards a nervewracking second half, where plot and cinematography conspire to isolate characters from their surroundings, threatening them with an existential hopelessness dark enough to inspire terror and betrayal in equal measure. The way the script works to develop its characters patiently from types to fully realized people; how it builds its vision of the future in small beats and throwaway lines; the way it cleverly makes Riddick’s nature and intentions the subject of ongoing conflict; the moments it finds for wonder even in the midst of darkness: these are what make the film such a joy to experience. I’d heard Pitch Black was good; I’d never heard that it was this much goddamn fun. Best of all, the movie is willing to allow its characters mysteries that aren’t solved, making them fascinating and unpredictable. As interested as I am in seeing Riddick and his franchise continue, I worry that solving his mysteries would make the character less interesting, not more. Either way, Pitch Black remains a bright spot in sci-fi horror, a strong, scary, well-crafted movie that makes the familiar new again.

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.