• Michael T. Christensen

Pitch Black: The Ultimate Suspension of Disbelief

This week's video is about suspension of disbelief, and when it differs from breaking the rules of your world. This is also October, the spookiest month, and so it only felt appropriate to highlight a horror movie that has to bend over backwards in order to justify its very goofy premise.

For those who haven't seen or don't remember the 2000 film "Pitch Black," here's the pitch: a spaceship full of diverse people crashes on a planet. Everyone but the captain survives, and the various survivors include several civilians, a couple of children, a sexy First Mate, a bounty hunter, and a serial killer. This serial killer, Riddick, has special eyes that allow him to see in the dark. The planet has three suns, but also has carnivorous nocturnal creatures that live in caves underground. These creatures come out and hunt on the very rare occasion when all three suns are in a total eclipse, which lasts for several hours. Oh, and that eclipse is about to occur, and the survivors need to find a way off of the planet as they get hunted in the darkness, led by a serial killer with special eyes that allow him to even the playing field with the "other monsters."

Every piece of fiction is made up of contrived moments (that's what writers do), but the trick is to try to convince the audience that they aren't contrived (that's what good writers do). And yet this film is so obviously contrived that it should all come crumbling down. But we as the audience accept it. Why?

Because all of that was in the trailer.

The film "Wag the Dog" (which could have been a classic except the ending kind of falls apart) has a line that I think about all the time, which I will paraphrase: "It's the contract 'Jaws' makes with the audience. If you give me two hours, I will produce the shark."

"Pitch Black" makes a deal with the audience: "If you give me ninety minutes, I will give you a serial killer with glow-in-the-dark eyes fighting monsters."

In Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (a book I actually dislike greatly, but that's a subject for another day), the author warns the reader against engaging in "double mumbo jumbo," and sites "Signs" as an example of a film that breaks this rule by establishing both god and aliens in the same film. (He argues that this is what makes "Signs" bad, even though that's not the problem people had with "Signs.") And while I discuss similar examples in my video, I think there are exceptions. And "Pitch Black" highlights one of those exceptions:

If you show us in the trailer/on the back cover/on the box art ALL of the suspension of disbelief we will have to do during the story, then we only have to suspend our disbelief once.

Now, some people are always going to bow out after hearing the pitch. They'll say, "That's all too ridiculous for me to handle." And that's totally fine. They're not wrong for thinking that. But "Pitch Black" stands strong as a film that flourished when the audience agreed to the laughably absurd premise. Hell, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe only worked because we agreed to suspend our disbelief that a billionaire scientist can work with gods and wizards long enough to fight an alien who wants to collect six magic rocks so he can make a wish.

Give your audience a chance to buy in, and they just might surprise you.

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