In my opinion, Pitch Black (2000) is one of the best science/fiction horror movies out there. Sure, the film isn’t going to win any awards for being the best movie ever made, but for pure entertainment value it’s hard to beat. It’s a little underrated, probably because it stars Vin Diesel. As an actor, it’s a little hard to take Vin Diesel seriously, but the role of a feral psychopath brings out the best in his robotic acting skills – the character Riddick is easily Vin Diesel’s best role. The rest of Vin Diesel’s acting career can be summarized by watching either The Fast and The Furious or one of the horrible xXx movies (and I don’t recommend you watch any of those movies).
Pitch Black has a simple plot and gets straight to the point – a slow moving transport vessel accidentally passes through the tail of a comet while on autopilot (yes, humanity has mastered deep space travel and cryosleep, but can’t develop an autopilot sophisticated enough to detect potentially devastating clouds of high velocity space debris). The hull is breached, the captain gets impaled and the ship begins to crash. Fortunately, the few crew members and passengers who survived were lucky enough to crash onto the surface a planet with a breathable atmosphere (I’m sure my astrophysicist friends can explain the rather astronomical impossibility of that ever happening). In between taking swigs of liquor to stay ‘hydrated’ on the desert planet and worrying about Riddick, the psychopathic murderer who was also aboard, they stumble upon an abandoned mining camp with a working shuttle craft. But if there is one infallible law of the universe it’s this: situations have a way of going from bad to worse. Way fucking worse. Every 22 years the planet (which usually experiences perpetual day due it its three suns) is plunged into a long solar eclipse and the monsters that lurk underground come out and rip apart anything that looks like a tasty snack.
Most of the characters are forgettable and there mostly to serve as canon fodder for the hungry aliens. After all, 22 years is a long time to go without a nice red-blooded snack. Claudia Black (who nerds will recognize as Vala Mal Doran from the TV series Stargate SG-1) makes a fairly short appearance as Sharon ‘Shazza’ Montgomery before she gets ripped in half – literally – by winged bat-creatures. The three exceptions to this rule are Riddick (Vin Diesel), Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) and Jack (Rhiana Griffith). Some sort of priest, Abu ‘Imam’ al-Walid (Keith David), also survives the nightmare planet and makes an appearance in the sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, but he’s essentially pointless in both films and just babbles about having faith in God the whole time. God doesn’t save anyone in either film; it’s always Riddick, the glorified badass who is just enough of an asshole to be lovable, who is the real savior.
David Twohy uses fairly interesting directing and cinematography throughout the film. Pitch Black plays with light and contrast – bleaching out the images and tinting them with blue or yellow to simulate the intense heat and brightness of the desert planet. Riddick appears and disappears between cuts and most of the scenes and dialog within the first half of the movie are fairly funny. Because being marooned on a planet full of vicious Giger-esque monsters just isn’t any fun if you can’t be witty and sarcastic about it. The trick behind making a good science fiction movie is knowing when to not take things too seriously, and Pitch Black definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Pitch Black owes a rather obvious debt of gratitude to Ridley Scott’s Alien (one of my all time favorite films). Not only are the monsters clearly influenced by H.R. Giger’s Alien concept – no eyes, oblong skulls, razor sharp translucent teeth, and long tails designed solely for either wrapping around people and dragging them away from the pack or stabbing them to death – the entire ‘pitch black’ motif seems designed solely for the purpose of hiding the monsters out of sight for 80% of the time. That is until they jump out of the darkness and rip you to pieces. Thankfully, Pitch Black adds enough new material to avoid being a cheap knock-off.
What makes Pitch Black work is the fact that it is a movie about darkness – the literal darkness of the planet and the monsters that lurk there, but also the darkness of the human character and the monsters that exist within us all. Riddick is a murderer, but he isn’t crazy. His primitive instinct (which the script alludes to with the opening narration) just means that he lives by an extremely literal interpretation of the law of survival of the fittest. But Riddick isn’t the only character who’s got darkness inside of him. Despite operating on the right side of the law and his All-American good looks, Johns (Cole Hauser), the bounty hunter who captured Riddick, is a morphine-addict who won’t hesitate to through people under the bus when things get tough. Riddick kills him – because nobody likes a hypocrite. Even Carolyn Fry has a touch of darkness – she tried to blow the passenger hold of the ship and sacrifice all the people still unconscious in cryosleep because she thought it would improve her chances of survival. Her crewmate prevented her from doing so and her character has to struggle with the guilt of her actions through most of the film. It is my personal opinion that Radha Mitchell’s acting (you don’t recognize her name, but she also starred in the less-successful Silent Hill adaptation) is the big reason why Pitch Black is so successful. She can hold her own against Riddick, something that most female characters can’t do – namely the adult Jack aka Kyra (Alexa Davalos) in The Chronicles of Riddick.
Fry’s death is quick and sudden…after coming back to save Riddick from the monsters, she is literally ripped out of his arms and pulled into the darkness by one of the creatures. This scene is the climax of the movie and is a powerful catharsis for Riddick’s character – releasing a part of himself (his humanity, I guess you could call it) that had been buried away. I won’t go so far as to say that this is a story of redemption for Riddick. For one, Riddick has never and probably will never want to be redeemed. Fry’s death causes Riddick’s character to undergo a transformation, which gives the last line of the film (“Tell them Riddick’s dead”) a much deeper meaning. Unfortunately, David Twohy seems to have forgotten about this change in Riddick’s character – in the sequel Riddick is back to being his sarcastic self and the audience is again supposed to love him for his survival abilities and witty remarks.
I suppose this review can’t be complete without mentioning the film’s sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. This is an enjoyable film with cool special effects, set and costume designs. However, The Chronicles of Riddick is a big departure from both the style and spirit of Pitch Black. Other than the fact that both contain Riddick and a few other characters, the two movies aren’t really related at all and can operate as stand-alone films. The Chronicles of Riddick doesn’t contain any overarching themes – except, of course, that Riddick is really cool. The movie does contain the visually awesome Necromongers. Why are the Necromongers awesome?
Because they are H.R. Giger meets H.P Lovecraft meets Alien (which has actually already been done by H.R. Giger in H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon). Another essay/blog entry I’m working on is a discussion about my thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft, The Necronomicon, H.R. Giger and the Cthulhu Mythos in popular culture, but that’s obviously going to be a big project. Back to my point – The Chronicles of Riddick is visually appealing, but that’s about it. A third (possibly a fourth) installment of the Riddick series has also been confirmed. I’m not necessarily super-excited to see this movie, but I can guarantee you when it hits theaters I’ll be there to watch it.
So, why did I write a review of a movie that a lot of people have already seen and doesn’t necessarily deserve a lot of critical scrutiny? Because Pitch Black is quickly dismissed as a mediocre science fiction movie when it shouldn’t be. If you’ve already seen it- rewatch it. And if you haven’t, then watch the damn movie. It’s good.