2000’s Pitch Black introduced the world to Richard B. Riddick, an enduring anti-hero with a loyal fan-base, but how does the film hold up nearly 17 years later? Let’s take a look…
Vin Diesel is no stranger to franchises. He’s perhaps best known as Dominic Toretto in the Fast and Furious series, though he also has an ongoing role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. On top of that, Mr Diesel is currently in cinemas once again with his second outing as Xander Cage in xXx: Return of Xander Cage .
Still, let’s not forget what could be his most important franchise yet – the one he helped to spawn with his breakthrough turn as Richard B. Riddick.
When Pitch Black landed in 2000, it was a sleeper hit that spawned two sequels, two hit spin-off games, and an animated film. Shot on a fairly modest budget of $23m, the film mixed science-fiction and horror to great effect, following in the footsteps of many classic movies while still managing to be original in its own way.
Now that Pitch Black is almost 17 years old, does it still stand up, or have the years taken their toll?
Hello Darkness, My Old Friend
For those who may not have seen Pitch Black, or at least not in some time, let me run through the plot briefly:
Many, many years from now, a spaceship carrying several civilians (and one convict) crash lands on an arid, seemingly-unpopulated world. The survivors are a disparate bunch, featuring: a pompous arts dealer; a Muslim preacher; a bounty hunter; the ship’s pilot; and a few others. The convict, Diesel’s Riddick, has escaped a brutal prison but is being escorted back by Cole Hauser’s Johns, a mysterious bounty hunter.
Though the world they’re on is a sandy desert with three suns, the group find themselves stranded at the worst possible time – just as the planet is about to be caught in a rare, lengthy eclipse. This wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the thousands of subterranean, carnivorous creatures who thrive on darkness and can’t wait to get outside.
Luckily, Riddick has undergone a ‘shine job’ on his eyes in prison, which allows him to see in the dark, making him the crew’s best chance of survival. Can he be trusted to help them escape?
Not a bad set-up, is it? While Pitch Black may not have the most innovative storyline or setting, it still manages to make for an exciting watch with a fresh feel. David Twohy does a fantastic job of giving the movie a real sense of energy and momentum, using dynamic cinematography and bleached-out, sandy landscapes littered with signs of industrial use (to start with, at least).
Though you’re watching characters that may feel familiar trying to get from A to B while being picked off one by one by grotesque aliens, Pitch Black still manages to avoid feeling derivative. Its plot certainly owes a debt to classic sci-fi movies like Alien, The Thing, and Predator , while Vin Diesel’s charismatic, enigmatic Riddick evokes Snake Plissken (from John Carpenter’s seminal Escape from New York), but it never feels like a drab, soulless copy.
For starters, Riddick is a strong anti-hero with a twisted morality and a dark sense of humour, but his ability to see in the dark helps to set him apart from similar characters that came before. Diesel does a great job of lurking in shadows, hiding behind his black-lensed goggles, and generally kicking ass with little more than a shiv and his bare hands. We’re given just enough background on his character to form our own ideas of his life’s course, and even at his most questionable, he’s still incredibly likeable.
His night sight is a neat trick that makes the character useful for more than his mere physical strength and cunning lethality. It also puts him on even footing with the flesh-eating aliens: like them, he’s lived in darkness and managed to survive through sheer ferocity and brutality. The characters’ physical journey through darkness, seeking light and escape, reflects his own internal development; by the end, he’s far from diluted, but it’s clear he’s been through a positive change.
Without this physical augmentation, though, would Riddick be quite as interesting or as popular as he is? It’s hard to say, but this unique touch really helps him stand out, and was a brilliant narrative technique to reinforce his importance to the plot.
While Vin Diesel stands out, the rest of the cast also do a fantastic job of keeping you engaged. Radha Mitchell gives a tough but compassionate performance as Fry, while Cole Hauser exudes charm and menace as the ruthless Johns.
Meanwhile, sci-fi legend Keith David is just as impressive as you’d expect as a noble Muslim preacher. He brings the same gravitas and everyman-strength he brought to The Thing, They Live, and countless other projects, serving as a strong moral figure. Rhiana Griffith also deserves a nod as Jack, a youngster who takes a shine to Riddick and convinces as a tough, smart kid. The cast’s diversity makes for an entertaining mix of personalities, so that even when Riddick isn’t on screen, the film is just as watchable.
Special mention has to go to the production values and creature design. Pitch Black still looks better now than some bigger-budget films released since, and part of that is down to Twohy’s restraint. As with many other movies, the filmmakers’ modest budget encourages them to limit how much we see, and so the aliens tend to be hidden in shadows (a handy side-effect of their nocturnal lifestyle). However, when we actually see the aliens in full, they still look terrific, with a truly otherworldly design. Every face-off the survivors have with the creatures is effective, and while the film can’t really be called ‘scary’, it has moments of real suspense.
For my money, Strange Days is one of the best sci-fi movies of the 1990s (if not all time). Sadly, it’s criminally underrated in all respects – its brilliant direction, outstanding performances, as well as its bold themes of racism and corruption. It deserves far more love than it currently receives, and damn it, I want to change that!
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The film also manages to create a compelling far-future setting, in which mankind has spread across the galaxy and established themselves on other planets. We get just enough information to imagine a larger universe beyond the location and the characters we’re seeing, and it actually feels a little similar to the world of the Alien franchise (Twohy actually worked on a key draft of Alien3 years earlier, which also featured a convict in the lead). It’s nothing close to being a copy though, and still feels like its own thing.
Twohy is credited for the film’s screenplay, along with Jim and Ken Wheat, and it’s a strong piece of work, with solid characterization and dialogue. In lesser hands, Pitch Black might have been just another below-the-radar movie that went straight to DVD. Instead, it found an audience, made its money back, and added another strong character to the sci-fi landscape. Riddick might not be as iconic as, say, Ellen Ripley or other giants of the genre, but he still has a loyal fan-base.
All in all, then, Pitch Black isn’t a groundbreaking sci-fi epic, but it was never meant to be. It’s still an entertaining, atmospheric, suspenseful film that manages to take a familiar scenario and give it an original twist. If you haven’t seen it before or only watched it on release, Pitch Black is definitely worth revisiting.
Featured Images: courtesy of USA Films