Should I Watch..? 'Pitch Black'
What's the big deal?
Pitch Black is a sci-fi action horror film released in 2000 and is the cinematic debut of the character Richard B. Riddick. Co-written and directed by David Twohy, the film sees Riddick - an intergalactic mercenary and killer - forced to aid his captors when his transport ship crashes on an alien world. The film stars Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Keith David and Cole Hauser. Despite low expectations and a fairly mixed reception from critics, the film became a cult hit and went on to earn more than $53 million worldwide. It also generated enough interest for Diesel to secure the rights to the character for himself and appear in sequels The Chronicles Of Riddick in 2004 and Riddick in 2013 in between his appearances in the Fast And Furious franchise. Plans were announced for a fourth film featuring the character in 2016 but no news has been announced since then.
What's it about?
In a far-flung corner of the galaxy, the transport ship Hunter-Gratzner is transporting a number of passengers who are held in cryostasis including law enforcement officer William Johns who is accompanying Richard B. Riddick, a notorious criminal and mercenary. The ship is struck by the tail-end of a comet which kills the ship's captain and forces the remaining crew to crash-land onto a nearby planet. Despite many casualities, a number of passengers and crew survive although Riddick himself goes missing.
Led by docking pilot Carolyn Fry, the survivors locate a nearby research site which happens to have an abandoned drop-ship devoid of power. As they begin moving parts from the crash-site to the drop-ship, a number of them encounter strange beasts lurking in the darkness underground who shield themselves from the perpetual daylight on the surface. However, with a total eclipse looming which will allow the creatures to emerge and wipe them out, Johns is forced to accept that only one person can help them escape the planet's surface - Riddick...
Richard B. Riddick
William J. Johns
Abu 'Imam' al-Walid
Paris P. Ogilvie
Sharon 'Shazza' Montgomery
John 'Zeke' Ezekiel
Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat & David Twohy*
Release Date (UK)
10th November, 2000
What's to like?
For a low budget sci-fi B-movie, Pitch Black has several aces up its sleeve. The first and most obvious of these is Diesel, delivering a performance of genuine charisma and menace - he's way better here than he is in any of the Fast & Furious series. Frankly, the rest of the cast struggle to hang on to his coat-tails although David is as good as I've seen him as the Muslim Iman - a rare role in Hollywood that doesn't get bogged down in the usual stereotypes.
The film's effects also do a goo job of disguising the budget with spaceships ripped apart during the frenetic opening scenes. What I really liked was that the whole film hints at a much wider universe that isn't shown on screen. In the same way that Star Wars featured aliens from a distant planet we never go to, each of the characters have their own stories to tell and the film gives each cast member their moment in the spotlight. It also avoids the pretentious tone in the much-bigger budgeted Chronicles Of Riddick, settling instead of being an effective sci-fi action horror in the traditions of Alien with cast members being dispatched one by one by shadowy forces.
- The contact lenses that Diesel wore as Riddick were a prototype which were briefly available to the public after the film's release. However, they couldn't remove the lenses after the first day of filming which forced the producers to fly out an optometrist from the nearest town three hours away.
- The desert scenes were filmed in the same location as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. However, the weather was unseasonably cold with temperatures barely reaching 10° Celsius. The lighting crew rigged up special heat-lamps to keep the cast warm between takes.
- In one of the shots of escape pods being jettisoned before the crash, one of the pods is numbered '2E' - an in-joke at director David Twohy's expense.
What's not to like?
The biggest fly in the ointment is, sadly, the CG beasties that only come out at night. Poorly designed to look like ungainly bipedal hammerhead sharks, they are woefully lacking in definition - essentially, they may as well be simply flying sets of teeth. You watch them, desperately wishing that the producers could have stumped up enough cash for some more believable baddies. Incidentally, more cash might have helped attract more capable actors - Diesel gets little support from his co-stars besides David with Hauser especially feeling nothing like the no-nonsense merc he's supposed to be playing.
In a sense, I'm a little disappointed that Pitch Black descends into your standard alien-bug-hunt because the opening scenes are far more imaginative and enjoyable. There are enough ideas in there to suggest that this film might offer something different but instead, it plays it safe and follows the Alien template a little too closely. Nothing wrong with its influences - Alien still remains the defining sci-fi horror film, even after all these years. But a bit more bravery or thought would have elevated this to even greater heights. Riddick is certainly an intriguing character and has plenty of potential for further stories and Twohy has done an excellent job of crafting a story from part of a much-bigger universe. But it doesn't stop the film slipping to genre stereotypes, which is such a shame.
Should I watch it?
Vin Diesel fans will be delighted to see their hero in something other than ridiculous heist movies and uninspired street racers. His Riddick is one of modern cinema's coolest characters and this sci-fi blast is just the introduction the role demands. It's not big or clever but it does a great job of providing escapism and hinting that there is much more going on beneath the surface. It just needed to find its own path instead of flowing into well-worn patterns.
Great For: Diesel's stature as a leading man, fans of Alien, undemanding action fans
Not So Great For: pushing sci-fi boundaries, hardcore horror fans, welding goggles
What else should I watch?
Not unlike the series that inspired it, Pitch Black has been poorly served by some undercooked sequels. The Chronicles Of Riddick is a laughably poor film, saddled with delusions of grandeur and a cast that look embarrassed to be there. Diesel, who acquired the rights to the character in exchange for a quick cameo in The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift in 2006, and Twohy took a more back-to-basics approach for Riddick and while the reviews were still mixed, consensus suggests that it was much better than the Ridicules Of Chronic.
Cinema has plenty of franchises sprung from sci-fi horror from the timeless Alien to the likes of Predator and the soft-core porn of Species. Many films have been adapted from classic literature like Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and The Island Of Dr Moreau although in the latter's case, this doesn't necessarily make for great cinema. But for me, there is really only one film that manages to combine sci-fi with horror and unrivalled levels of action and spectacle - Terminator 2: Judgment Day might be getting a little long in the tooth these days but I defy anyone not to enjoy it.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox