Monday, November 30, 2015

Once You Go Pitch Black, You Never Go Back

Pitch Black is a movie so ridiculous, so outlandish that it was bound to succeed gloriously, if only for those watching with the right eyes. It was absolutely a movie of its time, emblematic of everything that was great about movies and pop culture around the turn of the millennium. But it also had its own, unique voice, which it used to scream to the heavens and anybody else willing to listen.

The plot of Pitch Black is built on a series of events and improbabilities that skirt--and sometimes blow right through--the very boundaries of plausibility. Yet combined with the proper and proportionate dose of ambiguity and a complete dedication to its own demented trajectory, the result is so absurdly awesome that you really can't turn away.

You know that what you're going to be watching is going to be fucking awesome when the opening voice over goes something like this:

They say most of your brain shuts down in cryo-sleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side. No wonder I'm still awake. Transporting me with civilians. Sounded like 40, 40-plus. Heard an Arab voice. Some hoodoo holy man, probably on his way to New Mecca. But what route? What route? I smelt a woman. Sweat, boots, tool belt, leather. Prospector type. Free settlers. And they only take the back roads. And here's my real problem. Mr. Johns... the blue-eyed devil. Planning on taking me back to slam... only this time he picked a ghost lane. A long time between stops. A long time for something to go wrong...

And it only gets better from there. The plot is simply amazing. A commercial spaceship with a cargo of chartered passengers and their belongings on their way to various locations throughout the galaxy is forced to make an emergency crash landing on an unknown, alien planet. The few remaining survivors are faced with the proposition of trying to live in a desert-like landscape, with testicle-dropping heat provided by not one, not two, but three suns. (Yeah, fuck you Tatooine, with your measly two suns.)

Also, the survivors are genuinely concerned that one of the passengers, an escaped convict on his way back to prison, has re-escaped and might pose a credible threat to their safety. Soon they discover an abandoned human settlement, complete with water and a spaceship just waiting to take them to safety. Unfortunately, they seem to be having the worst luck of all time when the planet is plunged into darkness due to a rare planetary alignment that, according to the calculations of the previous inhabitants, happens only once every twenty-two years and lasts for an indefinite period of time. And apparently, the planet is home to a carnivorous breed of nocturnal alien creatures that is right at home in the pitch black (*looks directly at camera*) and throws a wrench into the survivors' escape plan.

That set-up alone is worth its weight in liquor, but then you throw in the character of Richard B. Riddick, escaped convict and murderer and all around badass, and baby, you got yourself a movie. In Vin Diesel's breakout role, he manages not only to manifest the living embodiment of antiheroism and ultimate badassery, he does it for a character named Richard B. Riddick. Dick Riddick. That's right. Under normal circumstances, it would be considered a completely riddickulous name that would earn you more ass kickings in high school than Leonardo DiCaprio got pussy ever. I know that there are a lot of comic books aficionados out there who bemoan the fact that somebody has yet to make a movie adaptation of Lobo, but those people probably never saw Pitch Black. If they had, they would probably sleep a little sounder.

Now you've done it! I told you never to tell him that
The Fast and the Furious:Tokyo Drift was your
Even more incredibly, director David Twohy took a premise that in lesser hands would have been a certified disaster that would have made the Titanic look like a toddler playing with a couple of bath toys, and turned it into a turn of the millennium cult classic on par with Donnie Darko or Boondock Saints. Thankfully, Twohy's near Verhoeven-esque levels of batshit insanity prevailed and gave birth to the twisted film we know and love today.

Pitch Black's narrative structure is built around  a massive bait and switch. From the opening sequence when the Hunter-Gratzner crash lands on the mysterious planet, the movie at first unfolds primarily from the viewpoint of the pilot, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell). Even when the movie shifts focus slightly to Riddick and his bulging muscles shimmering under the heat of three suns, Fry still serves as the narrative focal point, and for much of the story, right up until the very end of the film, the award for main character was still up for grabs, with Fry and Riddick being the two prime contenders. Ultimately, Riddick comes out on top, but his narrative arc is mirrored perfectly by Fry's own arc to surprisingly compelling effect.

Riddick begins the film as an apparition on the outskirts of humanity. He's more of a thing, a force of nature. All anybody really knows about him is that he's an escaped convict, as likely to murder you as look at you, being transported by another survivor, Johns (Cole Hauser), back to prison AKA a "slam." This kind of otherworldliness bears out as Riddick's first order of business after he escapes via a joint-dislocating maneuver that would make Martin Riggs cringe (made even more impressive by the fact that Vin Diesel could nearly actually do it in real life) is to waste time to pull some Bugs Bunny-level shenanigans. He's something more and less than human.

Fry, too, begins the movie as something both more and less human. She is the pilot of the doomed Hunter-Gratzner, and so is credited with saving the lives of the few people who survived the crash. What nobody except for Fry and her dead co-pilot knows is that in a last-ditch effort to save her own life, she came close to jettisoning the compartments containing all of the passengers. And by "came close" I mean actually went through with it and was only thwarted by her co-pilot physically sabotaging the jettison attempt.

Fry spends the rest of the movie hanging out with his best robot friend Bender trying to make up for her willingness to fuck over her fellow human beings for her own benefit by doing everything in her power to save the lives of those very same people she was more than willing to send straight to the gates of hell, no return address. It's not just that she's looking to alleviate her guilt and atone for past sins; she's trying to reclaim her humanity.

Oooooo, sparkles.
Riddick is also on a path to redemption, though in his case it seems more difficult. From what little is revealed, it's obvious life hasn't been all lemonade and blow jobs for our beefy antihero. What makes Riddick's journey to self-discovery is that he seems at times to genuinely not understand humanity. This is kind of understandable given the clues about his background. His seemingly rough start in life, complete with almost being nearly choked to death by his umbilical cord as he was left abandoned in a dumpster (though how he knows this is not entirely clear) coupled with his apparently lengthy stay incarcerated in a maximum facility prison of some sort has left him feeling, shall we say, somewhat alienated:

Think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? Think he could start out in some liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe? Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God... And I absolutely hate the fucker.

You did good, son. You did good.
Here, Twohy displays the perfect use of ambiguity with a level of precision usually reserved for surgeons or laser-guided missiles. We're given just enough information about Riddick's background to sink our teeth into while leaving enough room some mystery in the character's background that tantalizes rather than frustrates the audience.

In that way, Riddick's violent predilection is contextualized somewhat. While he has no problem
quipingly introducing himself as "Richard B. Riddick. Escaped convict. Murderer," then menacingly polishing off a bottle of expensive wine, one gets the impression that his violent streak is not as indiscriminate as he or Johns let on. He has ample chances to murder all of the survivors, but doesn't. Admittedly not killing people isn't that great an achievement as it's a basic building block of any civilized society and something that billions of people manage to accomplish every day for decades at a time with little to no fanfare. But Riddick also takes a shine to young Jack (Rhiana Griffith), who begins to idolize and imitate him. He could have told the kid to fuck off, or shrugged her off like an old pair of goggles, but he takes her under his wing (after a fashion).

In the emotional climax of Pitch Black, Riddick has finally engineered circumstances so that he can escape the planet but at the cost of the lives of the now-even-fewer-in-number-thanks-to-the-predatory-aliens survivors. Fry manages to follow him and stop him from abandoning her and the other survivors on the planet with the scary aliens (the selfish bitch). No match for Riddick physically, she tries to convince him to go back and save Imam (Keith David) and Jack, and asks him "Don't you want to try and rejoin the human race?" and he responds curiously: "Honestly, I wouldn't know how." Not a "Fuck you" or some other misanthropic bullshit. Behind all of the badassery and the violence, there's some small part of him that actually still longs for some kind of meaningful human contact. Or at least the odd hand job now and then.

Riddick is still an empathetic character despite his murderous ways because he seems to be trying to reclaim his humanity and rejoin its ranks, despite his protests to the contrary. Which is why when he finally does decide to return and pick up the last few survivors, even though you suspected he might, it's a huge development in his character arc. He's learning to trust again! He doesn't go from self-centred to completely selfless, but he does manage to put the lives of other human beings ahead of his own needs. He also singlehandedly takes on two of the night aliens simultaneously, so he's sensitive and badass, like Sylvester Stallone in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Nowhere is the parallel between Fry and Riddick's character arcs more pronounced than in one of the final moments of the movie when Fry is violently killed by one of the aliens right in front of an uncharacteristically bewildered Riddick. The scene is played as though it could have been either one of them that died, and when Fry is dragged out into the night like one of the few Warriors who came out to play, it's clear that her death has an effect on Riddick. There's some very obvious religious symbolism there, i.e., the saviour dying for the sins of another. Fry acts as a spiritual surrogate for Riddick, sucking on Death's icy cold dong so that Riddick could put off that eternal mouth fucking for at least one more day.

Riddick recognizes this sacrifice on the part of Fry. As Riddick, Imam, and Jack leave the Planet of Night Horrors, Jack asks Riddick what they should tell anybody they encounter if they ask about him. His response: "Tell them Riddick's dead. He died somewhere back on that planet." Though still an ass-kicking nomad travelling the wastes of the galaxy like some kind of intergalactic Mad Max, Riddick is also a different man by the end of Pitch Black, having learned the value of human life, almost like the T-800 at the end of Terminator 2.

In lesser hands (or saner ones) Pitch Black might have ended up as a forgettable sci-fi distraction, but somehow Twohy and Diesel managed to spin out an otherwise ludicrous premise into solid fucking gold with two more insanely entertaining sequels and a third currently on the way. Riddick is one of those rare gifts that keeps on giving, and an integral entry in the sci-fi cannon. We needed a hero. Instead we got Riddick. Fuck yeah.


Pitch Black is a strange beast that is both intensely a product of its time and yet kicks ass in a way that transcends time and space. Final verdict, Pitch Black is a 10/10 = One Head with Glowing Eyeballs Like a Demon from the Very Depths of Hell Itself


  1. Nice write-up, will have to check this out. Entirely selfish, I impart on you my experience with this movie: a random DVD gift on Christmas over a decade ago, I unwrapped this, not knowing what to expect. With that, the first viewing blows me away, and I'm hooked ever since. Riddick - the character - is one of the most interesting on screen. This is what I want out of sci-fi movies. Just another testament to the powerhouse of great films to come out of the turn of the century.

  2. Yeah, this movie was one of those instant classics from the turn of the millennium. There was a specific period of "experimentation" around that time and a lot of great films came out of it. I know there's a lot of bullshit about films like "oh, that movie could never get made today," but I feel like Pitch Black is one of those movies that probably wouldn't get made in today's cultural climate. I think the latest film Vin Diesel literally mortgaged his own house to raise financing to get it made.