Throwback Thursday: The Darkness Is Your Friend in Pitch Black

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

In this column I try to keep all throwbacks in the twentieth century. You have to draw the line somewhere as to what you consider a throwback, and my arbitrary line has been the year 2000. I will occasionally go past that date if I’m looking at a series or director, but more often than not I try to stick to that. It suits my orderly nature. Today, however, I’m going to break that soft rule (just for you) when I discuss 2000’s Pitch Black and its subsequent sequels.

Movie poster for Pitch Black.

Movie poster for Pitch Black.

Released to mixed reviews, Pitch Black follows a random assortment of characters as their spaceship crash lands on a planet with three suns. The survivors find that while the planet is bathed in sunlight most of the time, a rare eclipse will be happening that will shove the world into darkness (timing is crucial to plot points in films). Mix that in with subterranean creatures who only live in the dark and people with their own agendas on why they want to survive, and you get confrontations and shifting loyalties. It’s a worn premise without a doubt, but what really works is the actors and their interactions. It’s the first starring role for Vin Diesel. He had previously been seen in smaller roles, but this and the next year’s The Fast and the Furious made him a star. Diesel’s character is the linchpin of Pitch Black. A career convict that no prison seems to be able to hold, he has a specific code of honor but will do anything he needs to survive. He also happens to have modified eyes that let him see in the dark, that he received in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. A good skill for a planet that will be covered in darkness with scores of nocturnal predators.

Vin Diesel as Riddick

Vin Diesel as Riddick.

Along with Diesel, there are a number of great actors who get their chance to shine. Keith David (from John Carpenter’s The Thing and many more equally amazing films) as a Muslim imam khatib, Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill series) as a self-centered pilot, Claudia Black (Farscape) as a settler looking for a better life, and Cole Hauser (Dazed and Confused) as a bounty hunter hoping to collect the reward on Vin Diesel’s character, Riddick. I will note that it’s nice to see a religion other than Christianity take center stage in an American film. The great thing is that it’s not set up as weird or different, it’s just their religion. It’s played as part of the characters, but not their be-all end-all.

Radha Mitchell, Keith David, and Les Chantery.

Pitch Black, from left: Radha Mitchell, Keith David, and Les Chantery.

The film uses different filters and camera lenses to break up sections of the story. This helps to further the plot as the eclipse draws nearer and also cover up a small budget. With all of these elements working so well together as well as at the box office and home video, that when the sequel was announced the filmmakers would try to stay within the mold of the first film. However, what we got four years later was a space opera in every sense of the word. With space battles, multiple planets, and a fully realized mythology, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick diverged so much from the first film that if Vin Diesel and his glowing eyes weren’t in it you’d think it was part of a completely different franchise.

I admire the chutzpah of the creative team. They go about not only world building but universe building around the Riddick character. The downside is that they try to squeeze too much mythology into the running time of The Chronicles of Riddick. This time Riddick is hunted by a religious group called Necromongers who are slowly taking over the galaxy. There are a lot of interesting things happening with this cult, who are searching for the Underverse to allow them to be both alive and dead at the same time. Any intricacies of this idea are too rushed, though, just to get to the next action scene. Keith David’s Abu makes a cameo, and it’s an interesting contrast to see his Muslim teacher dealing with this new religion. The director David Twohy clearly wants to say something about organized religions, but the ideas get muddled and his message doesn’t quite come across to me. On a first time viewing it doesn’t work, however subsequent viewings allow it to air out a bit more since you know the plot points. Chronicles of Riddick has problems as a standalone film, but does work in expanding Riddick’s worldviews and motivations.

Thandi Newton and Vin Diesel.

The scene and costume designs are incredibly well done.

One interesting story, taken from interviews and commentary on the DVD’s, is that Vin Diesel loves Judi Dench so much that he made a personal plea to her to be in the film. She eventually acquiesced (even though she admitted to not quite understanding what was going on) because Diesel was so charming. She plays an elemental character whose motivations are vague and really just serves to further the plot along by way of verbal exposition. Basically, The Chronicles of Riddick was made through sheer force of will by Twohy and Diesel. The film bombed at the box office, but once again ended up doing better on home video so that the two got another shot at continuing the saga of Riddick in 2013.

Titled simply Riddick, we see the aftermath of his war with the Necromongers where he is left for dead on a deserted planet and he must learn how to survive and figure out how to get off the hostile planet to seek his revenge. The film takes us back to what worked in the first film. One planet with an assorted cast of characters who all have different motivations; stir the pot and then follow them. This time Diesel is joined by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Bokeem Woodbine (Black Dynamite—check it out). The film works well and ends on a note that makes you yearn for a continuation to find out what happens next. Supposedly, the team will start filming the fourth Riddick film this year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Mercenaries standing around

The mercenaries try to figure out a trap left by Riddick.

The main reason to watch this series of films is for Vin Diesel and his portrayal of a character who will do anything to survive. Because of this instinct and a lack of empathy for people who get in his way, Riddick ends up being considered an anti-hero, but if you look closely (or not even that closely) you’ll notice that he really just wants to be left alone and it’s the outside world that constantly intrudes on him. In the final film, if he didn’t run across a deserted mercenary hideout which gives him the opportunity to escape and seek revenge for being betrayed, you get the feeling that he’d be just as happy living alone on this civilization-less planet.

While the first film would be loosely considered a space opera, the second film pulls the franchise smack dab into grand storytelling, while the third film dials it back a bit but still focuses on a bigger idea than the original. All in all, they make for fun viewing if you like your space opera dark and your anti-heroes as cold-blooded killers.

A man wrapped in light.

Stay in the light!

 

These films can both be found on Blu-ray and DVD. They are currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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