David Twohy is one of those talents who deserves better success than what he has achieved. He’s done some stellar screenwriting work with hits like The Fugitive and G.I. Jane, and many of his directorial efforts have received critical praise from genre fans. With Pitch Black, he struck a cult following chord that still, hopefully, resonates to this day. I’ve heard many say that Pitch Black is essentially a reworking of David Twohy’s rejected script for Alien 3, but my research does not confirm any correlation between the two projects especially since he co-wrote Pitch Black with two other writers in Jim & Ken Wheat. However, it is very easy to see how this could have been part of that franchise, but thankfully, this was its own thing that launched its own franchise that I am glad to say that I am a fan of. And yes, the director’s cut is the way to go for me.
When their ship crash-lands on a remote planet, the marooned passengers soon learn that escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) isn’t the only thing they have to fear. Deadly creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to attack in the dark, and the planet is rapidly plunging into the utter blackness of a total eclipse. With the body count rising, the doomed survivors are forced to turn to Riddick with his eerie eyes to guide them through the darkness to safety. With time running out there is only one rule: Stay in the light.
It’s interesting the structure that David Twohy goes for here. Once the crash occurs, most films would take on a gradual pace to establish many of these characters, and walk through the process of a slow burn build up to the lurking threats waiting for everyone. Instead, Twohy does a lot to jump forward beyond those gradual beats and goes for the tight, faster rhythm. He knows that the necessary focus is on Riddick, Fry, and Johns, primarily, and there are points that need to be hit with them before jumping headlong into the meat of the plot. We then learn more about these individuals as the conflicts and tensions escalate, which really works. Twohy keeps the pace very well balanced because of this approach. It starts out exciting, and continues to hold to that rhythm throughout. Danger is encroaching upon these characters, and that faster tempo is very essential to the effectiveness of the scenario.
The film has some very well crafted sequences that surely deliver on the suspense using silence, subtlety, and the darkness in very effective ways. While it doesn’t send chills up my spine to tingle me with terror, it is thrilling nonetheless. For me, I would veer this more towards an action vibe. The intention is survival horror, but there is enough intense action here to cater to anyone who isn’t so easily scared. Several characters are put into peril early on, some die, and that serves the tension later on knowing that anyone is expendable in this story. Anyone can fall prey to these quickly striking nocturnal creatures, and when they are charging through hordes of them with only minimal light to clear their way, it puts an audience on edge. Yet, little of this would mean anything if there weren’t well portrayed and written characters to involve yourself with.
I really like everything that David Twohy and Radha Mitchell do with Carolyn Fry, the now defacto commanding officer after the captain died during a hull breech. We know throughout the movie that she is not an altruistic hero as she tries to jettison the passengers to save her own life during the impending crash landing. So, there’s that condemnable quality that she works to redeem herself for through the film. She struggles to lead these people to safety as she constantly pushes that responsibility away, but she has to ultimately accept that leadership role in order to survive. Mitchell really stands strong in this role delivering a dimensional character that an audience can latch onto, emotionally, and invest themselves in as she grows and solidifies through this terrifying ordeal. Fry is vulnerable, but shows her strength by the end.
Cole Hauser makes the bounty hunter Johns a very good, subtly unstable foil here. He’s supposed to be a good guy considering he caught Riddick, but he’s a tough mercenary challenging everyone’s authority while feeding his drug habit. He’s a hostile wild card that could motivate people to safety, or more likely, jeopardize lives, including his own. He and Riddick are definitely set at odds, but the scenes between them are very interesting in the psychological aspect. Riddick is a guy who likes to play on peoples’ perceptions of him, and give them a certain amount of unpredictability to what he’ll do next. Johns knows plenty of Riddick’s tricks, and it’s interesting to see them subtly square off psychologically and physically.
Of course, the real star of the movie is Vin Diesel. The character of Richard B. Riddick is very much an anti-hero. He’s a convicted criminal who makes no excuses for himself, but knows how to use everyone’s fears and perceptions about him to his benefit. Diesel is very subtle in these moments speaking softly with a smirk showing that Riddick has people wrapped around his finger. Riddick knows just how far to push, and when to twist things back around. First and foremost, he is a survivor, and he knows that you can’t always do it alone. Vin Diesel injects confidence, intelligence, and cunning into the character, but also a very compelling mystique. Just like a Snake Plissken type, the less he says, the more interesting he becomes. His actions make him intriguing while what words he does speak weave a complex tapestry that simply sucks you in. You can gradually see this character becoming an iconic role as the film progresses, and even his opening narration sets the focus intriguingly upon Riddick right from the start.
There are a couple of notable supporting roles here including Keith David as the Muslim passenger Imam. He offers up a very solid character with strong beliefs and morality that add to the diverse personalities and attitudes of these characters. David is always a charismatic actor who can do tough everyman like in They Live or The Thing, but turn around and give you a substantive, cultured character such as Imam. Add to that is Jack, portrayed by Rhianna Griffith who comes to idolize Riddick, and forms some kind of attachment to him. There’s an odd twist to the character that seems fairly unnecessary, but it’s another trait to make Jack a slight bit more memorable. These are both well established, well portrayed characters which aid the film in very grounded, human ways.
Now, Pitch Black has a certain stylized look at times that never entirely sat right with me. I do like some of the over exposed daylight shots driving home the triple sun environment, but the rather monochromatic color washes don’t quite appeal to me. I just feel there must have been a better, more subtle way to color time these scenes to allow a slightly more varied color palette to shine through. Also, the inverted colors used in one false scare moment and a few cinematography and editing choices feel more akin to a flashy, stylized music video. These artistic choices just seemed more akin to stuff I had seen in the direct-to-video market than a theatrically released motion picture. That is sad for me to admit because beyond these off-beat moments, there is a lot of excellent cinematography to be had here. There’s a definite effort put towards production value with the cinematic camera moves and angles chosen. When the film gets into the darker and darker environments, it really takes on a very moody, atmospheric, and dangerous visual intensity. The whole planet eventually feels like a black, empty void perfectly reflecting the tense situation at hand. I also like that, in contrast to the overly exposed daytime scenes, the full-on night time scenes seem straining a little for exposure. You feel how dim the light is that these people have to work with and ward off these creatures, and that extra grain on the film stock just adds more gritty edge to the movie. Those issues I had are present only in the early part of the film. The remainder of it is shot, edited, and executed especially well.
Considering this was made on a $23 million budget in the early 2000s, I will say that the visual effects are fairly good based on those factors. In the grand scheme of CGI, Pitch Black has a LOT of room for improvement. These filmmakers were very ambitious with what they wanted to achieve on such a limited budget, and I can’t fault them for that. There are some better looking moments than others, and it is likely best, by design, that so many of these effects are played out in dark environments. In a brightly lit one, these creatures and digital effects would look really bad. While Riddick’s “shine job” vision allowing him to see in the dark is pretty damn cool, the creature vision is quite primitive like some cheap Photoshop radial blur effect. I hate to talk poorly about all of this because I see the ambition and visionary talent at work, but the budget could only be stretched so far to accommodate that, which is very unfortunate. If you doubled this film’s budget, the visual effects would be approaching excellent, I’m sure. As it is, if the characters and scenario pull you in, I think any shortcomings in the CGI will be forgivable in an audience’s eyes.
Another really exceptional quality here is Graeme Revell’s rich score. The main theme is excellent, thrilling, and rather triumphant. In an age of films that rarely attempt to forge a recognizable main theme of any kind, it’s refreshing to see especially a genre film crafting one that strikes a strong chord. Even though it had been several, several years since I had seen either this or The Chronicles of Riddick, I still recalled the theme fondly. Revell has done some stunning work when he really applies himself, such as on The Crow, Strange Days, and The Craft, and his effort really shows through here.
Surely, the basic concept of Pitch Black is not very original as I’m sure you can draw comparisons to the Alien franchise and various other science fiction / horror classics. However, like I said, even if this film does tingle you with terror, it has action and excitement to engage you. I definitely like the Riddick character. He’s very intriguing, and a solid anti-hero in cinema is always a fun concept. Vin Diesel was the right man for this role, and I love that he has had such a devotion to it alongside David Twohy. Pitch Black is definitely a cult classic which has plenty of merit and entertainment value. It’s a straight up type of film with certain plot conveniences to allow for this story to happen, but if it hooks you and you have fun watching it, none of it is gonna matter.