People weren’t kidding when they used Chronicles of Riddick‘s expanded budget to blame for its box office demise. I always knew its predecessor was made with much tighter purse strings, but the level of ingenuity necessary to make it still look good surpassed any expectations I might have had. Not only does co-writer (with Jim and Ken Wheat) and director David Twohy play with color tints, vision filters, and an abundance of darkness to hide some of his CGI creatures’ fabrication, he ensures the plot and characters are stripped to the barest of bones for us to simply go along for the tense ride they too endure. It wasn’t about cult antihero Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) like today either—he’s just one of many stranded crash survivors. Back then the title Pitch Black literally said it all.
The absence of light is essentially the main character. Sure there are the psychological games on the ground played between default Captain Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), maximum-security prisoner Riddick, and the man tasked to secure his transport William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), but that’s included for us to understand where everyone is coming from and how similar to one another they are. Remove their posturing and each member of the trio is a survivor to their core. They’ll use anyone they have to in order to secure their own safety and if that means making covert deals with whomever seems primed to share assistance at the time, so be it. The true success of Pitch Black comes from the reality that we have no idea what might happen. They are each capable of anything.
When you add their desolate environment’s giant flying nocturnal creatures awoken to the prospect of blood for the first time in twenty-two years thanks to a full eclipse, it’s less about man versus monster than discovering man is the monster. God or the lack thereof arrives courtesy of an Imam (Keith David) on his pilgrimage to Mecca who survived the crash, but the greed revealed in the details of Riddick and Johns’ relationship plus Carolyn’s status as a wild card willing to unload the hibernating strangers in her care to save her own skin minutes previously shrouds everything in the unknown. Each has the potential to release dead weight and fly away if not for young Jack (Rhiana Griffith) softening their skin, a child who wants nothing more than to prove his strength and value to the group.
The filmmakers masterfully set their mystery up with misdirection so we’re forced to wonder about Riddick’s intentions longer than necessary. He’s introduced as the villain—a merciless killer capable of seeing in the dark who’s been chained like an animal for who knows how long. When he escapes it’s only natural for all to believe they’re in danger. And to tell the truth, they should fear him because he’d probably have killed every last one if the creatures hadn’t revealed themselves in the shadows to be even more formidable. In the end they need each other to survive this impossible onslaught. Carolyn and Johns may have been able to fend for themselves, but it’s difficult with so many passengers to protect. Between three of the Imam’s boys and antiquities dealer Paris Ogilvie (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), “dead weight” certainly exists.
So they choose their leaders, hatch a couple ideas, and spend the duration of the film looking for escape. The tone and aesthetic beg comparison to Alien as a result with the very human story of hubris alongside compassion in a compassionless world pulling us into the dark. Twohy throws us into the mind of the monsters by displaying fuzzy black and white sonar visuals, inside Riddick with his acute vision, and the science fiction wonders of a planet so close to another ringed behemoth that it’s forever seen in the sky. The screen’s covered in a red or blue sheen and we become disoriented at times as it elongates and fisheyes. You may even find yourself wanting to take a drag on the oxygen breathers everyone wears to combat the atmosphere when things heat up.
Diesel provides a wonderfully composed character without fear and full of sass while Hauser supplies the cold-hearted lawman and Mitchell the slowly thawing tactician needing to learn what it means to lead. David, Fitz-Gerald, and Griffith all add their own flecks of color with unforeseen actions directly causing the deaths of other passengers as well as the need for ever-changing plans. At their worst they are stereotypes meant to appear as familiar and at their best they help us relate to their plight and hope for a miracle. We want them to live—especially Riddick despite his rough-edged demeanor—because we see ourselves in the same situation struggling minute to minute. It wouldn’t work if we hated them so leaving a shred of compassion in each is paramount. Even Johns has his moments, albeit few.
This is sci-fi world building at its finest with expendable characters, minimalistic plot, and enough glimmers of back story to keep interests piqued and writers actively seeking new chapters. Does Chronicles of Riddick lose something from going so epic so fast? You bet. Thankfully, though, the latest installment (Riddick) seems to get back to the independent sensibility it excels at. We don’t need elaborate fight scenes that go beyond Diesel and Hauser sparring in the dark nor copious amounts of computer animation to fill a brightly lit screen. Watching Ogilve in a vacuum of blackness blow fire into the air to reveal hundreds of creatures surrounding him supplies all the intensity we could want. Always keeping us on our toes with a streak of levity to relieve some tension, Pitch Black‘s hybridized horror is a delight.