Format: Syfy Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are only a few basic science fiction stories. I read somewhere that the classic science fiction story involves a ship in the middle of space and a distress signal from somewhere. Pitch Black is kind of like that if you remove the distress signal and replace it with a meteor storm and a crash. This is an interesting movie for a few reasons. In a lot of ways, this follows a pretty standard science fiction/monster movie plot. There are some real differences from expectations, though, and those differences raise this above the level of the standard film of this sort.
The closest parallel film to Pitch Black in a lot of ways is Alien 3. This isn’t much of a surprise, since it evidently started life as an unused idea for that movie. The connection with the Alien franchise is evident in the design of the creatures that dominate the second half of the film as well. The connections go deeper, though. Both movies are about a group of people trapped on a planet that is inhabited (or infected) by alien creatures that are top-tier predators.
Pitch Black starts with the crash. Our spaceship is hit by a meteor swarm and crash lands on a planet. The captain is killed before the crash, the second-in-command dies just after the crash, and the third officer, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), is suddenly in charge. It’s a minor plot point that Fry almost dumped the passengers during the crash, a move that would have killed them but would have increased her own chances of survival.
The people who survive the crash are a motley crew. We’ve got a couple of prospector types (John Moore and Claudia Black), an imam with three young pilgrims (Keith David and Les Chantery, Sam Sari, and Firass Dirani), an antique dealer (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and a stowaway named Jack (Rhiana Griffith). The final two passengers are special. These are William Johns (Cole Hauser), a drug-addicted bounty hunter and Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), a notorious criminal and murderer. Riddick managed to escape the last prison he was in and Johns has tracked him down and is returning him to prison, hoping to collect a hefty reward.
Once on the planet, the survivors discover a few things. The first is that Riddick naturally escapes immediately, which puts everyone on high alert. The second is that the planet was once inhabited by a geological survey that suddenly vanished. Third is that the planet has three suns, meaning constant daylight.
These aren’t the really scary discoveries, though. These consist of the realization that the other planets in the system and the three suns line up every 22 years for a prolonged eclipse. The fact that it’s every 22 years is important, since the geological survey disappeared 22 years ago. And, it soon becomes evident that when the lights go out, the planet’s main life form takes over. These predators kill anything they come across. Their main weakness is light, which burns them. So, during the eclipse, they’ll be out and breeding—and eating—anything they can find. If you think that eclipse is about to happen, you’ve seen a movie before.
The first half of Pitch Black sets all of this up. We get a slow learning curve on the creatures and lose a couple of people early on to prepare the way for the second half of the film. In truth, Riddick is the main antagonist for the first 45 minutes or so. Then, when the lights start to go out, the creatures become the main threat as the survivors are slowly picked off one at a time. And, of course, there’s tension between Riddick and Johns. There’s also no small amount of sexual tension between Riddick and Fry.
Where Pitch Black succeeds is in the details of the characters. In a standard movie like this, Riddick would either be a simon-pure man wrongfully accused of his crimes (which is close to his backstory, actually) or a complete scumbag (which is how he acts). Johns would be the same, only a cop version. In reality, they’re both a little of both. Making Johns a bounty hunter, and one with a serious drug addiction, is a fun touch. Making Fry someone who is reluctantly in charge because she almost sacrificed all of the passengers is another.
In fact, the only thing that really bothers me is the fact that Riddick is made almost a supernatural character in some ways. Apparently, some of this is explained in the sub-standard sequel that followed this. In Pitch Black, though, Riddick has the equivalent of animal senses. He can detect certain things by smell, for instance, and because the “animal” part of the brain is kept awake in cryonic suspension, he’s completely awake in cryo. Making Riddick a sort of human super predator seems like a needless touch to me. It wasn’t necessary and I think it detracts from what the story could have been.
Pitch Black does a hell of a lot right. I loved it the first time I saw it, and I’ve found I’m always a touch disappointed with it. Still, it’s worth a watch.
Why to watch Pitch Black: It’s much better than the premise.
Why not to watch: For as good as it is, it’s pretty derivative.