Pitch Black

Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch Black first published by Through The Trees

“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.”

So says Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), a native of the planet Furya, at the beginning of David Twohy’s Pitch Black, even as we see him blindfolded and chained in a sleeping pod before the spacecraft transporting him is hit by a meteor shower. Now captain-less and full of holes, the vessel crashes down on a desert planet where a small group of survivors – the ship’s docking pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), Riddick’s bounty-hunting escort William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), Muslim pilgrims, off-world settlers, an antiquities dealer and several children – must first contend with the threat that convicted murderer and escapologist Riddick poses, before realising that the planet’s photophobic creatures, waiting in the shadows for a once-every-22-years total eclipse – represent a much greater danger. 

So what starts as a space-operatic adventure in an exotic world soon becomes monster horror pitched somewhere between Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and James Cameron’s Aliens (Twohy had scripted several early drafts of Alien 3). Riddick’s opening voiceover might hint that all this is, precisely, a nightmare in which his recurring anxieties of entrapment and fantasies of escape play out in an induced sleep. Meanwhile his suggestion that his ‘animal side’ dominates raises a moral question that will be explored throughout the film’s events: is this stone-cold killer, whose eyes have been surgically enhanced to let him see in the dark, more akin to the planet’s scotophil predators, or to his human company? A similar question also hovers over Fry and Johns, who both at times prove as monstrously capable as Riddick of treating their fellow travellers like disposable means to survivalist ends.

Sometimes science fiction deals not only in what might be, but in what might have been. There is no question that Riddick is the hero – or at least antihero – here, as Pitch Black spawned a franchise that would follow the outlaw’s further escapades. He even, in this first outing, comes with a readymade enthusiast in the form of young Jack (Rhiana Griffith) who is quick to imitate Riddick’s mannerisms and mode of dress. Yet it could have been so different. Much as fanboy Jack will turn out to be a fangirl in disguise, the hypermasculine Riddick too has been regendered from earlier drafts in which he was in fact a female character. He was also originally destined to die in the film’s climactic scenes (a scenario still imagined in this final version, as Riddick tells the other survivors to lie to any inquiring authority and “tell ’em Riddick’s dead – he died somewhere on that planet”). Yet during the production, Twohy realised the great potential in Riddick’s character. We can now only dream the counterfactual of Fry instead returning for a follow-up. What is certain is that Diesel had now well and truly broken out, fast and Furyan.

Strap: David Twohy’s escapist sci-fi horror pits a convicted killer against photophobic alien monsters

Anton Bitel