May 1, 2020
Pitch Black (2000) / The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Like Sunshine, which I reviewed a couple of weeks back, Pitch Black is a sci-fi/horror film featuring a crew of space travelers getting picked off one by one by an unseen menace (in Pitch Black, a race of nocturnal predators; in Sunshine, mostly their own stupidity). Like Sunshine, it owes a huge debt to Alien for its story and style, but Pitch Black goes a bit further than that, featuring a race of carnivores that might as well be Xenomorphs. Obviously, the film is highly derivative of Alien, as well as Predator, Starship Troopers, Mad Max, and Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. But you know what? Sometimes originality is overrated.
After all, Alien itself borrows heavily from other films, and the concept of characters in an isolated setting being killed off one by one goes all the way back to Agatha Christie, at least. Pitch Black, despite a mixed response from critics and audiences upon release, deserves consideration as a classic in its own right. Admittedly, it’s a whole truckload of sci-fi, action, and horror movie clichés, but in this case, those clichés are perfectly executed.
The same can’t be said of the sequel, 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick, an unfortunate attempt to shoehorn the first film’s anti-hero into a garish galactic spectacle. The film had a budget of over $100 million, compared to just $23 million for Pitch Black. A sequel that cost over four times as much as the original is generally a huge red flag, and a sign that the makers have completely lost sight of what made the first movie work.
Nine years later, a third Riddick movie is finally making its way to theaters. No surprise, the filmmakers and star/executive producer Vin Diesel are touting this as a back-to-basics entry more faithful to the original. And while that may be true, that’s the same thing they said about the sequel to Alien vs. Predator.
Pitch Black begins 500 years in the future, with a freighter in deep space loaded up with passengers in suspended animation. The ship passes through a comet’s tail, and ends up riddled with debris (yes, 500 years from now, we’ll have interstellar travel and “cryosleep”, but we’ll forget to invent force fields).
The ship crash-lands on a nearby planet, and the survivors are the expected motley bunch: Among them, we have the ship’s pilot (Radha Mitchell), now in command after the rest of the crew died in the crash, an imam (Keith David) and three young followers on a religious pilgrimage, a young female stowaway (Rhiana Griffith) pretending to be a boy named “Jack”, and of course, Riddick (Diesel), a dangerous convict on his way to a maximum security prison.
The planet has three suns, meaning the surface is perpetually bathed in daylight. They find a settlement that at first appears abandoned, but later they realize the colonists were all wiped out by an unknown catastrophe. Meanwhile, several members of their own party are killed off. Initially, they blame Riddick, but soon discover the planet is teeming with ravenous predators that live underground.
The creatures can only survive in the dark, and as bad luck would have it, our heroes have crash-landed on the exact day every 22 years when a triple solar eclipse occurs, plunging the entire planet into total darkness. (Of course, any eclipse that happens this fast should end just as fast. Are we really to believe the planets aligned in a matter of minutes, and will just sort of hang together like that for days or weeks to come?)
But Riddick, having spent most of his life in dark prison cells, has gotten himself outfitted with shiny silver eyes that allow him to see in the dark. And so, a convicted murderer becomes the group’s only hope for surviving long enough to make it to an escape craft.
This was the film that made Vin Diesel a breakout star, and understandably so. Riddick comes off as the most efficient one-man killing machine since John Matrix. With his imposing voice and physique, Diesel seemed for a time to be the inheritor of the action hero mantle abdicated by the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It never really happened for him, mostly because of poor script choices, which included going straight to the Kindergarten Cop phase of his career.
Not only that, but the kind of action movies that Diesel would have been perfect for aren’t really made anymore (and the ones that do get made tend to star Jason Statham). In fact, Pitch Black could be seen as one of the last hurrahs of over-the-top action cinema of the ‘90s, where a PG-13 rating wasn’t a necessity, where fights were staged in actual locations instead of in front of green screens, and where most of the stunts were still accomplished via practical effects. And there are several moments where writer-director David Twohy (who also wrote Waterworld, a review for another day) follows another prevalent ‘90s action trend: imitating John Woo.
But despite having the look of a direct-to-video actioner, Pitch Black does a lot of things right. Like Alien, it never gives us a good look at the creatures, allowing our imaginations to run wild and make them that much scarier. The all-encompassing darkness and our inability to know what’s out there only heightens the tension. And it has a pretty strong character arc for Mitchell, as the last surviving member of the ship’s crew, who comes to understand the value of self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, she learns this lesson the hard way.
Pitch Black isn’t award-worthy entertainment by any means, but as far as action movies go, it’s a solid 7 or 8.
So expectations were high that Chronicles of Riddick would be the Aliens of the Riddick saga, building on the backstory and being a kick-ass action film in its own right. But alas, Pitch Black may have been a fluke for Twohy, because what we get instead is overblown, overly complicated trash. Instead of sticking with the lean aesthetics of the previous film, Chronicles takes a cue from The Matrix and builds up a massive nonsensical sci-fi mythology, involving world-killers and ethereal beings and prophesies and something called an “Underverse”.
Five years after Pitch Black, Riddick has taken refuge on an ice planet, where he’s nearly caught by a mercenary named Toombs, an annoying character who feels like Dog the Bounty Hunter transported 500 years into the future. Riddick thinks the imam he rescued in Pitch Black sent the merc after him, so he travels to the planet Helion Prime to confront him. But it turns out the mercs were actually hired by an “Elemental”, whatever that is, played by Dame Judi Dench.
She floats in and out of scenes, materializing and dematerializing before our eyes, almost like Dench herself couldn’t decide if she really wanted to be in this movie. But she knows that Riddick is the only one who can defeat the Necromongers, a death-worshipping cult that travels from planet to planet, annihilating every world that refuses to convert to their religious order. Their leader Lord Marshal has been to the Underverse, and come back with the souvenir of “Soulpower”, literally the ability to tear people’s souls from their bodies.
But Riddick can defeat him, because you see, he’s not just some violent criminal; Riddick is also retroactively the sole survivor of a planet called Furya, and also—sigh—the prophesied Chosen One who can vanquish all evil. Seriously, does every bloated epic need a Chosen One? Can we just retire this trope already? Also, at what point in the next 500 years will we as a race suddenly start taking prophesies seriously again?
Randomly, in the middle of a Necromonger assault, Dog the Bounty Hunter captures Riddick and takes him to prison in exchange for a bounty of 1.5 million (dollars? credits? bars of latinum?). Though, I’m not quite understanding why a prison would pay to take on another prisoner, especially one who has a history of violent escapes.
Even dumber, it appears this is a coed prison; Riddick is reunited with Jack, all grown up. She’s now a brutal killer herself, and going by the name “Kyra” for no reason. Apparently, original actress Rhiana Griffith was considered for the role, but supposedly she didn’t have enough of an intimidating physique. So they hired the 105-lbs.-soaking-wet Alexa Davalos instead (I’m pretty sure they just wanted someone hotter).
Riddick frees himself and Kyra with an idiotic escape plan that involves literally outrunning the sunrise. Eventually, they get back to Helion Prime so Riddick can finally go mano a mano with Lord High Charlie, or whatever his name is, and fulfill his destiny.
A lot of the sets and costumes have a strong ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern flavor, and I’ll be the one to say it: it looks fucking stupid. They blew millions of dollars on costumes and CGI ships that look fucking stupid.
Looking most stupid of all is Karl Urban, playing the Necromongers’ second in command, who has a rait-tail mullet that would make Brian Bosworth jealous. And Thandie Newton is here as his… lover? Wife? Well, mostly she’s here to be Lady MacBeth and coerce him into killing Lord High Charlie himself.
The whole thing unfortunately calls to mind David Lynch’s similarly overdone and ridiculous-looking adaptation of Dune. Only here, we get our very own Kwisatz Haderriddick.
Apparently, Twohy envisioned this as the first installment in a big bombastic trilogy involving the Necromongers and the Underverse, with Pitch Black becoming sort of a Hobbit-like prequel to his Lord of the Rings-inspired pretentiousness. Unsurprisingly, this never happened, due to Chronicles’ weak box office take. The studio balked at future Riddick projects, and the rights to the character were eventually acquired by Diesel and Twohy themselves. And now you know why this year’s Riddick is being advertised as a back-to-basics sequel; there really isn’t the budget for anything more.