Pitch Black (2000) – A Neglected Classic
by Dan Haggard
Pitch Black (2000), directed by David Twohy, is almost the perfect subject of review for InDepth – a movie widely dismissed as derivative sci-fi, schlock horror. Looking at the “top reviews” on Rotten Tomatoes reveals an establishment totally incapable of engaging with this film. Robert Ebert is off put by the fighting crew and the implausibility of the existence of the aliens; Kevin Thomas from the LA Times complains that the movie gives us what we’ve seen a thousand times before. Usually when a deeply subversive movie like this is misunderstood by the many, it is carried aloft by the cognoscenti few and branded cult. But this never quite happened with Pitch Black. Even those who express a liking for it often do so in the way one might confess to going off one’s diet of green leafy salads, or high brow sophistication of an accepted sort. In actual fact, Pitch Black is one of the best movies in its genre. If it exposes the total inability of contemporary audiences to go beyond the conventions of genre and engage critically with a text, it humiliates the professional reviewer class whose job it is to elevate our understanding. InDepth takes pride in rescuing such films from the dust and putting them on the pedestal where they belong.
Pitch Black is indeed derivative – but said with as much context as is usually given by most reviewers, this tells you absolutely nothing. Yes, it takes elements from a number of films – particularly Alien. Many will also point out its roots in classic westerns like High Noon and Rio Bravo, or the B horror flicks like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and John Carpenter’s Precinct 13. And like these movies, the characters end up fighting amongst themselves – making them easy fodder for the monsters that come to gobble them. Finally, the central theme of all these movies is the central theme in Pitch Black too – what remains of humanity when surrounded by inhumane circumstance? But to label it “derivative” isn’t even a description let alone a criticism. Unless you think movies like Lynch’s Eraserhead are the only thing worth watching, then “derivative” might be thought by many to be a compliment. Even Romero admitted to ripping off Matheson’s novel I am Legend.
As a piece of science fiction horror, it will not blow your mind. The aliens look like a munted plasticine version of Giger’s original. It’s motion sight idea was stolen for Jurassic Park. Romero gave us splatter but there isn’t a whole lot of it here. You’ll see it coming when a person gets eaten and you won’t jump out of your seat. But aren’t these the essential elements of a sci-fi horror flick? How can this movie be good when these aspects are so lame?
Well, we have a lot of ground to cover to answer that. I’m going to start by walking you through the first scene in detail to show you just how well crafted this movie can be. It opens with a classic shot of a long-barreled space ship heading toward the tail debris of a comet orbiting three suns. Certainly another derivative aspect – but it looks nice and immediately gets you in the zone.
What’s great about the opening sequence is the way it so tightly and expertly sets up the central theme of the film, while at the same time getting across an enormous amount of information about the characters. Vin Diesal’s baritone narration cuts in over the visuals to tell us what’s what. Unlike most narration, it’s not artificial. Whoever is talking (we don’t know who yet), is talking to themselves, not to us.
They say that your brain shuts down in cryo-sleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side. No wonder I’m still awake.
Audience – meet Richard B. Riddick. We see flickering red lights and a blindfolded man chained at the mouth. He’s a monster. We know the central theme of the movie. We know it from one line of dialogue and one single shot.
Riddick keeps thinking out loud. Tries to assess his situation, what he has learnt about his fellow passengers. As I said before, the narration isn’t artificial. He isn’t telling us about them just because it happens to be a convenient way to introduce an enormous amount of important information (although it certainly is) – he’s trying to figure out where he is likely to be based on what he knows about them. It’s completely in character and believable. (Contrast with the corporate schmoe in Avatar who explains to Ripley why the mining operation exists – as if she didn’t know!)
What does Riddick learn – and what do WE learn? He recalls the Arab voice of a “hoodoo holy man”; the smell of a prospector woman, a “free settler type” who, Riddick tells us, only take the back roads; and Mr Johns, his captor that plans to take Riddick to back to the slam – but Riddick has already figured it out. This is a rag tag bunch – outsiders hiding from the law, or worse; the kind of people who take the back roads, the kind of people who have plenty to hide. This is their undoing – another thing Riddick quickly surmises.
The final set piece of the movie is set up with the very next scene. Small meteorites from the comet debris go straight through the hull, killing the captain, and sending the ship hurtling toward a crash on a nearby planet. The two remaining officers, Fry (Radha Mitchell) and Owens, are popped out of cryo in order to deal with the situation. As the pilot, it’s Fry’s job to level the ship and prevent disaster, but she can’t get the ship level. Without hesitation she prepares to ditch all the passengers and cargo in order to save herself, telling Owens that she isn’t prepared to die for them. Owens prevents her and she still manages to level the ship and save some of the passengers. Owens, however, is killed, leaving the crew grateful to Fry, but unaware she tried to kill them all.
The opening scene fulfills every conceivable requirement for a movie opening. It gives us an enormous amount of information: the characters, the theme, the central conflict for our protagonist Fry – and none of it uses artificial tricks or devices. The story telling is honest.
What’s more – it’s incredibly bold. We have a story about an evil murderer among shady, back-road people – trying to survive on a desert planet. Now how many movies like that are getting funded these days? The formula is to stick us with a nice guy protagonist that shares our hopes and dreams and watch as he overcomes his difficulties. But here our most sympathetic character is one that almost murdered the whole crew. The only other perspective we have is Riddick’s and he actually IS a murderer. It’s no surprise then that the climax of the film would involve these two facing off against one another. But what two perspectives are being tested? And how does it resolve?
Riddick is an anti-heroic character. He is amoral and a self-confessed murderer, but also capable and self-sufficient. Anti-heroes are common enough now to invoke a yawn, but this character is nevertheless quite an achievement. The true art of the anti-hero is to make him as bad as possible and yet still have us either liking, admiring or respecting them. Riddick is about as obnoxious as they come. He has some of the elements of the Byronic hero – he rejects society, it’s morality, but he seems to lack all of those elements of the Byronic hero that makes that archtype sympathetic. He’s not charming; he’s not a mere “bad boy” that the woman profess to disdain but secretly wish to bed. He takes pleasure in making the other crew members fear him, particularly Fry. So what is it about Riddick that has us sympathetic?
The answer to this question reveals some of the deep subtleties in this story. Riddick gets our sympathy because through him a light is shone on all the hypocrisy and falsity in his other crew mates. Fry tried to kill all of the other passengers. Johns, Riddick’s captor, lets everyone think he is a cop and an upholder of law and virtue, when really he is a junky and a mercenary. Riddick is just a job and a payday to him. Even the minor characters all have their various flaws and inauthenticities: the Antique dealer has his materialism, the settler shoots another survivor out of fear of it being Riddick – even Jack, a girl who pretends to be a boy and constantly apes Riddick’s masculinity and violent tendencies. Riddick sees through all of it. He’s the only one who can accept what he is.
It’s no accident then that the director gave Riddick surgically enhanced eyes that can see in the dark but cause him pain when exposed to the light. It’s not just a cool gimmick and plot device for a movie the half of which takes place in complete darkness. He’s the one who can see in the dark because he’s the one who can see through the moral hyprocrisy of people in general. The other characters are literally thrown into the dark in the second half of the movie when a total eclipse occurs. But morally they are completely in the dark the whole time. Riddick is authentic and true to himself and accepts the darkness for what it is. The other characters all think they are living in the light and give off the airs that they do – but it’s false. That’s why we ultimately sympathise with Riddick.
Fry is a character that is on the cusp of awareness. She finds out who she is when she decides to kill the crew to save herself. She can’t stand the self-loathing this knowledge brings. For most of the movie she is much like the other characters. She engages in as much hypocrisy as the others – particularly in her criticisms of Johns. But her niggling doubt is clawing away at her from the inside. Repeatedly she asks Riddick for help in guiding them all through the dark – but she also wants help in coming to terms with who she is. Riddick obliges in both respects.
The climax comes when Riddick leaves the three remaining characters behind, trapped in a cave, unable to escape because of the monsters. He reaches the ship and perpares to leave them all behind to die. Fry takes the only remaining light and reaches Riddick before he takes off in the shuttle. She begs him to help her save the girl and the priest. Riddick gives her another option…
He offers the choice of coming with him and explains that if she takes more light to go back and help the others, he will leave her and them to die. He gives her the guidance she asked for. He shows her how to be authentic – how to accept the amoral reality that defines them all. He tells her it’s easy. All she has to do is just get on the ship. But they both know this is a lie. They both know the lifetime of guilt and self-loathing this entails. Fry breaks down and cries. She can’t face it. Riddick helps her to her feet and gently leads her up the ramp.
At the last moment she learns to face her fear. She chooses to sacrifice herself for the other two. Riddick admires this – not just because it’s selfless. Either option is as difficult as the other for a person who can see. He admires it because the choice is authentic. He decides to help her because she has proved that she truly believes her code – and that’s Riddick’s code. We only learn that he has one at the very end.
There is a lot more I could say about this movie. But hopefully I’ve gotten across the main idea. It’s not perfect by any means. But it certainly doesn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves. Sometimes I wonder if Twohy the director fluked it. The sequel is a pretty average movie. And he did borrow a lot of sci-fi horror cliches. But ultimately I believe the imagery and themes are too tightly woven to be accidental. Let’s hope for a return to form in the third installment.