Against all odds, Richard B. Riddick returns to theaters this Friday, nine years after his last feature film left audiences hanging on one hell of an ending…
But we’ll get to that.
For now, we’re going back to 2000, when writer-director David Twohy first introduced audiences to Riddick, as well as a pre-Fast & Furious Vin Diesel, in a sci-fi thriller that took us all by surprise, Pitch Black. Keep in mind, the movie is thirteen years old, so we’re going to casually spoil the shit out of this bitch, ya hear?
“Murders aside, Riddick belongs in the asshole hall of fame. He loves to jaw-jack and he loves to make you feel afraid because that’s all he has, and you’re playing right into it.”
Pitch Black opens, as does its spiritual predecessor, Alien, in space. Riddick is a prisoner being transported, and, though everyone else is in cryogenic stasis (human popsicles), he remains awake, and takes inventory of the other passengers aboard the Hunter-Gratzner. It’s a good scene which sets up the nihilistic bent of the character and his world, along with a unique way of introducing us to the rest of the cast. Don’t get too attached, though…
Things go south quickly as the ship passes through the tail of the comet and is peppered with debris, killing the captain in his tube and awaking the pilots, Fry and Owens. Fry is played by the beautiful Radha Mitchell, who is Australian and therefore descended from violent criminals. True story. Owens is played by some guy, but who cares, because after a couple of minutes, he will be critically injured and eventually die in crushing agony. In an effort to stabalize the ship before landing on a nearby planet, Fry attempts to jettison her cargo… Of passengers. Fortunately for them, the mechanism jams and the ship is able to make a rough, but survivable (for everybody but Owens) landing, though it will never fly again. Once on this deserted desert planet, with three suns causing perpetual daylight, the passengers wake up and set up camp, except for one Richard B. Riddick, who is missing. Somebody had better call Anthony LaPaglia, because he’s gone… Without a Trace.
Then the movie starts, and what’s most apparent is that, despite the limited twenty million dollar budget, the film looks great, with visually arresting landscape shots, color correction to give the deserts of Australia a distinctly alien look, and strong use of depth of field. Throughout this whole first act, Riddick is actively stalking his fellow castaways, and if often seen in the background, or, in one exceptionally awesome case, seen out-of-focus in the foreground as the camera follows another character.
This technique is very cool when applied to odd-man-out of survivors, but takes on a terrifying new meaning when transposed to the indigenous inhabitants of this strange planet, terrifying alien monsters who will eat and kill you and cut you in half and squish your head and eat the faces off of kids. They literally do all of those things in this movie. David Twohy (and cinematographer David Eggby, who won awards for this film) understands how monster movies work and refrains from showing us too much of these hideous creatures until the stakes are at their highest point. In addition, he gives us a little bit of that Tremors biology with the creatures showcasing three different phases of life throughout the movie, from harmless, light-emitting grubs, to flocks of bat-like flyers, to Xenomorph-styled Raptors.
“All you people are so scared of me. Most days I’d take that as a compliment. But it ain’t me you gotta worry about now.”
Speaking of eating the faces off of kids, a large portion of the casualties are the teenage disciples of the Muslim Imam, played by the always-excellent Keith David. When the movie first started, I thought it was pretty cool that half the characters were devout Muslims, since in most futuristic sci-fi, religion is either gone completely or everybody is some form of non-denominational Christian, and this was a nice twist. However, when everybody started dying, I began to wonder if somewhere along the line, Christian Missionaries were changed to Muslim Pilgrilms (on their way to New Mecca) when it was decided that they would be under-developed cannon-fodder. I go back and forth on whether I like it, because, as young teenagers, we expect them to live, and it’s shocking when the first victim is eaten to death and we see his bloody remains. In addition, the death of young teens puts Jack, the one young person on the ship who is not a follower of the Imam, in greater peril since we know (s)he is not immune to being killed just because of her age.
Pitch Black’s greatest strength is how it subverts character expectations, like a deconstruction of horror movie characters. The kids die, the girl dies, and the only survivors are the criminal, the black religious guy, and the girl who lied about her identity. How many horror movies end like that? The relationship between Riddick and Bounty Hunter Johns is also a strong point. Two young badasses with chips on their shoulders who have to decide whether they are going to kill alien monsters or each others. Ultimately, the morphine-addicted Johns loses his nerve and tries to kill Riddick, a move that does not end well for him, though it is a viciously violent moment in the film.
The ending takes a heart-breaking turn when Fry, who had tried to kill the entire slate of passengers to save her own skin, ends up losing her own life in an effort to save Riddick, prompting him to cry out to the darkness, “Not for me! Not for me!” It’s a surprisingly powerful moment, followed by the three survivors escaping in near-silence, and, like Alien, succeeding in giving us a an in-depth view of a very narrow sliver of what will prove to be a much larger universe.
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“Lotta questions, whoever we run into. Could even be a merc ship. So, what the hell do we tell them about you?”
”Tell them Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere back on that planet.”