While I have seen 2004’s big budget The Chronicles of Riddick only one time I have sat through 2000’s Pitch Black (aka The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black) at least six or seven times. I simply find it to be a more enjoyable film. Starring Vin Diesel, in what may be his best performance (okay, that ain't saying much I know) as the violent criminal Richard B. Riddick, Pitch Black is a not only a feast for the eyes and ears but should also satisfy those who like to have substantial character development in their sci-fi/horror films. Riddick is one of the last of the Furyans and is not only lethal and able to endure pain and discomfort but is quick thinking and an astute judge of character, especially evil character. He has spent most of his life in various prison colonies for a long list of crimes including murder. While in one colony had an “eyeshine” performed, a surgical procedure that allows him to see perfectly in the dark but also makes him vulnerable to bright lights. Riddick is hardened and calloused by a brutal life and yet is not a complete monster.
The film opens with Riddick being transported on a space freighter between prisons in the charge of a morophine addicted bounty hunter named William J. Johns (Cole Hauser). The ship drifts either into the tail of a comet or a meteor shower and space debris penetrates the hull and kills a crew member immediately. Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) is not prepared to die for people she does know and is more than willing to jettison the section of the ship with the hibernating in cryo-sleep passengers to save her own skin. She is prevented from doing this by Captain Mitchell who loses his life in the crash landing. The command now falls on Fry’s shoulders.
The ship lands on a desolate desert planet that is extremely bright and lacking in water and ample oxygen. As the surviving passengers gather their senses it becomes obvious they are a mismatched collection. A small group of Muslims (led by Keith David as Imam al_Walid) are on a Haj. There is a prissy collector named Paris (Lewis Fitzgerald) of antiques and rare wines. A young boy (with a secret) named Jack. A couple of high strung travlers named Zeke and Shazza round of the group who all turn their trust to Johns and Fry, both who have dark secrets they want to keep hidden. Their fear is heightened more when Riddick manages to escape by dislocating then relocating his shoulders and Johns convinces them he will hunt them and kill them for nothing more than fun. They are convinced he is telling the truth when Zeke is found dead after he goes to bury the Captain and another passenger he shot mistakenly for Riddick. Riddick is seen nearby and is recaptured. He is the only suspect until he convinces Fry that there is more on the planet than himself to fear. She crawls into a hole in the ground where Zeke was last seen alive and soon finds the rest of his remains as well as a dangerous predator living in the caves. They all try to put their differences aside in order to survive and Johns uneasily enlists Riddick’s help and sets him free.
Things seem to turn for the better when an abandoned camp and a small space ship are found. The ship only need some energy cells to launch it from the planet. There are energy cells back on the crashed space freighter but tension is soon to develop since the space skiff can only seat two people. Later after one of the Muslim boys is flayed alive in the coring room by hundreds of smaller creatures it is found the creature’s skin is sensitive to even weak light, so sensitive it burns under a flashlight. They decide they will be safe so long as they stay in the light, of which there is an abundance of due to the planet strange orbit between the solar system’s three suns. Things suddenly turn for the worse after the planet goes into a period of pitch black that occurs every 22 years during an eclipse of an unknown duration. The darkness approaches rapidly people start dying off as they flee in panic from the bat like creatures as they emerge by the millions from inside the planet to hunt and roam in the darkness.
The surviving members must make it back to the space skiff dragging the energy cells and trying to fend off the ravenous creatures with whatever light they can manage to muster up and maintain. In the darkness and with the creatures only feet away from them they must rely on each other to survive but trust runs thin and each person’s character is stretched to the breaking point. The surviving passengers soon turn their hopes for survival to Riddick who has the stamina and instinct to push forward and think clearly even in the worst situation. And Riddick himself finds his hardened, murderous nature challenged as he develops connections with some of the people around him such as the young “boy” Jack and Fry. The film climaxes with a dwindling hand full of survivors trying to get through a narrow canyon and to the space craft. It is all played out well and the final ending is not the most uplifting but works out in a way to show Riddick’s emerging humanity.
The movie does not rely too heavily on CGI effects the way its 2004 sequel did. The budget here was limited to about $23,000,000 and yet this works in the film’s favor as the characters are worked out and believable conflict is developed between the leads Riddick, Johns and Fry. While Riddick is a self confessed murderer he is no more immoral than Fry who was willing to ditch all the passengers to safe herself (and then becomes a type of Lord Jim in her attempts to absolve herself later in the film) or Johns who is willing to kill young Jack and drag the body behind the group to divert the creatures in the dark.
The CGI effects, when used, are not bad though the monsters don’t look that convincing all of the time but I found them believable enough. The lighting is very unique and the planet certainly looks hot and hostile thanks to cinematography by Mad Max’s David Eggby. Vin Diesel is really fantastic as Riddick. He is brooding and dangerous, witty and funny and sharp as a tack. Perhaps my very favorite performance by a top notch action actor who can actually act. A smart, well written and well acted film.