Pitch Black was a low budget sci-fi film starring unknown actors with a director, David Twohy, looking to grow his reputation.
It came out of nowhere, made a lukewarm splash at the box office, and could well have faded into obscurity very easily.
The fact that it didn’t is down to a few basic truths: it looks cool, and the character of Riddick is fascinating.
Taking obvious cues from Alien, Pitch Black is the story of a spacecraft crash landing on a uniquely desolate and hostile desert planet. Think Tatooine, with an extra sun and no sand people.
Among the survivors of the crash are the docking pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell), lawman Johns (Cole Hauser), Imam (Keith David) and a young boy called Jack.
Of course, the main character is Riddick himself – a captured killer being transported to prison before the crash happens, in a career-defining performance by Vin Diesel.
Pitch Black is 20 years old today and for a film that had a budget of only $23 million, it holds up surprisingly well. That’s largely due to the focus on character-driven action, and the striking cinematography.
There’s an unrivalled energy to every element of this film, matched by the washed-out visual style that adds unexpected beauty and invention.
It’s the cinematic style that elevates this film. There’s a wild and untamed sense to it, and the filming process was specifically created by the film’s cinematographer (David Eggby) to get that unique bleached look. It doesn’t half make you feel thirsty though.
The colour motifs don’t just look good, they also serve as a clue to the power struggles within the film, with each colour representing which of the characters currently holds it (blue is Fry’s colour, Green is John’s colour, and pitch-black is the colour of the monsters, including Riddick himself).
Even the sound hits hard, with the score by Graeme Revell adding to the rhythm of the narrative.
The aliens also look cool, even if they are a bit similar to the HR Giger Alien. Bu the other similarity to Alien is the best one – keeping the monsters hidden.
Unfortunately, the marketing for the film made a rather grandiose claim describing Pitch Black as ‘the best creature feature since Alien‘, and that didn’t seems to convince audiences to go see it (rightly so… don’t compare your film to Alien).
At the time of release though it did have positive reviews, with critics praising the artful visuals in particular, as well as Diesel’s performance.
Obviously, the enigmatic Riddick (Diesel) is the star of the show, but Mitchell is also excellent as Fry, the docking pilot struggling with morality issues and bad choices.
The Australian actress gets to play with some great character development, and it’s no surprise that she was later seen in other cracking films like Man On Fire, Silent Hill, and The Crazies.
It’s Diesel’s performance as Riddick that makes the film, and it is strange to think Steven Seagal was the original choice for the vision-enhanced serial killer.
In the first half, the menacing presence of Riddick is the main focus of fear. As the alien threat emerges, Riddick transforms from villain to anti-hero, all while deadpanning some of the cheesiest one-liners in the history of cinema.
Diesel would go onto produce, fight for, and eventually fund further instalments, even turning down a return to the sequel of Fast And Furious to instead be the lead in The Chronicles Of Riddick with Judi Dench and Karl Urban.
Pitch Black is a film that feels almost anti-Hollywood. It takes the established norms and cliches of an alien threat movie, and injects fresh viewpoints.
The characters aren’t all blue-collar workers as in Alien, or hardened space marines. They each have clearly defined and quickly established personalities, and that adds a real sense of shock when they get eaten one by one.
The entire film is based not just around the aliens or Riddick, but looks closely at the concepts of self-sacrifice, and how courage changes from person to person.
There’s also the notion of working together to overcome challenges, and to gain redemption for past moral failings.
Frustratingly, as much as Riddick grows as a character in the movie, that growth doesn’t really go anywhere for the sequels.
However, Pitch Black is a great film featuring a moral tale that comes with a punch. The best monsters bring out the monsters in all of us, and the film serves that up in a way that is highly entertaining and fast paced.
It might not be the most original story, but it tells it well. Pitch Black is a cult B-movie that stands out, and they did a remarkable job, especially with such a limited budget.