Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Pitch Black" - God, "Alien," and Vin Diesel

*SPOILERS ahead.

The Midwest Film Journal is doing an upcoming series about Vin Diesel movies called All We Do Is Vin in March, and I volunteered to write about Riddick, the third film in the franchise. Before I revisited that film, though, I wanted to watch the first two entries. And since I feel obligated to write about every movie in my collection when I watch it, I decided to publish an article about the first two films leading up to my entry for Riddick. (By the way, I’m saving most of my thoughts on Vin Diesel for the Riddick article; these entries will focus more on David Twohy and plot elements.) So let’s go back twenty years (are you fucking serious?!) to where it all began with Pitch Black.

The Riddick franchise is the Alien series David Twohy never got to make.

Pitch Black owes a lot to the first Alien. Carolyn, a female second-in-command (Radha Mitchell) takes over after her captain dies and becomes stronger over the course of the film as she takes on the leader role (they are also similar in that they are willing to attempt to make cold-blooded logical decisions with Ripley refusing to let the contaminated crew members back in and Carolyn trying to jettison everyone to save herself and the navigator at the beginning). The ship is commercial rather than military or exploratory (much like how the crew of Alien are commonly referred to as “Space Truckers”). And, obviously, they are all being terrorized by an alien species they have never encountered before.  

It’s not an exact remake or anything, but the tone and plenty of plot points make it clear that this film, and its writer/director, is influenced by the iconic film. What makes it even more obvious is the fact that David Twohy wrote a version of Alien³ that went unused. His version was actually the first to feature a prison planet setting, which would eventually factor more into the Pitch Black sequel (more on that when I write about The Chronicles of Riddick next month). 

The similarity to Alien is what I like about Pitch Black. Any time you take (mostly) ordinary workers and put them up against crazy violent aliens, I’m game. And I’m just a fan of stripped down sci-fi, in general. Pitch Black is not a very ambitious movie, and I mean that as a compliment. There’s very little mythology or world-building going on here (which is why the sequel is so surprising since it’s nothing but mythology and world-building) that can sometimes bog down science fiction. Instead, we have a stranded group of survivors who are simply trying to get off a dangerous planet. 

With such a standard horror film set up, it would be easy to dismiss the characters as simply bodies waiting to be killed in increasingly gruesome fashion. That is the case with a lot of the characters, but the core group is quite interesting. With Carolyn, there’s an interesting character arc as she grapples with her attempt to basically kill everyone on board at the beginning of the film. Her attempt to save the survivors by getting them off the planet is her redemption. The fact that she dies is actually a bit surprising, but it’s the best ending for her. She makes the ultimate sacrifice to make up for her sins.

Speaking of sins, the character of Imam (the always great Keith David) provides the moral center of the film, somehow retaining his faith in the face of terrible event after terrible event. I’ll explore his role and the role of religion in general a bit more in the next section, but I will point out that his presence is interesting in regards to Riddick. But it’s actually more interesting when you consider who he largely ignores: Johns.

Bounty hunters, especially in sci-fi, are rarely seen in a positive light (perhaps that’s changing, though, with The Mandalorian), but even by that standard, Johns (Cole Hauser) is a fucking piece of shit. Imam doesn’t seem to be very interested in Johns probably because he sees no redemption is possible for this man. It’s not that he’s mean to Riddick (he kind of should be, since Riddick is a, you know, murderer with a bounty on his head); it’s more about how he treats the rest of the survivors. He seems to kind of like Carolyn, but he still treats her like shit. And everyone else is a nuisance that he would gladly be rid of if it saved his ass. Which is how he eventually gets his much-needed comeuppance: wounded by Riddick and left to be killed by the aliens after he tried to conspire with Riddick to use a survivor as bait. 

Johns is the evil man that he claims Riddick is. Riddick may have the reputation and the weird eyes, but he has more morals than Johns. He might be short with everyone and make comments about how they will die and whatnot, but he still tries to save people. Even when it looks like he is trying to take off and leave the others behind, it seems like it was more of a test to see if Carolyn would leave the others to die to save herself. I don’t believe Riddick was ever going to leave without saving as many people as possible.

Riddick ending up being a basically good guy is almost a weakness of the film. I usually want a character who claims to not give a fuck about anyone but himself to actually not give a fuck about anyone but himself. But since Johns fills that void, I’m okay with Riddick being more of a smartass hero than a true anti-hero. Riddick is still my favorite character in Pitch Black (I just think he’s perfect for the role of a smartass bad guy who’s really a good guy), but this time around I was much more interested in Imam.

Religion in space

Religion is often portrayed in sci-fi, but it’s usually something completely new (like the Force in Star Wars) or a version of an existing religion that has changed dramatically over the years (like how Islam is the basis for the Fremen in Dune). Rarely is it simply the same as it is now. And sure, Imam (his actual name is Abu, but he is referred to mostly as Imam) is looking for “New Mecca” rather than a Mecca on Earth, but other than that, he appears to be a pretty traditional Muslim.

Having Imam be Muslim as opposed to some new made-up religion is in keeping with the general efficiency of the story. Why get bogged down creating a new religion for the film which would require a character to explain it in some boring exposition when you can simply make that character a member of a commonly known religion? It just makes sense. But why have a holy man at all? 

Imam is there to establish that this film is going to tackle the issue of morality. Most films are about morality in one way or another, but for survival films like Pitch Black it is important to focus on it because desperate situations bring out a person’t true nature. Imam is our guide to the rest of the survivors, which is why he focuses so much attention of Carolyn and Riddick and ignores Johns.

Carolyn and Johns are fairly simple. She seeks redemption, and Johns doesn’t care. But the attention to Riddick is interesting, because for a series about a character who is meant to care about no one, the Riddick franchise is surprisingly focused on good and evil. In fact, Riddick is a good person who wishes he wasn’t. He wants to avoid people because he knows he will try to save them (the good ones, at least). This is echoed further in Chronicles when he seems to just be pissed off at Imam bringing him out of hiding because it means he will be forced to try to save people.

What’s great about Imam is that he doesn’t try to push his beliefs on others, but rather observes that God is working through all people all the time. Riddick, unsurprisingly, doesn’t feel this way. When pressed about his belief in God, he tells Imam that he actually does believe, but only because so many terrible things have happened in his life. I find that fascinating. Typically, a person might look at their misfortune as evidence that a higher power doesn’t exist. Riddick sees it as proof. So he does believe in God, and he hates Him. 

Of course, such a statement can be written off as Riddick just wanting to sound like a badass, but I believe him. I think that Riddick believes in God and does hate Him, but not just because of the terrible things that have happened to him, but because of how Riddick is. He wants someone to blame for making him have to be a hero from time to time when he would rather be left alone. Who else can he blame? (At least until the Necromongers show up in the next movie and a bit of backstory about Riddick’s homeworld is revealed.)

Riddick is right to be angry about his nature, but it’s too late to live a normal life now. The circumstances of his existence mean someone will always be hunting him. He can blame it on God or the Necromongers or whoever, but it is what it is. While he comes across as this confident badass, he’s actually a tragic character. Riddick wants to avoid humanity because anyone he gets close to will eventually be in danger. 

The inclusion of religion in a story about a character such as Riddick is actually a bit anti-religious. Here’s a wanted, dangerous man who claims to hate God, yet he’s morally sound. He doesn’t need religion to be a good person. This doesn’t make the Riddick series an endorsement of atheism, but it does make the case that humans can be good despite religion, not because of it. And Pitch Black shows that this is still the case, even in the distant future on different worlds. 

Why Do I Own This?

I love this franchise because I can shut my brain down and enjoy it, or I can overanalyze it and get into religion and morality and shit. I like a franchise that gives me that option.

Random Thoughts 

Riddick looks like he belongs in a Nine Inch Nails video at the beginning of this movie.

I like how dark (no pun intended) this movie is. Not just because the "hero" is an escaped convict, but because of all the death. For example, the other survivor who shows up only to be immediately killed by Zeke (because he thought it was Riddick). And there's also the fact that Carolyn tries to jettison everyone at the beginning.

Forgot about the part when Riddick claims that you can mellow the copper taste of human blood by mixing it with peppermint schnapps. 

I like that Riddick's eyes were done for "20 menthol Kool's." It sucks that this got retconned in the sequel (it’s referenced by Kyra, but it’s revealed that he has these eyes because he’s a Furyan), but I get that they did it to expand the mythology of what was originally supposed to be a one-off character. 

Johns is such a fucking dick. First, yelling "Shut up!" at Carolyn instead of just saying, "Quiet!" And then when they're digging her out of the spire, he says, "Give me your goddamn hand!" Was that necessary?

“C’mown!” Riddick definitely should have busted out his Johns impression more than once.

I like the sound design of the creatures, but the CG budget was definitely lacking. Twohy did a good job of showing the monsters sparingly, though.

I guess Riddick's claim of being found as a baby in a liquor store trash bin is made up too. Or do they have liquor stores on Furya?

The moment when Riddick pops his head in the cave opening with a cheesy grin was a bit too corny for me. It's just not in character for him, but it doesn't ruin the movie or anything.


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