Let us take a look at the career of one Vin Diesel. Today, we know him as the mumbling voice behind Dominic Toretto, the star of the annoyingly long lasting Fast and Furious franchise. Or is just the Furious saga? Who cares? That is perhaps the series with which he is most associated, but that is not how he broke into the industry. By the way, did you know he is in his mid-fifties? How is that for making you feel old? For those who may not recall, he had a small role in the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) as Private Caparzo. He dies about halfway through the film, but then again most of them do. It was not long after this that he received his first big starring role in a film that I do not believe anyone expected to be made into a trilogy, Pitch Black (2000).
You would not know Pitch Black stars Vin Diesel as the escaped serial killer Richard B. Riddick from the beginning of the film. His voice is providing narration in as we see a passenger spaceship transporting people across the stars, but he not the focus. Most of them are in the hibernation-like state of cryostasis, except for Riddick. As he relates, his animal instincts make it so that he cannot give himself over to the slumber, and his mind is working out how he is going to escape. His opportunity seems to come when the ship begins to be pelted by space debris, with small rocks blasting holes through the hull. A number of these hit the captain, killing him. The two other crew members awakened to take control of the ship are the first officer Greg Owens (Simon Burke) and the pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell). As they make it to their stations, the damage to their vessel is forcing them to crash on the nearby planet. Already not responding well because of the damage, Fry wants to dump the passengers to lighten the load, but is prevented by Owens. Instead, Fry is forced to bring the ship down roughly, which results in most of the structure being destroyed, and Owens being killed. Still, a few of the passengers do survive, and they are thankful to Fry for her maneuvers. Among the living is Riddick, and the mercenary who tracked him down after he escaped from a maximum-security prison, William J. Johns (Cole Hauser). As they assess their situation, Riddick is able to slip free of the bonds that were temporarily holding him until he could be made more secure. Thus, in addition to being marooned on a strange planet (which luckily has breathable oxygen), they have to watch out for a killer potentially stalking them. Believe it or not, this is only the beginning of their problems. A minor annoyance is that the solar system they are in has three suns, which, in addition to making conditions rather hot, means there is no nighttime. They also discover that they are not entirely alone. One of the passengers, John “Zeke” Ezekiel (John Moore), tasked with digging graves finds, a subterranean opening. Upon investigating further, a creature inside drags him in and he is eaten. When the others find the bloody scene, they presume Zeke had been murdered by Riddick, who had been recaptured by Johns shortly after the grizzly discovery. As Riddick menacingly informs Fry, this time they have the wrong killer. Still, things are looking up when they discover a strangely abandoned settlement not far from their crash site. Even better, there is a small ship there that can take them off the planet. All they need is a couple of batteries from the wreckage and they will be good to go. To accomplish this task, they make an agreement with Riddick to help. These hopes are dashed, however, when a space diorama found in one of the buildings reveals that every twenty-two years, there is a total eclipse of the three suns. Remember the animals that ate Zeke? There is a reason why they are underground, having a sensitivity to light. Hence, it is decided to make the mad dash back to the crash site, gather everything they can, and try to return before the rays of the suns are extinguished. Unfortunately, the light is blocked just as they retrieve the remaining batteries, and they take shelter in the wreckage. This turns out not to be the hoped-for haven as many of the creatures, who can also fly, get in and thin their ranks a little more. This is when Fry comes up with the idea of getting as much light as possible, constructing a sled to carry the batteries, and using Riddick to guide them back to their planned escape vehicle. Riddick, it should be mentioned, is particularly suited for this task because he had surgery while in prison to make it so that he can see in the dark. Yet, because they are mostly a bunch of panicky civilians, their trek soon results in further deaths. Also, tensions between Johns and Riddick boil over, with Johns left to be eaten by the creatures. Their next obstacle is to make it through a canyon, which becomes more difficult when it starts raining, thus extinguishing their makeshift torches. Riddick finds a cave to hide the others in, and takes the batteries to the waiting ship. His intent is to leave the others behind and save himself, but the intervention of Fry convinces him otherwise. Instead, he ends up going back with Fry to retrieve them. However, he gets cut off in the return. Fry tries to find him, but she ends up being taken by the creatures. Instead, it is Riddick and two others that make it off the planet, but not before Riddick incinerates a few of the monsters in the ship’s afterburners.
Pitch Black is one of those movies that did not get a lot of attention when it was in the theater, but developed more of a following after it went to home distribution. This is remarkable when you consider that this was at a time when streaming services did not exist. It did double its budget in box office returns, but this is nothing all that extraordinary. I credit the fans that found the old VHS tapes, or the new-fangles DVDs, for creating the demand for the sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). They are vastly different movies. The former is a science-fiction space horror, more along the lines of Alien (1979). The latter is basically a dynastic struggle, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. The third film, simply titled Riddick (2013), attempts to get back to the roots of Pitch Black by having an inhuman menace threatening to kill everyone on some faraway planet. I am not sure why they made three of these movies. In any case, it is further proof of the difficulty of topping the first in a series.
For this Catholic reviewer, there is one particular scene of interest in Pitch Black. Amongst the survivors is Abu “Imam” al-Walid (Keith David), a devout Muslim, who at one point asks Riddick if the killer would like to pray. When Riddick refuses, Imam says that there is no shame in bringing his fears to God. Riddick remains unmoved, and Imam follows this by suggesting that Riddick does not believe in God. In response, Riddick chronicles his tragic past, including being found abandoned as an infant with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He then concludes by saying that he does believe in God, but hates Him. This is even more sad than any of the difficulties Riddick experienced. It is also an all too often occurrence among many believers. When bad things happen to us, we tend to blame God. If He loves us as much as we are told, why told He allow me to get into a car accident, or let my mother die of cancer, or prevent me from being with the person I love. To be sure, it is difficult to understand why these things happen. We want to know why, and when our curiosity is used differently, it can lead to some extraordinary things. When it is not satisfied, we get angry. A better question to ask in the face of these moments that emotionally wound us is: do we need to know? Yes, God loves us. Just because something bad happens to us, it does not mean His affection has been withdrawn. And there could be any number of plausible reasons for why something goes wrong. It is better to let go of the desire to know and give our grief to God. Prayers are answered in the most unexpected of ways in this manner. Getting back to the film, when it starts raining, a laughing Riddick turns to Imam and asks where is God. Imam does not despair of the lost light (he has plenty of other mourning to do). Instead, when Riddick returns with Fry, he replies that here is God. Who would have expected a murderer would be saving a Muslim cleric?
In many ways, Pitch Black is a pretty scary movie, and it is rated R for good reason. The violence mostly pertains to people getting eaten by monsters. It is interesting to note that while Riddick is said to be this infamous killer, not one person dies at his hands. In any case, if you are in the mood for a thriller, and can take a few curse words and bodies being devoured by creatures, then you have a solid film to put on after the kids have gone to bed.