Set in the distant future, a spaceship carrying 39 people, crashes on a desert planet when the ship is caught in a meteor storm. Ten survivors, led by the second-in-command Carolyn Fry (Rahda Mitchell), find themselves abandoned on a hot and humid planet that receives constant sunlight from three orbiting suns. Fry is flanked by three major personalities: bounty hunter William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), his prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel) – a deadly criminal who was being transported to a prison cell, and religious man Abu al-Walid (Keith David). Not only must Fry struggle to lead these three strong willed personalities, she must also contend to help the rest of the survivors find food, water, and shelter. And there is still one more significant challenge: every 22 years, the planet’s three suns go into a total eclipse for a month where darkness brings out the planet’s real inhabitants; large, flesh eating, flying Raptors that come out and dominate the surface of the planet while it is in total darkness. Unfortunately, the meteor shower that brought down their ship is also about to cause the eclipse. The lights are about to go out. So, with this emerging threat, Fry must cooperate with Riddick, who has surgically enhanced eyes that are able to see in the dark, to protect the survivors from the raptors and to eventually lead them off of the planet.
Make no mistake about it, Pitch Black is a film that is consciously filled with gospel allusion. First of all, the planet is ruled and receives light from three suns, an obvious nod to the Trinity. Yet, that planet is also inhabited, underneath, by dark, life-killing, creatures. The creatures cannot emerge onto the surface of the planet unless the light is blotted out, because light burns their skin. They can only live in darkness. When the eclipse finally occurs, these creatures spew, demonically, onto the surface from the bottomless pit of the planet’s under-world.
Among the survivors, we have Carolyn Fry – the eventual but imperfect Christ figure, who, though weak and afraid, is willing to give her life to provide safety for those who have been entrusted to her. We also have William Johns, someone that initially comes across as a good guy, but his goodness is superficial. Underneath, he is full of dead man’s bones – an evil, fearful, pharisaical drug-addict who cares nothing for anyone but himself. There is a Holy Man, Abu al-Walid, who believes in God, but his faith is without direction or life. He hopes, but he has no real Messiah – only aimless prayers offered in the dark. Then there is Riddick.
Ah yes – Riddick. Riddick is the humanistic Superman. When we first meet him he is a convict, bound in chains, his arms outstretched, as if he is pinned to a cross. Yet, though he is bound and blind, Riddick is contemptible, seething, defiant, and confident. He is the surviving son of an attempted abortion. He has eyes that have been surgically enhanced to see in the dark. He is an amoral machine who has learned to adapt and succeed in almost any situation. He is Strong. Violent. Smart. A Survivor. And though he has learned to preserve himself, he has no capacity to love or care or connect with anyone. In fact, if the viewer is not vigilant, he will allow himself to believe that Riddick is the messiah. And this, I think, is the brilliance of the film. The viewer is seduced by the strength of Riddick’s character into trusting that he is the one who will save the survivors. He has the power we need. And isn’t it true that so many of us look for such a Messiah – a flesh-driven, confident, gifted, Super-man. Yet, Riddick has no real faith. He has no heart. No soul. At one point in the movie, the Holy Man confronts Riddick’s lack of faith, accusing him of not believing in God. Riddick responds stoically. “You got it all wrong Holy Man. I absolutely believe in God…and I absolutely hate the f**ker.” So then, it is not Riddick who will save us. In fact, shockingly, it is Riddick who needs to be saved.
At the end of the film, in a Gethsemane like moment for messiah firgure Carolyn Fry, Riddick’s heartless nature is shoved into full throttle. He taunts Fry with the temptation to save herself by leaving the other survivors behind. No one would blame her, he says: It’s “survival instinct.” When she refuses—and goes as far to say that she would die for the others—Riddick not only finds it “interesting,” but it also gives him pause. He decides to help Fry. But Riddick is only along for the ride. He never considers that he might be the one in danger.
Eventually Fry confronts her own darkness and “survival instinct” and chooses to risk her life for the others in the group. But, at the moment when she makes the sacrifice, she specifically dies for Riddick. Throughout the film, Riddick has seen death over and over and remained unfazed. Yet, the death of Fry visibly rocks him to the core. Her death means something. “Not for me!,” he screams into the darkness. “Not for me!” Yet, this is exactly what the so-called self-sufficient ‘Super-man’ needs. He must see that he is the one who is in need of salvation. He must be humbled. His self-reliance must be stripped. He must be astonished that someone would love him “just because”. And this is what happens to Riddick when Fry lays down her life for him. At that moment, his heart comes alive.
In the closing moments of Pitch Black, one of the two other survivors asks what they should say if anyone asks them what happened to the criminal Riddick. As the space ship circles around the planet and jettisons toward the three suns, Riddick says, “Tell ‘em Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.” And, that’s just what happened. The old Riddick died. The new Riddick has just been born.
This film isn’t for everyone of course—it’s rated R for violence, language, gore and adult situations. Please take that rating seriously. Yet, if you love Sci-fi, the gospel, good characters, and a thoughtful movie, don’t miss Pitch Black.