Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Comics Week at The A.V. Club, and because we’ve already highlighted superhero movies and comic-book adaptations that aren’t about superheroes, we’re using the next five days to single out films whose imagery, storytelling, or themes are influenced by comics.
Pitch Black (2000)
When the first installment of David Twohy’s Riddick series crash-landed into theaters back in February of 2000, the comparison most critics reached for was Alien and its sequels. Here, after all, was a sci-fi/horror hybrid about a crew of tough-talking space travelers marooned on a barren rock, where they’re picked off one at a time by H.R. Giger-ish monsters. There’s certainly a few strands of Xenomorph DNA in the film’s genre makeup, but Pitch Black seems equally (if less specifically) indebted to the art of comic-book storytelling. In fact, the movie actually comes closer than many of today’s Marvel and DC adaptations to capturing the pulpy spirit of the medium.
The imagery, especially, betrays a strong comics influence. Twohy alternates between two primary framing strategies: Striking wide shots of the characters, sometimes silhouetted against awe-inspiring alien landscapes, and extreme close-ups—of important objects, of faces, of weapons, etc. It’s not just that these compositions resemble the type of “shots” one might see arranged on glossy paper; Twohy’s editing choices also evoke the act of paging through a comic, with dramatic “splash panels” breaking up the quick succession of more tightly framed images. Look, for example, at the back-and-forth rhythm of a late showdown, and at the way Twohy match cuts between one set of staring eyes and another.
That’s to say nothing of the film’s unforgiving setting, a scorched desert world straight out of Weird Fantasy. The planet’s three suns allow Twohy to switch among color filters, drenching the characters in expressive shades of blue and orange. It’s the perfect environment in which to release Pitch Black’s almost mythically macho anti-hero, played by Vin Diesel with a flex and a smirk. Riddick, as written, is a classic comic-book archetype—the animalistic loner badass, part samurai and part wild beast. He’s basically Wolverine, though his “design”—a.k.a. Diesel’s own impossible action-movie physique—is almost as anatomically unlikely as that of a Rob Liefeld creation. Twohy would widen the scope of the Riddick universe in subsequent movies, creating a mythology that could easily accommodate a whole roster of superheroes. But the gem of the series is still Pitch Black, the one that plays—or “reads,” perhaps—like a perfect one-shot.
Availability: Both the theatrical and unrated versions of Pitch Black are available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.