The Chronicles of the Chameleon Franchise: A Thorough Look at 'Pitch Black' And the Adventures of Riddick 20 years Later
Today is the 20th anniversary of the David Twohy science fiction horror film, Pitch Black. It’s hard to believe that in February of 2000, Bill Clinton was still our president, the now cult favorite Danny Boyle film, The Beach was a freshly certified flop, commercially and critically and Vin Diesel (pre-The Fast and the Furious) was still relatively unknown. It was a different time for entertainment and studios were more likely to take chances on films that weren’t based on any original source material...
...One thing hasn’t changed in the industry; dumping movies in January and February because the studios weren’t confident in them. On February 18th, 2000 Pitch Black opened up to a disappointing domestic box office earning, with a meager 11 million. It breaks my heart and equally angers me that the Meg Ryan and Dianne Keaton star vehicle, Hanging Up beat out Pitch Black. The film did earn back some of its money with home video sales and rentals, but from the looks of things, Pitch Black and its rough and gruff antihero, Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) would never be graced with a sequel. Despite poor critical and commercial success, Pitch Black won over a handful of science fiction fans and earned itself a bit of a following. Vin Diesel and David Twohy took notice and being that they were both passionate about the world and characters they created, the idea of a sequel was formed. Little did fans and movie goers know, that for better or worse, the sequel would take an ambitious new direction; in scope, scale, tone, and story.
Harkening back to films like Alien (1979) or even The Poseidon Adventure, (1972) Pitch Black is a contained film with an ensemble of characters who must work together to fend off a common enemy. It takes place almost entirely in one location, making the threat of the vicious ‘Bioraptors’ (the night-seeing, pointed limbed creatures of the film) seemingly inescapable. It’s an effective science fiction horror film, teetering on ‘B’ movie territory, that, upon first viewing, doesn’t really lend itself to being sequel charged. Both Diesel and Twohy wrote and developed the sequel slowly and quietly, but their strong passion and confidence for the character and story would eventually give way to Universal Pictures greenlighting the project. With Twohy back at the helm as writer/director, a budget almost tripling that of Pitch Black and Diesel now cited as producer, they were eager to start production on their upcoming…lore heavy, melodramatic space opera?
Taking advice straight out of the James Cameron sequel playbook, it was decided that The Chronicles of Riddick would be a complete shift in tone and concept. Pitch Black was lightly peppered with hints about Riddick’s past, but there was still a lot uncertain about his character and world. Where did Riddick come from? What happened to the character of Jack? How did he get his ‘eye shimmer’, and considering the first entry takes place in one location, what kind of universe do these characters inhabit? The sequel attempts to answer some of these questions in a big way, and while its ambitions sometimes outweigh its grasp, the film succeeds at what it sets out to do; give fans a sequel that is fresh, expansive and defies any and all expectations. The film received a summer release, ridding itself of the January/February stigma. Critical reception was not kind to ‘Chronicles’ but that didn’t stop people from flocking to theaters. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is the golden standard of how to do a sequel correctly, but the entire Riddick franchise has taken the baton, lit it on fire and ran a marathon keeping that standard alive and well.
As viewers, we’re taken to multiple planets, introduced to several races of people and creatures, and given proper lore and backstory to Riddick’s character. We learn more about who he is, what makes him tick and why. Riddick is a special kind of antihero. He’s not the scoundrel with a heart of gold like most films portray the antihero. Instead, we learn that Riddick really isn’t a hero at all. He is completely self-interested and definitely the ‘fittest’ of survivability. He’s not a complete monster and he does have a character arc, but I don’t think anyone would call him a ‘good guy’. He represents the human condition as a flawed experience and that we are all capable of committing good and evil. Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do good things. It is traits like these that make Riddick an interesting character, worthy of revisiting in sequels. It’s not the only reason the sequels were made, but without him, there surely wouldn’t be as much incentive to make or see it.
Just one week before Chronicles hit the big screen, Starbreeze Studios and Vivendi Entertainment released The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. This game released exclusively on Xbox and PC and is still regarded as one of the biggest graphical leaps of the time. Not only did it receive technical praise, but to everyone’s surprise, the game was a massive success critically. The reoccurring curse of bad movie licensed games did not apply here. The game takes place before the events of Pitch Black and Chronicles, following Riddick into a maximum-security prison. The character of Johns (Cole Hauser) reprises his role from Pitch Black as the sketchy, drug addicted bounty hunter and he brings a level of authenticity to the game. His inclusion is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Much like how the film sequel goes into uncharted genre territories for the series, the prequel game also accomplishes this by essentially telling a prison escape story. The game is packed full of dangerous encounters, fleshed out characters, numerous places to explore and even a cameo by 2000’s rapper, Xzibit. It’s silly, but his character is a fun addition and it’s certainly memorable. Butcher Bay is still hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest movie licensed game tie-in.
Audiences wouldn’t get another Riddick film until the September, 2013 release of Riddick. The title was as stripped down and minimalistic as the new direction of the film. Instead of the space opera tone of Chronicles, Riddick opted for a kind of back to basics approach, which once again, was a reinvention of the series. Taking place on a desolate planet, Riddick finds himself stranded after being overthrown by a jealous Necromonger, played by Karl Urban. Riddick was literally shoved off to this planet and left for dead. Not only does this film harken back to Pitch Black in its isolated environment, it gives us the familiar premise of a rag tag group of people being stalked and hunted. The only difference is, now Riddick is the hunter and the mercenaries are the hunted. Many of the horror elements present in Pitch Black returned, which made fans rejoice. This concept proved that once again, the Riddick franchise was still full of surprises and capable of feeling fresh.
Third time out seemed to be a charm here. It was received well by critics and audiences alike, and while it didn’t earn as much as Chronicles did, it still managed to please the majority of fans. However, the road to the third film was a rocky one. At one point, back in 2006, Diesel agreed to appear as a cameo in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise and character. Due to scheduling conflicts with Diesel’s star studded schedule, he and Twohy did not have a finished script until 2009. Universal Pictures was not as generous with the budget as they were on Chronicles. To make the film they were satisfied with, Diesel tracked down numerous investors to take out several loans and even had to leverage his house in order to get Riddick made. Finally, after both of the men tirelessly fought to get the film made, they had a movie they were proud of and released it to the world.
In July of 2019, Diesel announced in an Instagram video that the script for Riddick 4: Furya had been finished. Not much is known about the production or scheduled release window at this time, but its title and all sources point toward the idea that the film will center on Riddick’s homeworld, Furya and his race of people, Furyians. As a fan, I am extremely excited for this new chapter in the Riddick saga!
Whether one likes the Riddick films or not is irrelevant. The franchise serves as an example of how to make a sequel work. Not all films that have sequels need to necessarily reinvent themselves completely, but I think when it comes to the science fiction and horror genres, it doesn’t always bode well to repeat the formula. Also, I think the determination and passion of Diesel and Twohy can be appreciated by anyone who has ever tried to make a film or just appreciates the process of filmmaking from preproduction, all the way to release. Passion and labors of love always bleed through into film and the Riddick films are no exception. There is much to learn and extract from the twenty-year journey of the Riddick franchise and I suspect that journey is far from over.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth