Last night Dad and I watched Pitch Black together.
I first watched this movie I think maybe when I was 13 or 14 and loved it. Now, of course, equipped with my newfound English major powers of analysis, I see its flaws. First, a brief summary.
The movie begins in space. A ship carrying passengers and a convict, all in cryo-sleep, is hit by some rock fragments, which penetrate the hull, kill the ship’s captain and cause the surviving crew to awake. Fry (Radha Mitchell) takes command of the ship as it crash-lands on a planet in a three-start system where the sun never sets. The crew sets about dealing with how to find water and deal with the escaped prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel). Spoilers ahead. If you’ve read Asimov’s Nightfall, it’s kind of that scenario. An eclipse occurs, and the planet experience its first nighttime in twenty-two years. The planet’s underground inhabitants, vicious batty-pterodactyl things who might be distantly related to Alien’s alien, emerge from their caverns and start killing off crew members one by one (classic pack-of-teens-lost-in-the-woods style). The only thing our humans have going for them is that the creatures are so sensitive to light that they will can be warded off with even a puny flashlight. Unfortunately for our crew, in order to get off the planet they need to make a trek through the planet’s rough Mad Max-like terrain in order to bring some fuel cells from their wrecked ship to the skiff they have found left behind by the previous humans on the planet (a band of geologists killed by the creatures years ago).
So actually, there was one flaw I didn’t need to go to college to pick up on – the gigantic glaring question that I think occurs to even the least critical viewer of the film would be, how the hell does a light-allergic species evolve on a planet that only experiences night once every 22 years? And if they devour every living thing on the planet every time an eclipse happens, what do they eat the next time around, if there doesn’t happen to be a band of space travelers conveniently stranded for them? And why are there so many? But whatever. Other critics have plenty to say about the movie’s other flaws – namely unoriginal and formulaic plot being the main one – and it’s virtues – namely is pretty sweet cinematography and glitzy effects. Oh yeah, and Riddick’s cool because his eyes are shiny and he’s sort of a murderer but a nice guy deep down. Yeah. Sure. I’m not going to repeat here what’s been said, but you can google the reviews if you are interested (ok fine, I’ll do the work, here’s Roger Ebert). I’ll talk about some things about the movie that aren’t about the obvious “it’s to obvious” problem. Let’s talk about Jack (Rhiana Griffith). When I first saw this movie, I really liked Jack. I still like Jack, I think. She is not a character other reviewers seem to have paid much attention to, which is strange to me because I feel like she’s what gives it one of its few original moments. I mean, not that original, but, well, judge for yourself.
Here’s what happens: The motley band of travelers is making their way through the darkened landscape of the planet in a somewhat suicidal attempt to get back to their escape ship with some salvaged energy cells. In order to protect themselves from the monsters, the set out decked out with all the light-emitting equipment the could gather, but as we may expect things have gone sour and they find themselves huddled around only a few flickering torches hacked together from bottles of liquor and rag cloth. They argue about what to do: Fry wants to go back, Johns (Cole Hauser) wants to continue. Riddick speaks up: “We can’t go back, not now that they have our scent. Not with the girl bleeding and all.” And Fry (who is ostensibly the only female present) says, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not cut,” and Riddick says “Not her. Her.” And looks at Jack. And that’s how we find out that Jack is a girl (or rather, has just become a woman). (So, these quotes aren’t exact because I’m doing them from memory).
Ok, maybe it’s too cute, but I liked this moment. Sort of. I kind of take issue with the fact that Jack immediately goes all ewey and kind of cries once she’s discovered, but then again it’s not as though she was being totally stone-faced while she was a boy — I think we can chalk her noodliness up to the fact that she’s the kid, not the that she’s the girl. Am I being too much of a sophomore in seeing something sort of interesting about gender here (hopefully not seeing as I’m about to be senior)? I mean can’t we appreciate that this movie acknowledges a major practical problem that gets ignored in most action/thriller plots for the sake of convenience? I mean, forget water, guns, torches or medicine – what the hell do our badass science fiction heroines do without tampons? I suppose they’re all on continuous birth control (either they all hide an endless supply of pills in their underwear or have really long-term hormone implants) or maybe they just decided to put their careers first and have their ovaries removed. Or something else. Presumably if we can assume cryogenics and interstellar travel we can assume a solution to menstruation. But whatever. It’s not really the main point.
Jack explains her ruse saying “I just thought it would be better if people took me for a guy, that they would just leave me alone.” This kid knows what the world is like. And I think Pitch Black deserves credit in not only doing what is predecessor Alien did – maintaining the lead female character Fry as merely that, a leader and not an erotic ornament – but also that it doesn’t try to tell us that in the future women are captains so gender is not an issue anymore (not that Alien did do that either).
Perhaps I am reading far too much in to what was really just a melodramatic gimmick, but I want to connect this to my belief that how science fiction films, or action-oriented films in general, build female characters is a whole messy problem. This is going to be kind of a roundabout argument, but I promise you I will get back to Pitch Black and the my point about Jack.
Thinking about women characters in science fiction is hard because we all want to see better ones, but it’s hard to say what “better” is. It isn’t just a matter of “strong” versus “weak” females or “sexy” versus “butch.” It is not a black-and-white “this movie perpetuates a patriarchal and misogynistic culture” and “this movie affirms an emancipatory and egalitarian culture,” because we are not even in agreement about what is emancipatory for women and what is not in term of their physical appearance and character disposition. Probably the two most iconic badass females in science fiction film are Alien’s Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor. Neither of them are conventionally beautiful, they sweat a lot and their hair is gets messed up, or shaved off. So the best female action characters are the unsexy ones who act like (male) soldiers? Well, that might be problematic too. And anyway, Ripley and Sarah are totally sexy: type in “Ripley alien” to Google and the first autofill option is “Ripley alien underwear”. And Sarah Connor wear no bra and rocks at it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Ripley and Sarah. I am just always on the lookout for female characters to love who aren’t like them. In Pitch Black, Fry is more or less a bleached photocopy of either of the two. She’s slightly prettier, fairly badass, and less interesting. She suffers from guilt for having nearly sacrificed her companions in order to save herself at the beginning of the film (she was stopped from doing this not by her conscious but by the ship’s captain who dies in the first few minutes), so at the end she has to die saving Riddick as redemption. That’s ok I guess. But she’s really pretty boring.
Jack, though. Is Jack interesting? We never get her backstory, but she’s obviously a runaway. Judging from the fact that she chose to disguise herself as a boy as protection we can guess her some things about her history. I don’t know if it’s just because I first saw Pitch Black in my early teens when I myself was still pretty uncomfortable with the newfound realization that my body was an erotic object that could garner unwanted attention, not to mention a good deal of discomfort and even shame about what at the time I perceived as the truly disgusting fact of menstruation (and the indignation I felt at having suddenly to deal with it), but the moment when we find out that she’s a girl because Riddick can tell she’s on her period tapped in to every confused teenage anxiety I had about being female. At the time I felt that my period was a fucking inconvenience, I was afraid of my body as far as it speaks for me in ways I don’t intend, and as much as I liked being a girl, sometimes I really did wish I could pass for a guy for the sake of being left alone (namely, while traveling in strange places, which is what Jack was doing). And, frankly, I occasionally still feel this way today, though not as much.
So… what I’m saying is that while Pitch Black is mostly just pot-boiler action sf, it (perhaps unintentionally) taps in gender anxiety differently than the films off of which it is based. And I kind of think we need more of this approach, this presentation not of women who already have “overcome” or “surpassed” their femaleness, not of “strong female characters” but of ones who, like Jack, portray something that’s true but hard to communicate without getting heavy-handed, spectacular or self-righteous: that it is fucking hard not just to be a girl, but to become a girl, to transition from that bizarre and happy state of genderlessness that is childhood to that moment that you realize that no matter how you think of yourself (as a person who likes to skip rocks, as an adventurer, as an independent individual), your body will behave like a female and others will treat you that way. And that’s what gender studies in film in literature is kind of about right? What we are is not who we are. This is the problem surrounding Ripley and Sarah. In their worlds, they are badass women, they are in charge of their sexuality, they are in control. But as constructs of mainstream popular media, they are still subject the patriarchal tastes and attitudes of their audience. And so we can’t decide whether they own their sexiness or whether it’s a concession to the box office. And that’s a problem, or a tension, we don’t talk about enough. But with Jack, the tension is explicit right off the bat. For Jack, there was no possibility of owning her sexiness, her femininity was no other thing but a threat, and being a women is definitely bad. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Let’s not pretend that is going to change anytime soon – this is set in the future, after all.