With Vin Diesel’s ego larger than ever, we revisit his big screen origin in this sci-fi gem.
Who made it?: David Twohy (Director/Co-Writer), Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat (Co-Writers), Tom Engleman (Producer), USA Films/Gramercy Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Rhiana Griffith, Claudia Black.
Tagline: “There’s A New Reason To Be Afraid Of The Dark.”
IMDb rating: 7.1/10.
It was obvious, even in 2000, that anti-hero Richard B. Riddick would become a cult sensation. Riddick isn’t technically the lead character in Pitch Black, but like Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s Alien, he emerges as the film’s true star. He’s the spark that makes a clichè-ridden film special.
This intergalactic convict is smart, cunning, sarcastic, sympathetic, and brutal. As brought to life by Vin Diesel’s impossibly deep voice and imposing physicality, he became a sci-fi icon cool enough to spawn video games, an animated short, and two sequels. It’s therefore easy to forget that Pitch Black is also a fantastically well-made sci-fi/action/horror hybrid that takes a tired formula and gives it a surgically-shined polish worth every Menthol Kool.
Seeing the film on its DVD release was a revelatory experience. Everything about Pitch Black seemed unimaginative, and the opening image of a silent ship moving through the galaxy – though beautiful – is typical of just about every picture in the genre. The shots of the occupants, all dreaming wistfully in hypersleep, also brings to mind Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. But then Diesel’s inimitable voice-over kicks-in and director David Twohy goes for the jugular. Before we can establish where we are or who the travellers are, the ship is free-falling toward a nameless planet’s surface. The awakened Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) attempts to take control of the vessel and even contemplates jettisoning her passengers to lighten the load, before sharply coming to her senses. Fry’s efforts are all for naught, though, as the Hunter-Gratzner crashes onto the barren rock in a bravura sequence that immediately announces Pitch Black as top-tier B-filmmaking.
Naturally, there are survivors; a multicultural bunch who represent a future where mankind has migrated to the stars and racial lines mean little. They include Muslim Imam (the great Keith David), the young “Jack” (Rhiana Griffith), Aussie Sharon (Farscape‘s Claudia Black), and the shady Johns (Cole Hauser). The latter claims to be a cop transporting a vicious wanted criminal: Riddick. This badass, who can see in the dark due to an improbable medical procedure, will become their only hope when the sun(s) go down and the world’s subterranean creatures rise to the surface. Led by Ripley facsimile Fry, the group bands together to avoid the monsters and escape the planet alive…
Right from the get-go, Pitch Black has a competence that allows you to overlook its formulaic trappings. Twohy has a command of style and atmosphere that makes the script seem better than it actually is. It’s all there in the depiction of the hostile, unnamed planet where the story plays out. Cinematographer David Eggby deftly handles the aesthetic changes in light brought on by a rock with three suns. And even in the darkness, he finds great ways to use the slithers of light to illuminate his star’s faces. Even the sound design and the score by Graeme Revell is fantastic stuff for the $23 million budget, and only the odd CGI shot dates the film. Whatever you might think of the relatively stock supporting cast and pulpy set-up, there’s no denying that this is a consummately made B-movie with vision to burn.
Speaking of vision, Riddick’s convenient ability to see in the dark would be perfunctory were it not for the way it helps to inform the other characters. Paradoxically, he’s the only person in this story who sees people for what they truly are. He is a monster to them, but when you’re facing bloodthirsty beasties doing everything in their power to chomp at your bones, who better than a goggle-favouring killer to have around? Riddick brings out the best and worst in his fellow survivors, which almost speaks to the fact that he is, for all intents and purposes, a one-dimensional character. He empowers the hard-edged Fry to take control of the situation, and leads the duplicitous Johns to believe they are working together. In many ways, this is Fry’s story and not Riddick’s – she has the emotional arc and gains the audience’s affections.
The acting is also largely fantastic. Mitchell is frequently cast as tough, resourceful women, and I don’t think she’s ever bettered her turn here. There’s a strength and a vulnerability to Fry, and Mitchell treads that line wonderfully, taking her from a coward willing to kill others to a full-blooded captain willing to die for them. Equally good is Hauser as Johns, a loathable sort who is nevertheless painted in shades of grey. The script by Twohy, Jim and Ken Wheat is effective in taking objectionable people and making us root for them.
If you came for the action, though, there’s plenty of that, too. Twohy slowly builds the suspense and unleashes the fury in a last act that brings the required ingredients of scares, R-rated blood and witty one-liners to the table. The all-important creatures are also achieved with a pleasing mix of practical and computer-generated effects that have dated better than I would have expected. The trickery is not always seamless but Twohy deserves a great deal of respect for pulling off such excitement on a restrictive budget. Pitch Black still works as a “summer movie.”
Inevitably, though, it is Diesel that leaves the lasting impression. We don’t know a lot about Riddick, and here, before Furyans and Necromongers, he’s just a convicted murderer with a survival streak a mile wide. He’s silent, deadly and cunning, yet we’re never sure if he’s merely misunderstood. Is he really evil or were his past misdeeds necessary? And is he just playing everyone around him to get what he wants? Diesel might never be classed as a fine dramatic actor, but he conveys the character’s hidden complexity efficiently, whilst providing the brawn to sell his “heroics.” It’s little wonder that he would become an instant SF icon.
As a piece of popcorn fun, Pitch Black has survived the last decade-and-a-half tremendously well, and more than deserves its cult appreciation that not even the filmmakers could have predicted. It’s also great to see that it doesn’t live and die on its famous anti-hero alone, providing thrills, surprises, scares, and great set-pieces. If you want a good old-fashioned and unpretentious sci-fi/horror flick, you could certainly do a lot worse than this.
“Did not know who he was fucking with!”
- The contacts that Vin Diesel wore to play Riddick were a prototype. After the first day of filming, when they tried to remove the contact lenses, they couldn’t. Due to where they were filming, they had to have an optometrist flown in from the nearest town, three hours away. Diesel called the contacts hubcaps.
- Desert scenes were filmed in the same location used for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
- The spaceship is called Hunter/Gratzner – also the name of the visual effects company that designed and built the actual model of the ship.
- Although Riddick narrates the beginning of the story, his first dialogue with another character (Carolyn) does not occur until almost thirty minutes into the movie.