There’s no magic formula for making a sleeper hit, but one of the best ways to achieve it is to have a standout lead character. Before 2000’s Pitch Black, Vin Diesel was relatively unknown, more memorable for his name than his actual performances. He wrote, directed and starred in two well-received indie features and was subsequently cast in a small but shining role in Saving Private Ryan and voiced the Iron Giant. David Twohy’s scifi-horror film introduced Vin Diesel and the growling, grunting glory he’s now known for to a more mainstream audience. While Pitch Black can’t quite stand up to the genre heavyweights that it apes, like Alien and The Thing, it’s a visceral and exciting examination of characters behaving badly, but rarely stupidly. Except for Claudia Black.
[“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”]
While most of the movie’s plot focuses on standing captain Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) after her transport ship crash lands in spectacular style on a planet that reveals itself to be not as lifeless as she imagined, it’s one of her passengers that immediately commands the most attention. Bound, blindfolded, and gagged in a cryo-pod, Richard B. Riddick opens the movie with an expository voiceover that introduces David Twohy’s universe and the people aboard the Hunter-Gratzner through the eyes of a predator. We don’t hear him speak again until a half hour into the movie. But everyone who survived the crash sure does talk about him.
“Everyone” being a bunch of folks we normally don’t see fleshed out in genre movies. On paper, they’re bland archetypes. There’s Paris, antiquities dealer and entrepreneur, as Rich Spoiled Idiot. Genre favorite Claudia Black (Farscape, Stargate, etc.) is Shazza the Greedy Prospector. Keith David, another genre favorite, plays Imam Abu al-Walid, a.k.a. Every Hollywood Priest Ever. There’s Scrappy Runaway and Ellen Ripley-Lite and Lawman With A Secret. By rights, you shouldn’t care about any of these people when shit inevitably his the fan, but some clever dialogue and plot reversals give at least some of the characters a distinct personality.
The opening of Pitch Black is a real thrill, probably one of the most gripping spaceship crashes in some time. After asteroid debris whizzes through the hull like bullets, the captain is killed in his sleep and Fry and another co-pilot are awakened to take command. More nail-biting than the kinetic shaky cam is the split-second decisions Fry is forced to make. In a very unheroic fashion, she pulls a handle to jettison more weight—i.e. the supporting cast—before her co-pilot stops her. Fry manages to level the ship, her co-pilot dies in the resulting touchdown, and only she knows the ugly truth about what she was willing to do to the others in the name of self-preservation.
The unsuspecting survivors laud Fry as a hero, but she confesses her guilt to Johns, the police officer transporting Riddick back to prison. Riddick, always watching from the shadows, overhears and uses the information to stir up further drama. The first half of the movie is really strong, building up the mystique of an escaped murderer who has been much more open about his me-first attitude. Pitch Black’s aesthetic is ripped straight out of Alien 3—no surprise since David Twohy wrote an early draft of the script that introduced prison planet Fury 161. (And no wonder the movie became a silent mainstay of goth-industrial club videoscreens in the early 2000’s. Ahem.) With his cut figure, shaved head, and deep voice, Vin Diesel also oozes dark sexuality and charisma at every opportunity.
Catlike in his physicality, Riddick also possesses eyeshine, a surgery bought for twenty menthol cigarettes on one of the prison planets he escaped from. Little hints about the greater universe beyond the sun-scorched planet the surivors are stranded on give just enough to speculate about what kind of future these people might be living in. But here, planetside, the movie becomes something more like a Weird Western.
When the suns go down, a familiar Ten Little Indians plot begins—so long, redshirt pilgrim boys! Freaking duck, Claudia Black!—but there are some cool plot reversals, surprise reveals, and slick visuals propelling the intense action forward. While the physics and evolutionary science behind the creatures that only come out at night (on a planet with three suns) are absurd, the main conflict acts as a metaphor for the darkness beneath the surface of even the most outwardly noble of people. This is especially true of Johns, who isn’t really a police officer. He’s just another bounty hunter shopping Riddick around to the highest bidder. And he’s a junkie. And he’s got more in common with Riddick than anyone else might guess. But the main battle is really between Fry, herself, and her guilt.
During the film’s climax, Riddick needles Fry’s sense of duty by trying to get her to abandon the other survivors and escape with him. For a second there, it seems likely. And then you realize Riddick’s offer wasn’t actually for Fry, but to see for himself if people in general contained anything good at all. Fry’s answer doesn’t come as a surprise for the audience, but the way it surprises Riddick intrigues.
Pitch Black would be nothing without a nicely-handled redemption story hiding in the dark. With its modern sensibility and R-rating, the movie is elevated by an antihero darker in nature than most. Making a killer that bad that likeable is Riddick’s greatest trick. It’s why he ultimately survives to go on further adventures.
Riddick hits theaters everywhere September 6.