Sep 2 2013 2:00pm

He’s That Bad and That Likeable: Pitch Black

Pitch Black, Riddick, Vin Diesel

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. 

Pitch Black, Vin Diesel, Riddick

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.  

Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to, covering True Blood, Game of Thrones, and gaming news. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci

Sean Tabor
1. wingracer
Definitely a well above average action thriller. Nice review.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
I liked Pitch Black, but I felt it was diminished by the sequel. PB, despite its ludicrous astrophysics, feels like it occupies a grounded, relatively hard-SF near future, one with slower-than-light space travel requiring cryosleep, and one where all the sentient life forms are human. Yet then the sequel retconned the whole fairly naturalistic reality into this incoherent, overcomplicated attempt at a space-fantasy epic, where people now had magical powers and there were a bunch of "alien" species that all looked human and somehow a guy named Richard is retconned into an alien, apparently, and the eyes that were clearly explained as the result of surgery in the first film are now supposed to be his alien power or something. And Riddick goes from being just an interestingly portrayed criminal to some kind of Chosen One at the crux of cosmic destiny. It's the most inept non sequitur retcon of a film universe since Highlander 2, and it pretty much ruined the Riddick character for me. So as far as I'm concerned, only Pitch Black really "counts." I'm not even sure I want to see the new film, since I gather it does mention the Chronicles backstory to an extent, and since it looks like it's just an attempt to copy Pitch Black, and imitation rarely works well.
Grace McDermott
3. Stormy
I really like Pitch Black, it's something I go back and wath probably once a year.

I'm a fanboy, I get really excited for stuff - which is why Riddick was such a letdown. :/

I'm going in to the third one being cautiously optomistic - it looks a lot more PB than CoR.
Cain Latrani
4. CainS.Latrani
I'll be honest. I was only kind of enjoying the movie up till the end. It was okay, nothing ground breaking, until three little words shook the whole thing.

"Not for me."

Riddick's obvious agony, grief, and loss were so profound. Diesel did an amazing job with that, bringing his entire character to vivid life with three small words.

Sure, he was a criminal, and a killer. But he wanted to believe that people could be better. He wanted to know someone who was. He wanted them to live.

It was intense, and changed the way I saw the whole film. While at first, as I said, I kind of enjoyed it, now I love it.
Petar Belic
5. Petar Belic
Whilst I really liked Pitch Black, I thought Chronicles of Riddick was a far superior movie. The opening scene with Riddick facing off against the bounty hunters was tense and fun. Confronting the physicality of Riddick with the alien mysticism of the Underverse was a nice move and presented antagonists which I had not seen before. My favourite 'chapter' was the prison planet. The extended movie version is not worth it, however. Anyway, although Riddick looks a little closer to Pitch Black, hopefully it's more of a blend of the two.
Petar Belic
7. a1ay
Just rewatched this recently, and it holds up very well. Remember that it was made with an unknown cast -as you note, Vin Diesel wasn't famous yet - so you had that sense of not knowing who was the lead (and therefore immune...) a lot like Alien in that respect.

The first half is a lot stronger than the second because, as you say, the second half is a familiar survival plot, but the first (with that weird oversaturated and filtered visual style) was unlike anything else in SF cinema.

And the sequel was about the weirdest mismatch possible in style and content. Like having "Dune" as the sequel to "Reservoir Dogs".

("Mr Orange no longer needs the weirding module.")
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@7: As I recall, Riddick wasn't originally intended to survive. They changed the ending due to Diesel's performance.

And I agree completely about the total stylistic mismatch. I've thought of it in terms of a similar analogy, like following up a noir detective movie by revealing that Sam Spade is actually a wizard and his city is an enclave in the middle of a fantasy world full of dragons and elves. I mean, at least Dune is recognizably science fiction, albeit with some mysticism. The Chronicles of Riddick is this big, overcomplicated fantasy epic that just happens to be in space. Or rather, it's a vague, half-hearted sketch of an epic fantasy universe, one in which a bunch of terms and concepts are tossed in but none of them are really explained or justified or integrated well. It's like an attempt at science fiction by someone who has no clue what science fiction is but is just trying to copy stuff like Star Wars and, okay, maybe Lynch's Dune. Which is odd, because it's from mostly the same people who did the comparatively solid work of science fiction that was Pitch Black.
Theresa DeLucci
9. theresa_delucci
I have an appreciation for Chronicles of Riddick (post coming later this week,) but I'm really glad the new Riddick is going back to something resembling the tone of Pitch Black.

Yes, Riddick was actually supposed to die, but the studio saw more potential in his character, so, yeah, sucks to be Fry. But it was done nicely. Yes -- I think you hit it on the head. When a cast is largely full of unknowns, you don't know who the main character might be. I love that.

As a sidenote: I couldn't find a clip of one of my favorite scenes from the movie. When Riddick dislocates his shoulders to escape handcuffs. I don't know how that manages to be so cool and gross and swoon-worthy all at once, but that made me love Riddick. And also when he's drinking Paris's tea. Riddick really likes tea. (Again, more on Chronicles of Riddick later.)
Chris Nelly
10. Aeryl
@9, I do too(especially Alexa Davalos as Kyra). But I'm also glad that they are going back to the PB style for Riddick. I'm one who's not upset that the Necromongers aren't carrying over, Dame Judi Dench aside, I never thought Riddick was long for the leadership role.
Sean Tabor
11. wingracer
I always thought of Chronicles like a scifi Conan. The crude barbarian killing machine becomes the king with some mysticism thrown in for good measure.
Petar Belic
12. sofrina
claudia black wasn't too well known back then either. she had farscape, but that was about it outside of australian television. i think she could have made it if she hadn't looked back, personally. also, the imam is the worst chaperone in history. not one of his charges survived! it was a pretty great movie, but i don't really rewatch if it's broadcast. chronicles of riddick, however, is delightful. that desperate run across the planet is so ridiculous. it looks like a set, the notion that you can run across a surface that is 700 degrees at least eight hours a day... and that you can outrun the temperature (see also: the day after tomorrow)... come on! my biggest gripe is definitely the recasting of jack. no dis to alexa davalos, but that was a very different character from the girl in the first film and it altered everything about the jack-riddick relationship which was a highlight of pitch black.

also, we have thandie newton's over the top, quasi-faux-Shakesperean performance as Dame Vako. I was kinda wondering what happened to that chick. Seemed like the she would have poisoned Vako and eased on over to Riddick's side.

riddick definitely has that same thing that ripley has, that unexpected depth. a combination of grit and heart. in different proportions obviously. you follow that person because you know they aren't going to give up, they aren't going to knuckle under and they aren't going to lose focus. if anyone is going to survive it will be them and you want to be right next to them when they do.
Chris Nelly
13. Aeryl
@sofrina, See I disagree with you on the recasting of Jack. I really like how they set her up, how she continued to measure herself against Riddick. It makes the reason why she goes with the Necroes after she thinks Riddick's dead make sense, that the thing she always judged herself by was gone, so she was going to join the BAMF that took him out, THEN she'd be safe.
Petar Belic
14. sofrina
@13 - you make an interesting point. i tend to think she goes with the necros to get off the planet. she has no other way out and when/if a replacement crew comes what would the punishment be for an attempted escape? however, that is a separate issue. it's the change of actress i dislike. it took five years to get that sequel out. why couldn't they use the same girl? she had to be at least 18 when they shot it. i'm just talking about the continuity of the three survivors of that horrible adventure. they didn't recast david keith and he had to cost a whole lot more. maybe there is a legitimate reason why they couldn't use the original actress, but it still ruins the jack-riddick thing for me.
Petar Belic
15. a1ay
Riddick was actually supposed to die, but the studio saw more potential in his character, so, yeah, sucks to be Fry.

Interesting. I didn't know that.

Another similarity with Alien: there are all sorts of hints of a very different Earth that you never get to see. There's a New Mecca? Where pilgrims go on the Hajj? What happened to the old one? Is the new one in the same place?
Christopher Bennett
16. ChristopherLBennett
@14: Keith David played the Imam. David Keith is a different actor entirely. A lot of people mix them up for some reason... ;)

@15: I think New Mecca was supposed to be the name of an alien planet/colony, named after the original one, like New England or New York.
Chris Nelly
17. Aeryl
@14, I was looking up the actress, and she actually voiced her character in an animated short that was released with CoR, so I don't know why they recast her. Her IMDb page calls it "bizarre". I have a soft spot for Alexa Davalos though, so it never bugged me.
Theresa DeLucci
18. theresa_delucci
@18 I have researched way too much about this series in the last few weeks. Ha. Here's the deal on Jack, in an article from 2003. Love how nothing online ever goes away.

Vin was really petitioning for her (Rhianna Griffith) to reprise the role, but the studio basically wanted someone sexier and tougher. Looking at the picture of Rhianna dressed up for her audition, I think she looks fantastic. Jack wasn't in the original draft of the CoR script, but a hot merc named Kyra was. Totally nonsensical. But we've seen what CoR was like.

Griffith did audition for the part a few times and did 3 weeks of physical training with Vin's help and backing even! But unfortunately she couldn't get to the right look in time to impress the studio. Or something. It's all kind of mystifying. It's really bullshit. Riddick had an interesting almost sibling-like relationship with Jack, nothing romantic. They didn't need to sexy her up further.

PS. Why have long, curly hair in a prison full of lice? Shaved head would've at least kept something of the original character.
Petar Belic
20. sofrina
@16 - i appreciate both actors equally.

@18 - see. disappointing. they recast for looks (davalos is not tough looking at all, and i say this as one who appreciated her gwen rayden on angel) when the cool thing about jack was that you thought she was a boy until riddick blew her cover. which opened questions that have never been answered. why was a girl traveling alone, through space, disguised as a boy, in the first place? where was she going? how did she pay her fare? why did she stay with imam after they escaped instead of getting to her original destination?

i also don't understand why davalos' andromeda (?) was recast with rosamund pike in that second "clash of the titans" movie. jarring and hard to invest in. also, was it too much trouble to raise mads mikkelsen from the dead? i'm just sayin'.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
@20, There can never be enough Mads Mikkelsen, I don't care HOW you gotta do it.
Petar Belic
22. Frostie Kitty
"We can't leave without saying goodnight." -Riddick
Theresa DeLucci
23. theresa_delucci
@20 She was recast in Clash of the Titans because KARMA, bitch. ;)

There was an anime that was a bridge between Pitch Black and CoR, but it still wasn't stated why she ran from home in the first place. She just stayed with Imam because he promised Riddick he would look after her. The anime was pretty good, actually. Jack makes her first kill and it scares Riddick and Imam. They both don't want her to become hardened.

@21 Agreed. My gods, Hannibal is so good. I'm super excited to be doing episode reviews for it on Boing Boing next season.

@22 Loved that line!

I'm really glad to see all the Riddick enjoyment here. I wasn't sure if I was fangirling in quite the right place. Vin Diesel love is even more universal than Mads Mikkelsen love.
Petar Belic
24. build6
I *loved* Pitch Black. I walked into the cinema with some friends that day primarily out of boredom, and simply did not expect something this good - I hadn't seen any trailers, reviews etc. (did not know the movie existed at all - just saw "hey, something space-related and looks better than alternatives? I'll watch it")

Chronicles ... thematically it felt wrong, like it didn't fit as a sequel.

I mean, I wasn't expecting another Pitch Black ("what, he got stuck on another planet with killer monsters again?") but it's a bit overdone to have Yet Another Threat To The Entire Universe Again. I *liked* how Pitch Black was pretty small scale - "it's just about us surviving!!!", not every scifi-extravaganza needs to be about saving the universe.

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