Vin Diesel – arguably in the top three for action’s premier muscular slap-head – boasts quite a few characters in his resume but I’ve always felt that the vest wearing Richard B. Riddick is the one that suited him best.
What’s that you say? Not family obsessed, engine revver Dominic Toretto or stunt-happy noughties throwback Xander Cage? Why ever not?
Well, I’ll tell you why not – because personally, from time to time, I find that stern-faced, know-it-all smugness that borders on omnipotence, really bloody annoying and it doesn’t help that almost all of his characters share the same personality trait no matter what situation they find themselves in. I like my action heroes to be a little bit more fallible; not to be on top of the situation every time and sometimes I just get put off by Diesel’s characters acting like their shit don’t stink.
This brings us nicely to Riddick, a character who still has many of Diesel’s stock character personalities but with the main difference being the fact that he’s a bit of a murdering dickhead. It’s this highly anti-social outlook on life that makes all those self-satisfied one liners work better than usual as Riddick is a character that has been divorced from reality for most of his life with decades of jail time behind (and in front of) him which makes the character an outside observer to human life. It gives him the kind of charismatic versatility that means you could plonk him in virtually any situation that proves to be a greater threat than he is and he’ll turn out to be the best thing in it – like a bald, monosyllabic Jack Sparrow. Plus: he has really cool, surgically enhanced, shiny eyeballs that allow him to see in the dark – that always helps…
Anyway, it’s the future and stuff and a group of travelers travelling the back roads of space-travel get into a bit of a space-pickle when they are rudely awakened from cryostatis when the but end of a comet causes their Ryanair version of a spaceship to crash on a deserted planet. As shitty as that is (imagine all the one-star reviews), things are made infinitely more complicated by one of the survivors being Riddick, an absurdly resourceful murderer who isn’t above casually dislocating both shoulders in order to escape being handcuffed like a masochistic Houdini. The rest of the survivors consist of Fry (the pilot), a couple of prospectors, a Muslim preacher and his three sons, a young boy, a antiques dealer and Johns; Riddick’s jailer and they try to band together to keep the notorious criminal at bay while raiding an abandoned outpost in order to get a ship that can fly them off this unfeasibly barren planet.
However, after capturing Riddick, they soon realise that there is a far worse danger facing in the form of an eclipse that blots out all three suns that’s due extraordinarily soon that will coat the planet in night for the foreseeable future and will allow this world’s prominent life form – a light-sensitive species of carniverous, sickle-headed super predator – to stroll around on the surface like it’s a charity buffet.
As these crescent-skulled critters tear through the cast like meat obsessed lawnmowers, the survivors of the survivors try to use all their resources to continue to keep sucking air but trust between them all starts to dwindle when it seems that the only one of them NOT carrying some sort of confidence shattering secret is the brutal criminal in their midst.
You could glibly state that David Twohy’s Pitch Black is not much more than a gimmick laden Aliens ripoff and to a certain extent you’d be absolutely correct; however you’d also be correct in stating that it also just happens to be one of the best damn Aliens ripoff that’s ever been made that has enough personality and flair to actual make it stand on it’s own two feet.
A huge aspect of this is that the various characters are well sketched out and don’t feel like the usual kind of cardboard cutouts that wander around these kind of films who proudly sport “dead as shit” printed across their forehead and the fact that they’re mostly portrayed by relative unknowns (unless you watch Neighbours or Farscape) make their fates all the more unpredictable. Of course there’s the odd familiar face here and there with character actor extraordinaire Keith David along for the ride and the steely blue eyes of Cole Hauser add some extra menace; but it’s Radha Mitchell’s Fry (NOT the one from Futurama), that gives the movie it’s soul with her character being deeply flawed, prone to bouts of terrified survivalism when things get too hairy.
And hairy they get, when the sun goes down and the nasty fuckers who own the planet finally show up. Horribly versatile (They fly! They scamper! They make smoothies in seconds!), this nameless species of bone crunching space bastard provides a legitimate threat, even to Riddick and their esoteric design proves to be an underrated entry in the annals of monter movie history.
The occasional dated effects shot aside (the pan that shows off the planet’s three suns is regrettably a stinker) the movie shows an over achieving sence of visual flair with trees on the horizon being revealed to be a vast bone graveyard for giant beasts and the use of filters (usually a sign of a restricted budget) being used effectively to denote which sun has prominence in the alien sky. Twohy also uses some strangely experimental – read: odd – editorial choices that end up being weirdly distracting (the rapid cut back and forth between Diesel and Hauser’s glaring eyeballs is especially bizarre) but there’s more smarts in Pitch Black’s little finger than there are in ten examples of similar flicks.
Coming only a year before Diesel made The Fast And The Furious (which itself came a year before xXx), the persona of Riddick proved to be the start of a spectacular hot streak that the actor still returns back to to this very day and it’s the first appearance of this goggles wearing, knife wielding felon that still stands out as the actor’s best.
In fact, it doesn’t take surgically shined, see-in-the-dark eyes to see that Pitch Black is a minor classic of modern sci-fi that deserves to be brought more into the light.