Pitch Black proves underrated action-adventure fun

RIDDICK SPECULATES about his future and the future of his canine-analogue friend on the planet he was abandoned on.

Oftentimes, otherwise decent, or even brilliant, films will fall by the wayside into obscurity and the dark depths of IMDb. Usually, these are films that perform poorly at the box office, or indie genre films that don’t see a wide release. Sometimes, however, these movies can gain a lot of traction outside the traditional theatrical run via strong word of mouth or critical acclaim. Fight Club is generally considered the epitome of a cult classic film; it had a hard R rating in a time when that was rare, it divided critics right down the middle, and it made a modest monetary return during its original release. It is, however, a cult classic: a film that not only accrued a large pop culture fan base but also gained retrospective acclaim from critics and is generally considered one of the most important films of the 1990’s. Movies that are considered cult classics are great and should be watched by any aspiring film buff, but reviewing them? Please. They’ve been done to death. Let’s take a look at something a bit more obscure. Let’s take a look at Pitch Black.

This Vin Diesel vehicle is equal parts sci-fi, horror, and action film. In what we can only assume is the far-flung future, a ship carrying its passengers and crew in cryostasis while on autopilot is damaged by rogue comet debris. The docking pilot is woken, and she and her co-pilot manage to land the ship on a nearby planet; the co-pilot does not survive the crash landing. However, several of the passengers do survive, including a man who claims he is a police officer, and the convict he was escorting, a man known as Riddick. In their efforts to survive amidst the planet’s incredibly hostile native species, the survivors make peace with Riddick, a man with strong survival skills and the ability to see in the dark. When the planet’s multiple suns are eclipsed and the light-adverse aliens come out en force, Riddick’s murky motives reveal themselves as the world is plunged into darkness.

Diesel’s acting pedigree isn’t exactly what you’d call sterling. His bread and butter are playing badass, action-centric roles. However, he does seem to gravitate toward playing the antihero, be it Dom Toretto in the Fast and Furious films or, well, Riddick in this film. Now, the Fast and Furious movies are personal favorites of mine, lower-tier petrolhead and action film junkie that I am, but I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that I like them for Vin Diesel. While he is considered the star of the series, his Dom Toretto is a little bit bland for my taste; I much prefer the colorful side characters that often crop up around him. Riddick, however, seems a character perfectly suited to Diesel. He has a wry sense of humor and an air of mystery that might just be able to explain away any character flatness, and he is unabashedly a badass, hardened warrior. More than anything, you can just tell that Diesel is enjoying himself throughout this movie. In the more recent Fast and Furious movies, I’ve gotten the vague feeling that he and co-star Paul Walker are essentially on autopilot as the increasingly ridiculous action set pieces unfold around them. In Pitch Black, he pulls you in with a likeable rogue style of performance.

Meanwhile, Radha Mitchell, AKA actress-you’ve-never-heard-of, conducts herself surprisingly well throughout the entire film. Her Carolyn Fry isn’t used to being in charge, since she was originally the crew’s docking pilot, and she is consistently and believably unsure of herself in regards to the events of the film. Her character arc parallels Riddick’s as she helps to bring out the better aspects of his personality in an attempt to do the same with herself. She isn’t very involved in the film’s action sequences, but she performs with a necessary urgency during the film’s survival thriller and horror elements. Overall, Mitchell is surprisingly good and helps to provide the emotional heart of the film.

Like with the Fast and Furious movies, a colorful cast of side characters surrounds Diesel in Pitch Black. Most of them are flat and relatively disposable, but they are entertaining nonetheless. Two, however, are of particular note: Riddick’s cop nemesis William Johns, played by Cole Hauser, who initially reaches out to Riddick to assist the crew in surviving and escaping the planet. His wariness regarding Riddick never abates, though, and things come to a head between the two around the halfway point of the film. Next is Jack, played by Rhiana Griffith, who serves as the youngest and most impressionable member of the survivors with a fascination for Riddick. Later, Jack plays an integral role in revealing an odd paternal side to the otherwise gruff and sarcastic convict. Both actors do decently with what they are given, with Jack occasionally coming off as annoying and Johns generally being the guy you want to see get killed off first.

Director David Twohy has done a pretty solid job with this movie. He manages to successfully juggle the mashup of genres that is Pitch Black to yield a movie that is better than the sum of his parts. I commend him for giving Diesel a role that he can really sink his teeth into and have fun with in the process. Considering the film was an independent project with a relatively minuscule budget compared to studio blockbusters, Pitch Black has excellent visuals and set design. The only giveaway is the movie’s incredibly iffy CGI, but I’m willing to give that a pass since the film came out in the year 2000. That’s around the time that Godzilla came out, and that movie had way more money and arguably even worse CGI. Finally, to wrap up on the direction, Twohy’s use of action is sparing but effective, with decently-shot scenes peppered throughout the film.

Twohy does double duty as screenwriter here alongside Jim and Ken Wheat. Pitch Black’s writing isn’t bad, but it is definitely full of clichés. For starters, the survival horror/action horror tropes are all recycled elements that you’ve seen in countless other films and media. The premise itself is certainly not uncharted territory by any means, and cheesy one-liners run rampant. However, the script is relatively tight and efficient, providing the film with a trim hour-and-a-half runtime during which litte time is wasted on these shortcomings. As such, the pacing of the film is solid, and I will say that I found it all pretty entertaining despite the general vibe of déjà vu I kept getting.

Cinematography in Pitch Black is, at least in my opinion, a decidedly mixed bag. There are actually some really stunning shots in this film, the interplay between light and dark giving the filmmakers some interesting material to work with. Before the eclipse hits, however, essentially all of the daylight scenes are shot with a series of different colored filters. I despise color filters. Having a blue or orange hue on an entire image, for a protracted period of time, is not exactly eye-pleasing to me in any way whatsoever. It’s an interesting stylistic choice by Twohy and the cinematographer, I admit, but on a visual level I would have liked the film more had it not used the filters. Meanwhile, the music was typical action and suspense fare; instrumentals ramped up when the film approached its climax and dialed back down in scenes where Riddick and the others are moving silently through the dark.

Pitch Black is suitably B-movie in so many aspects of the term. The acting is a combination of solid and schlocky, the writing is riddeled with clichés, and the overall plot isn’t exactly winning any originality Oscars. Still, I found the movie to be an entertaining diversion. The pacing of the film kept me interested despite what felt like a steady string of rehashed elements. That, alongside Diesel’s deadpan portrayal of a deadly anti-hero, made it one of the better cult movies I’ve seen in a while. This isn’t filmmaking of the highest order, not by a long shot, but I can certainly understand why Diesel and Twohy have the fanbase that they do. That alone, I feel, is high praise. Now, if only we could have a more sarcastic and less broody Dom Toretto … make it happen Diesel.