Pitch Black and the Unexpected Genius of Vin Diesel

Vin Diesel doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. He really is a talented actor – remarkably so – but too many Fast & Furious sequels have distilled Diesel down to a single cultural image: arms crossed, jaw set, grumbling something that may or may not be coherent English (whether he’s standing up or sitting behind the wheel is irrelevant). But today, February 18, is the 15th anniversary of Pitch Black. And while Pitch Black may be the film that branded Diesel an action star and began his descent into endless repetitions of Dominic Toretto, it’s also a whip-smart little B-movie. And a pretty great example of Diesel at the top of his acting game.

Don’t believe me? It’s OK if you don’t (The Pacifier is argument enough). But Diesel’s far savvier than most people give him credit for, and Pitch Black’s the proof.

One of the strongest aspects of Pitch Black is how slight Diesel’s presence is in the first half hour. He’s got a 90-second monologue to open the film. Past that, maybe two minutes of screen time. Because Pitch Black is a monster movie, and like any good monster movie it adheres to the standard set by Jaws and Alien– wait to show the monster in full, and tease us along the way. Only, Pitch Black’s monster is Diesel’s outer space serial killer Richard B. Riddick, not the giant alien bats that show up later.

Director David Twohy ensures our first impression of the character is weird and off-putting; the first time we see Riddick he’s on a space freighter, trussed up in hyper sleep like an S&M Hannibal Lecter. Restrained for the public good, but done so with a blindfold, a horse bit and at least a few strips of leather. Eventually, Riddick breaks free of the restraints, and until the 30 minute mark our only glimpses at the character come when he’s clinging to the background in someone else’s scene.

Two survivors accidentally kill a third, and behind them is Riddick sipping antique space liquor in the summer sun.

Riddick Drinkin'

Or when the group explores an alien elephant graveyard, and there’s Riddick tucked into an old rib cage.

Riddick HIdin'

And a terrific one where two characters are walking and the camera’s dollying with them. Just as they pass a rock right up in the foreground, you catch an out-of-focus glimpse of Riddick’s face, pressed into the space between the rock and the camera.

There’s a point to all this. Riddick’s ability to shadow every other character at once (especially because we never see him move from spot to spot- he’s just there, wherever they are) gives him a superhuman quality and a kind of movie monster edge. And it’s good preparation for when Riddick shows up for real. After a half-hour of watching and learning about the character through thin scraps of physical presence, we’re in the right mindset for lots of Vin Diesel (who’s biggest strength is, of course his physical presence).

Eventually, Riddick makes himself known to the group and Diesel gets some actual screen time to work with. And immediately, he zips ahead of the other cast members to become the most magnetic person onscreen (not that he had much competition- other than genre movie mainstay Keith David, the cast is short on heavyweights). Diesel’s funny- disarmingly funny, considering how few of Diesel’s post-Pitch Black roles have required him to crack a joke. There’s essentially zero humor in Pitch Black other than what comes from Diesel (does the prissy antiques dealer count? Probably not), and so he ends up walking a very fine line: until the film reveals its mass of hungry aliens, Riddick’s both the villain and the comic relief. But he nails it- scary, funny, or both. Whatever the moment requires.

Then, there’s Diesel’s physicality. The character of Riddick is not a unique one- any action movie badass with a heart of gold- but what sets him apart is how rarely he demonstrates his own power. For a guy who’s supposedly infamous for knifing dudes left and right, Riddick does almost no killing in Pitch Black. When one of the aliens (in the official canon, known as Bioraptors) tries to make a meal out of Jack (Rhianna Griffith), Riddick swiftly intervenes to gut the thing. Or when Johns (Cole Hauser), a mercenary with dubious morals, ends up in a knife duel with Riddick. That’s everything (other than a second Riddick-on-Bioraptor fight that happens entirely offscreen). In both cases, the action’s over in a matter of seconds. And in the first example, we barely see Riddick do anything- Twohy presses the camera in so tight and cuts so quickly that all we get are whirling knives and alien entrails.

Because Diesel is given so few outward moments of badassery, he lets his body create that image instead. The whole time, he’s got an aura of “been there, done that,” as though being stranded on a planet where changing seasons arrive with swarms of ravenous beasts is no big deal (given that he found himself in that exact same situation in Riddick, it might not be). And at the same time, there’s a predatory quality about him. A slinking, animalistic assuredness in his own body, like he’s aware of every muscle fiber at every moment.

What make that so impressive is that Diesel accomplishes all that character work without one of an actor’s most basic tools- his eyes. Riddick had a “shine job” put in back on an old prison planet- that is, he had his regular, light-responsive eyes swapped out with a pair of night-vision ones. Which is pretty convenient when a planet-wide solar eclipse hits, but for Diesel it means a pair of thick black goggles strapped over his eyes for 95% of the film. And no eyes means no clear indicators of his emotional state. Instead, Diesel’s performance has to come through dialogue (of which there isn’t much; Riddick’s a fairly tight-lipped guy) and straight physicality alone.

But that’s Diesel’s strong suit. He’s a minimalist- his two most-beloved performances are a giant robot who said very little, and a tree who said even less. His comfort zone is conveying grand emotion through tiny snippets of performance, so it should be no surprise that Diesel can absolutely nail the small and subtle in-between moments of Pitch Black. The bigger stuff? Not even close. Take a moment where Riddick’s finally supposed to show real emotion. It’s the climax of the film; Riddick’s been mauled by Bioraptors and can barely walk. Protagonist and put-upon leader Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) is hurrying him back to the escape shuttle and the rest of the survivors, before the predators can catch up.

“I said I’d die for them, not you!” Fry shouts at him, drill seargent-style. Then irony strikes in the form of a giant winged alien, which drags Fry to her death right as she’s led Riddick to safety.

“Not for me!” he wails into the night. “NOT FOR ME!

It’s terrible. At the very least, Diesel could have played it straight and just do the typical scream-upwards-into-the-camera-amid-heavy-rainstorms moment. But for some reason, he under-emotes and ends up sounding bored with his own lines. However, I’m perfectly willing to lay the fault at the script’s feet and not Diesel’s, because few minutes earlier he does incredible things with a much quieter “Riddick’s a nice guy after all” moment.

The scene: Riddick’s planning to steal the only escape ship and abandon everyone else to be eaten by space beasts. Fry catches up and tries to convince him not to. We don’t see Riddick’s answer- all we see is the other survivors waiting patiently in a cave, when Fry busts in to save them. And right behind her? It’s Riddick!

Riddick Smilin'

Look at the warmth in his face. In his eyes. After an entire film of Riddick acting like a hardass and shielding his emotions with thick plastic specs, an expression this genuine is a massive jolt of straight catharsis. Riddick was a good guy all along! It’s all over his face.

So yes, Vin Diesel deserves far more credit that most people give him these days (I’ve even seen him on a few Top 10 Worst Actor lists, which is a stretch even when you count The Pacifier). Although if you know how he first got his start in Hollywood, that’s no surprise. Diesel started out a straight-up auteur- writing directing, producing and starring in a short (Multi-Facial) and a feature (Strays) before Steven Spielberg took notice of his talents and threw him a role in Saving Private Ryan. The rest is history. Also, from here the rest looks like a lot of Fast & Furious sequels, from now until the end of time. When that franchise finally dies (and from the sound of it, it’s headed at least through Fast 10), maybe Diesel can pick a few projects worthy of the acting chops so few people know he has.