Vin Diesel's Riddick Wasn't Always The Protagonist Of Pitch Black

It may be hard to believe now after nine "Fast & Furious" movies and guff like "The Last Witcher" and "Bloodshot," but there was a time when Vin Diesel was an interesting actor. With that gravelly voice and a smooth aura of self-assurance, he was a natural, even when playing a small but neatly drawn character in "Saving Private Ryan," a slick senior broker in "Boiler Room," or voicing a big metal fella with a heart of gold in "The Iron Giant." In another world, he might have even gone on to become a writer-director — after all, Diesel got his start starring in his own low-budget indie films.

It would have been really interesting to see how his career might have developed if he'd followed that route instead of becoming an action star. But he was set on that path with "Pitch Black," the sci-fi sleeper hit that gave him the juicy role of Riddick, a dangerous criminal who can see in the dark after a back-alley surgical procedure. Maybe things might have been different if Riddick wasn't the star of the show, which was the director's original intention.

So what happens in Pitch Black again?

"Pitch Black" opens as a spaceship carrying passengers in cryosleep across the galaxy is struck by a fatal meteorite storm, killing the captain and sending the craft hurtling off course towards a sun-scorched planet. As the ship enters the atmosphere and spins out of control, Pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) tries dumping her human cargo to save her own skin, only prevented by a system error.

The ship crash lands, killing most of the crew and passengers. Fry survives, along with William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), a bounty hunter transporting Riddick (Vin Diesel) back to prison; a Muslim priest (Keith David), heading for New Mecca with three young pilgrims; a young girl posing as a boy (Rhianna Griffith), and an assortment of other monster fodder. Much to everyone's concern, Riddick made his escape when the ship broke up on landing.

As they explore their surroundings and discover an old research station, they soon realize Riddick is the least of their problems. A solar eclipse that only occurs every 22 years is about to plunge the planet into total darkness, allowing a swarm of ferocious photosensitive predators to emerge from their underground hive to hunt. Since these things have already eaten every other life form on the planet, that means Riddick and the gang are on the menu. Can the dwindling group of survivors power up the research station's spare spaceship and escape before the creatures pick them all off? How much of a threat does Riddick pose to their survival? And is everyone exactly who they appear to be?

Why Riddick wasn't originally the protagonist of Pitch Black

David Twohy, with only a few directing credits to his name previously, received a screenplay called "Nightfall," which borrowed some ideas from Isaac Asimov's tale of the same name. The producers liked the concept but weren't totally convinced by the execution, so they asked Twohy to rewrite it. If he did a good job, he'd get to direct the film as well, a dangling carrot too good to pass up. He said (via SciFiNow):

"So I took it away and picked up on the character of Riddick, who was probably really just one of three lead characters. It was supposed to be Carolyn Fry played by Radha Mitchell, Johns, played by Cole Hauser and it was supposed to be Riddick (Vin Diesel) – so a three-hander, three leads. But over the course of editing and testing the film, it came out that people's favorite was Riddick so we started to emphasize Riddick a little bit more in the final cut of the film."

It's a shame it worked out that way. If the three leads had remained more balanced, the narrative might have offered more surprises as it plays out. Even so, it's still a cracking movie and Vin Diesel's performance is key to its rewatchability. "Pitch Black" made him a star; next up was a little car movie called "The Fast and the Furious," one of just several franchises he starred in over the next 20 years.

Riddick got his own trilogy, with a fourth film still a possibility, but becoming the center of his own franchise only diluted his brooding mystique. "Pitch Black" gave us a charismatic antihero best left in the shadows.

Does Pitch Black still hold up?

"Pitch Black" is a cool little no-nonsense B-movie that cheerfully flaunts its numerous improbabilities and delivers a solid series of scares, thrills, and suspense. The steady build-up in the first act is probably the best part of the film; just like John Carpenter's "The Thing," it gives us an ominous sense of foreboding, giving us all the clues that something very bad has happened in the past and it's about to happen again, real soon.

The monsters, known as Bioraptors, are a pretty neat design, sightless, voracious winged carnivores with a very keen sense of hearing and a nose for blood. Unfortunately, their design is let down by mediocre CGI, and they are far scarier when left in the dark and only glimpsed briefly. Luckily, the film's eclipse gimmick means the dodgy computer imagery doesn't damage the suspense too much.

If I have one complaint, it's that the casting gives the surprise revelations about the characters away a little too easily. I don't know if we're really supposed to think Johns is the clean-cut hero of the piece, but Hauser's performance is just so shifty from the beginning. On the flip side, having Vin Diesel and Riddick as the top billing makes it fairly obvious that he's an antihero who'll end up saving the day. Nevertheless, it's a star-making turn for Diesel, playing Riddick with a menacing sense of barely suppressed violence.

Despite its flaws, "Pitch Black" is one of those minor classics that is so effortlessly entertaining that it warrants repeat viewing. I've probably seen it about five times over the years, and if I'm flicking around the channels and see it's on, that is my evening sorted!