I have very infamously ragged and dragged Vin Diesel through the mud for being a headliner for some of the dumbest, most racist, most misogynistic films I have seen that aren’t my darling Transformers films. It’s a tired, running joke even amongst my friends that I have a love-hate relationship with Diesel. So imagine my surprise when I sat down and decided to watch a set of movies near and dear to Vin Diesel’s heart. A set of films that rocketed Diesel to fame and fortune, a set of films overlooked by even midnight runs of the FX channel, a cable station that plays those crappy X-Men origins movies on repeat.
Diesel’s Pitch Black is the single most world changing, mind boggling, opinion shattering film I have ever seen. It isn’t special, it isn’t fantastic, it isn’t in any way truly memorable, save for one reason: I don’t think that Vin Diesel is that much of a douchebag anymore.
Pitch Black is a sci-fi horror from the year 2000, when our baby Vin Diesel was still a well-moisturized 32 year old. This is a year before the first Fast and the Furious film, and two years before the legendary xXx film. Black details the tale of a group of survivors from a crashed spaceship in the far, far future, stranded on a hostile, unknown planet. They are stuck between a the mystery of a disappeared group of researchers, and dangerous, psychopathic murderer, on his way to space jail. The only thing standing between the unknown and the innocent is a single space marshal and a generic 1990’s female action heroine, who, surprisingly, is not completely and hopelessly attracted to Diesel.
The film has an interesting concept, but I personally believe that the tale of survival dragged on a little too long, and turned into a bit of a game of ping pong towards the end, bouncing our survivors between the crash site and their salvation, a lone spaceship. While the film is unique in its approach to sci-fi and horror, I felt that the execution of the camerawork was flawed, as was the character building. There was a certain likeability that was missing from all of our characters, which rendered whatever character growth they experienced to be less than entertaining. Further, the circular physical path of the survivors running around in the desert felt tiring, and again, less than engaging.
The odd thing about Pitch Black is that despite its camp and flaws, the film isn’t terrible. The sets are gorgeous and the concept, again, is incredibly unique. The world building in of itself is one of a kind. I can’t remember ever watching a film where the world was built not by exploring it, but through the characters, their behaviors, expectations and patterns. Sure, some of it was expositional, but for a film set entirely between like 3 corners of a desert planet, we got a hell of a lot of sci-fi. Space religions, intergalactic bounty hunters, advanced medical techniques, space travel logistics, power hierarchies- hell, you could get a pretentious teacher to teach a class on the damn culture of the film if you wanted to.
The main character is one of the truest depictions of an anti-hero I’ve ever seen on screen. Riddick truly is self-serving and reluctant in his heroism. He’s not just a grumpy dude who will only do things for money or someone who has a weird, convoluted, unrealistic set of morals or principles or something. Riddick literally only helps out when his goals align with the survivors’, and sometimes only because he thinks that selflessness is an intriguing concept. He doesn’t care about the right thing to do, or that he may be stranding people on an extremely hostile planet- he just wants to chill.
The Women of Riddick
Something that I anticipated was the inevitable racist, sexist or otherwise xenophobic undertones that I’ve come to expect from more modern Diesel films. To my mild surprise, the film demonstrates considerable restraint in terms of its depictions of women. Again, they aren’t inexplicably sexually attracted to Diesel, they don’t knee-jerk act as emotional labor machines, nor are they relegated to any traditional sexist corners you’d expect women to be banished to for a 2000 movie. There was one moment of oddness, where a young girl’s menstrual cycle is used as a device to raise the tension- the monsters can smell her blood, and are attracted to it.
This girl, named Jack, is actually disguising herself as a boy throughout the film to fit in, and is only outed when Riddick can smell it off her, and realizes that that’s why they’re being hunted and tracked. This moment is followed by a small outburst from the group, but no accusals or otherwise oddness regarding Jack’s gender. The film moves on, simply using the menstrual blood as a device to raise tension, and never mentions Jack’s gender again.
There were two other women in the film, one of whose husband was killed by the monsters, and she hardly even mourned him. She’s later killed when Riddick neglects to tell her to continue to lay still to avoid being torn in half by the monsters. The second woman is the female protagonist, and the truest version of a traditional protagonist. This character demonstrates poor decision making skills and an aversion to leadership. Then she makes a decision to be a good leader and is promptly killed. It was rough.
Diesel, LARPing, Filmed
Pitch Black is not as bad as I thought it would be. It’s a refreshing, unique and low-budget sci-fi horror that deserves an amused sidelong viewing, not for its entertainment value, but due to the pure heart and effort put into such a film. It’s an independent film, if it had a big budget. It’s also easy to see that Diesel and the filmmakers did put in a good amount of thought and grit to making sure this film and this character saw the light of day.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to glean much of Diesel as an independent, artistic figurehead in this film, but I was able to realize one thing. Diesel… may not be that bad. Maybe.