A scene from 'Pitch Black'
Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, February 18, 2000
Directed by David Twohy

Starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black & Rhiana Griffith


The best kind of "Alien" rip-off: exciting, high production values and without any misconceptions about its B-movie status. Good movie party rental.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 10/10/2000


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Crew of crash-landed spaceship dodges hungry dark-dwellers in smart, stylish 'Alien' knock-off

By Rob Blackwelder

Maybe there are a few new ideas left in the space terror genre after all. OK, perhaps they're not exactly new ideas, but the makers of "Pitch Black" have at least found a new way to recycle the old ideas.

At its core, "Pitch Black" may be just another "Alien" rip-off: The crew and passengers of a spaceship crashed on a desert moon are picked off one at a time when night falls by swarms of lightning quick, flying monsters sporting six-inch razor-teeth and armored exoskeletons.

But while it's apparent from the get-go which characters are expendable and most of the movie is spent running and hiding, right from the start this interplanetary fright flick is smarter and slicker than most.

A fat chunk of the picture's budget went into the spectacular, convincing crash sequence that opens the film, which features the ship burning up in the atmosphere as it hurtles toward this barren planet, breaking up as it comes in and tearing up the ground as it plows to a halt.

Then co-writer and director David Twohy -- whose previous efforts have mostly been borderline crap like "The Arrival" -- proceeds to create a highly convincing alien desert landscape. Strange clusters of muddy spires, a horizon of apparently unusual trees (which turn out to be something else entirely) and the savvy use of yellow filters that give the moon's atmosphere an eerie, blistering appearance -- all contribute to the other-worldly milieu. He even manages an awesomely believable planet-rise on the horizon.

The moon is in a triple star system and apparently it rarely sees darkness. But this bunch has had the bad luck of landing here just in time for a lengthy eclipse, during which the bloody-thirsty but light-sensitive natives emerge from underground caverns and go about their carnivorous ways.

Made on the cheap in Australia with a mostly Aussie cast, the crash survivors are lead by a girl-power pilot (Radha Mitchell, "High Art"), a bull-headed bounty hunter (Cole Hauser) and and his charge, Riddick (Vin Diesel, also in this week's "Boiler Room"), a cold-blooded, body-sculpted, mass-murdering prison escapee.

Other potential appetizers with speaking parts: The tough kid (Rhiana Griffith); the selfish English ponce cribbed from Mr. Smith on "Lost In Space" (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) and a few members of a Muslim sect.

After the planet goes black, Riddick's surgically-enhanced ability to see in the dark finds him taking point as they try to survive by scaring off the aliens with whatever light they can generate, be it from flashlights, booze-fueled torches or glowing native bugs. Of course, that doesn't stop most of them from getting munched.

Several things separate "Pitch Black" from other imitators. For one thing, so much thought was put into creating this alien world that even atmospheric conditions were considered -- our heroes have a hard time breathing. But more importantly, the characters that don't get quickly eaten are well-developed, interesting and volatile -- especially Riddick, whose animal/survivalist instincts are the group's best asset (and their second biggest fear) as they try to navigate the deadly darkness.

For those of a scientific ilk, there are several large lapses in the laws of nature and planetary physics that must be forgiven to properly enjoy this picture. Twohy also took an annoying amount of license with the spastic editing in certain scenes.

But the creatures are fantastically rendered, the suspense is a killer (the movie is more exciting than it is scary), the sense of place remarkably realistic and the leads are people to whom you get attached, which is more than can be said for most genre entries.

"Pitch Black" won't become a sci-fi/horror legend. It won't spawn a cult of conventioneers or any sequels (although it may help launch a couple careers). However as seat-jumping popcorn movies go, it's pretty cool.

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