Pitch Black

At first glance, “Pitch Black” appears to be derivative of every single sci-fi film ever made. At second glance, this is still true, but you notice something else: Despite its rip-offs (mostly of “Alien”), “Pitch Black” delivers not only on thrills and suspense, but on artistic direction and clever plotting.

A spaceship carrying 40 commercial passengers crash-lands on a desert planet on which there is conveniently plenty of oxygen, but no darkness, thanks to the planet’s three suns.

Most of the passengers (as well as the pilot) are killed in the crash; among the survivors are the new captain-in-command Fry (Radha Mitchell), several Muslims, a British antiques dealer (Sting look-alike Lewis Fitz-Gerald), a police officer named Johns (Cole Hauser), and the dangerously murderous, Hannibel Lector-ish convict Riddick (Vin Diesel).

Riddick, a buffed-out, glassy-eyed, deep-voiced menace, escapes in the crash, leaving the survivors with two problems: One, there’s no water and no apparent means of escaping the planet; two, Riddick could come out of hiding at any moment and start killing them.

Soon, though, a more important problem comes to light (so to speak). Hidden within caves, darkened buildings and anyplace else the sun doesn’t shine are thousands of ferocious reptilian beasts. The light kills them, which means they shouldn’t be a problem, since it never gets dark on this planet. Ah, but our heroes soon learn that every 22 years, there’s a total solar eclipse, leaving the entire planet in utter darkness — and it’s been just about 22 years since the last one.

The idea of man-killing creatures that can only survive in darkness is a scary one, but kudos to this film for not making this into just another “aliens hunt down all the humans one-by-one” movie. Several characters do get killed off, but we are never made to think that these beasts are evil, or that they want to murder all humans. They’re just hungry, untamed animals with no particular vendetta against anyone.

From the genuinely exciting crash-landing, through the crew’s reluctant acceptance that Riddick may be their only hope of survival, up to the finale, “Pitch Black” shows more intelligence and heart than most films in its genre. Riddick is compared many times to the animals (both kill seemingly without remorse or reason, both fear the light), and there are several instances in which Riddick is assumed to be the cause of some noise or calamity, only to find it was the aliens instead (and vice versa). The animals even fight and kill each other — something else the humans do.

Even among the humans, the question has to be answered: Who are the real killers? Who are the real monsters?

Attempts at character arcs among the leads, most of whom try, unconvincingly, to cover up their Australian accents, are, admittedly, half-hearted. Fry’s seeming cowardice in the beginning of the film comes back in the end, but not in any eye-opening way, and the faint glimmer of humanity left in Riddick goes mostly unexplored, unfortunately. (Does a self-confident, evil-acting serial killer secretly have some desire to rejoin civilization? That would be a fascinating question to answer.)

But where the film fails in characterization (and again, even there, it’s better than most), it succeeds gloriously in visuals. The film had no huge budget to make things explode all the time; instead, we’re treated to some images that are truly arresting. There’s the sun-bleached, almost black-and-white scenes when the survivors wander the desert terrain; the many point-of-view shots of how the aliens see the world; and many other terrific elements that suggest high artistic merit, if not a $100 million budget. You can’t take your eyes of this movie, so engaging is the manner in which it is shot.

More importantly than director David Twohy’s style and vision, though, is the simple fact that the movie entertains. It delivers action, suspense and thrills, all while being at least slightly ahead of the class when it comes to alien/sci-fi movies.

B+ (1 hr. 48 min.; R, abundant profanity, pretty heavy sci-fi violence and gore..)