Moviegoers rejoice! The first fun movie of the year has arrived. Oh, Leo's little seaside adventure was pretty to look at, but the attempts at depth were a real bummer. And let's not even talk about Scream 3. Even the first one was highly overrated, and it's been downhill from there. True, this time of the year is a dumping ground, save for a few foreign releases and repertory picks gradually making their way into art houses -- the prevailing wisdom is that no one's gonna remember spring releases come end-of-year wrap-up time anyway -- but one can usually count on at least one or two dumb, fun movies that aren't too badly made. There didn't seem to be anything of that nature on the horizon this year: What's a testosterone-laden moviegoer to do now that Seagal and Van Damme are both going direct to video these days?
Listen up. Pitch Black has arrived, and it has what you need. Carnivorous monsters. Spaceships. Bloody carnage. Radha Mitchell (of High Art) in tight, skimpy clothes. And, oh yeah, one unstoppable, badass antihero in the form of Vin Diesel, a.k.a. the voice of The Iron Giant. Turns out he's something of an invincible machine in live-action as well: The man he plays here shaves his head with axle grease and a homemade knife, mimics the body movements of predatory beasts before taking them on in hand-to-hand combat, and deliberately dislocates both his shoulders in order to break free of his restraints. Did we mention he can act? Diesel's narration opens the film with the line: "They say most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep [all except] the primitive side, the animal side. It's no wonder I'm still awake." Expect to read at least one ecstatic blurb calling him an action hero for the new millennium or something to that effect. Then see for yourself: It just may be the truth.
Anyway, the cryosleep doesn't last very long. The spaceship carrying Diesel and his fellow passengers veers into a meteor shower and is sent crashing spectacularly onto the surface of a nearby desert planet, in a sequence that recalls the plane crash from Alive. Few of the passengers or crew survive unscathed: There's the insecure pilot, Fry (Mitchell); Islamic fundamentalist Imam (Keith David) and his three young disciples en route to "New Mecca" (looks like black separatists get their wish in this future); eccentric English wuss Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald); teen runaway Jack (Rhiana Griffith); hard-edged Aussies Zeke (John Moore) and Shazza (Claudia Black, of the Sci Fi Channel's Farscape); and finally, convicted murderer Riddick (Diesel) and the obsessive lawman, Johns (Cole Hauser), who has captured him at long last.
Once Riddick manages to break free, ample paranoia ensues as to whether he's simply going to enjoy his freedom or "skull-fuck" the other survivors just for fun. This soon becomes a moot point, however, when it is discovered that the planet is infested with subterranean monsters. They're afraid of the light, but as luck would have it, the planet is about to enter its eclipse cycle, which will make the surface-dwellers fair game. Can our band of misfits manage to cooperate long enough to keep themselves alive? Or will they simply be eaten, one by one?
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In other words, yes, this movie is modeled on Aliens, inasmuch as James Cameron's epic pretty much defines the whole "people escaping from a nest of angry predators in space" premise. However, it's a good deal better than most. Director-screenwriter David Twohy, who penned such guilty pleasures as Warlock, The Fugitive, and Waterworld, has turned out an extremely well-crafted piece of entertainment that's substantially better than his directorial debut, the enjoyably pulpy Charlie Sheen-versus-alien invaders movie The Arrival. He's aided by a stellar cast and a standout score by Graeme Revell, laden with tribal-style percussion.
Still, Twohy is the one to thank for such breathtaking visuals as the gigantic, ringed planet set against the backdrop of the sun; the passenger ship's crash trail leading off into the distance and jettisoning plumes of smoke into the sky; the giant skeletons that look like trees from a distance; and the deadly swarms of flying predators that violently emerge from the rock formations at sunset. Even the obligatory monster-point-of-view shot is given a new lease: These beasts don't detect body heat like most of their cinematic predecessors; they use sonar, which is visualized on screen as a cross between white noise and those 3-D pictures that you have to look deep into to make out an image. Best of all, the camera never lingers on the aliens for too long. By the film's end, we all have a good idea of what they look like, but they never sit still long enough for us to get complacent. Monster-maker Patrick Tatopolous may now consider himself officially forgiven for Godzilla.
Still all the monsters and CGI visuals in the world won't help if you don't have a decent story or characters. Here Twohy is ably backed with a script by Jim and Ken Wheat (Ewoks: The Battle for Endor) that manages to make us care about most of the characters and keeps us guessing to the last about whether Riddick really is a misunderstood good guy or a double-crossing murderer. And like last summer's Deep Blue Sea, the movie effectively undercuts traditional stereotypes of who dies and in what order. To quote Joe Bob Briggs' classic rule for a good drive-in movie: "Anyone can die at any time."
If there are complaints to be made about Pitch Black, other than the resemblances to Aliens, they'd have to include the blandness of some of the dialogue (every time a character makes a new discovery, he or she seems required to say it out loud, even if it's obvious to all of us) and the inconsistency of the aliens' reactions to light. (If they can kill a guy holding a flashlight, why would they be afraid of a glowworm?) Still, these minor points don't detract from the enjoyment of the film. Gasp at the visuals, cheer when the aliens get squished, and marvel at the all-around ability and charisma of Vin Diesel. And Radha Mitchell ain't bad either.