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Pitch Black   B

USA Films

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David N. Twohy
Writers: Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, David N. Twohy
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore, Simon Burke.

Review by Rob Vaux

Sometimes, you have to take a movie at face value. They can't all be Casablanca and, shocking as it may sound, not every filmmaker is a genius. Occasionally, we the audience must put our principles aside in order to enjoy the modest pleasures of a given flick. To do otherwise flirts dangerously with art-house snobbiness. If we can lower our sights, however, we may end up enjoying ourselves far more than we have any right to -- turning an otherwise forgettable piece of tripe into a genuinely good time.

Case in point: Pitch Black, a small sci-fi film that bears an unsettling resemblance to a much bigger one. The similarities to Alien are obvious to even a cursory glance, and the plot follows the same pattern as a dozen other cheap knock-offs -- an eclectic group of people, trapped in a colorful locale while inhuman monsters hunt them down one by one. This isn't just well-worn territory; it's scraped down to the bedrock. But Pitch Black resolutely sets out to make the most of this old chestnut, and -- wonder of wonders -- actually manages to pull something off.

The future. Somewhere in the depths of space, a long-distance transport crashes on a barren world. The survivors find themselves blasted beneath the light of three suns, low on food and supplies, and stalked by one of their own: a convicted killer (Vin Diesel) en route to some prison hell-hole. But the worst is yet to come -- a race of giant fanged nasties lurking in a series of nearby catacombs. Thankfully, the monsters hate the light, and on a planet with three suns, there's never any night. It would take a total eclipse to set them loose on the surface...

As I said, the premise is hardly original. But director David Twohy and a talented cast and crew elevate the material beyond its modest beginnings. Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby have taken some interesting steps to make their alien world appear...well, alien. Not through CGI imagery or run-of-the-mill special effects, but from more old-fashioned techniques, such as lighting and film stock. The movie has a grainy, high contrast look that leaves a strong impression. The light appears brighter, while the air has a harsher quality than Earth's. We're never allowed to forget that there are three suns in the sky, or that the nearby planets move differently than ours. Most sci-fi worlds look uncomfortably like Burbank; this one evokes an alien landscape the way few ever have.

With that as a back-drop, Twohy keeps the action taunt and intense. While special effects are in abundance, he relies more on character interaction and plot twists to drive the story. It's tough not to jump in places or to get a few goosebumps, even though you know who's going down and when.

The characters, too, are more than just cardboard cut-outs, with enough interesting aspects to keep us interested. Radha Mitchell's tough-talking female pilot has all the signs of a Sigourney Weaver clone, but does things that few heroes get a chance to -- like make mistakes or think selfishly. Old pro Keith David makes the most of a limited role, turning his Muslim cleric into the film's moral center. But the true star is Diesel, playing a predator in the midst of his fellow sheep. We never know whether to trust him or not -- at times he appears benevolent, even compassionate, but his vicious nature is never far from sight. Diesel balances his rough charisma with his character's menacing aspects to create a terse, fascinating lead. You're not sure if you like this guy, but you never tire of watching him.

The commercials are calling Pitch Black the best sci-fi film in years, which is overstating the case just a bit. No one's going to place this movie in the annals of immortality. But sometimes, it's enough simply to care about your material -- to give that extra boost that lifts it above mediocrity. Pitch Black may be another Alien rip-off, but it's a rip-off with class, style and a lot of heart. For most of us, that's more than enough.

Review published 03.17.2000.

For another opinion, read Michael Scrutchin's review.

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