The primal fear of the dark is the basis for the compelling story that evolves in "Pitch Black."
While there's a familiarity in terms of the plot mechanics (crashed spaceship, threatening creatures), the film manages to invert them thanks to the solid direction of David Twohy and the screenplay by brothers Ken and Jim Wheat.
Incorporating disparate genre archetypes (the movie mixes "Swiss Family Robinson" with "Ten Little Indians" by way of "Alien"), "Pitch Black" provides a thrill ride from its chaotic opening scenes (in which a transport vehicle is forced to make a crash landing) to its surprising outcome.
The film starts with narration by Riddick (Vin Diesel), an escaped murderer on his way back to jail. Unlike his fellow travelers, he is resistant to cryogenic sleep and remains awake through the crash to escape when the ship makes an emergency landing. The sole surviving crewmember is pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell), who was in favor of jettisoning the passengers in order to save herself.
The others who escaped death include Johns (Cole Hauser), a lawman escorting Riddick; an Islamic imam (Keith David) with three young charges; an effete antiques dealer (Lewis Fitz-Gerald); a couple of geologists (Claudia Black and John Moore); and a teen-age runaway (Rhianna Griffith).
Under Fry's tentative leadership, the group sets out to survive on the bleak, desert-like planet. Although they fear Riddick will kill them, they are unaware that another more deadly form of life exists. Gradually, one by one, these creatures pick off the survivors, and those who aren't killed begin to display often contradictory and surprising behavior.
What separates "Pitch Black" from mediocre fare such as "Supernova" is its character definition. Mirroring the planet on which they've crash-landed, each of the individual characters is not what he or she appears to be on the surface. Since this makes them more human, it also allows the audience to invest in their plight.
There are certainly those who are merely there to serve as lunch for the alien creatures, but the important figures such as Riddick, Johns and Fry emerge as three-dimensional characters. It also helps immensely that Twohy did not pack the film with well-known stars that would immediately stack the deck.
Instead, he hired fine actors for the major roles. Lewis Fitz-Gerald (who began his film career in "Breaker Morant" in 1980) offers strong comic support while veteran Keith David (whom many will remember for his fight scene with Roddy Piper in 1988's "They Live") brings the appropriate gravity to his role as the Muslim cleric. Rhianna Griffith also registers as the youngster who comes to admire Riddick. Cole Hauser, perhaps best remembered as one of Matt Damon's neighborhood buddies in "Good Will Hunting" (1997) and Woody Harrelson's younger brother in "The Hi-Lo Country" (1998), steps into leading roles as the bounty hunter harboring a personal demon or two.
Radha Mitchell, last seen as the young woman who falls for Ally Sheedy in 1998's "High Art," delivers the goods as Fry literally matures as events unfold. But the real emerging star is Vin Diesel, who first registered as the Italian-American soldier in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and provided the basso vocals for the titular "The Iron Giant" in that underappreciated 1999 gem. Here, his sculpted physique and deep, slightly gravelly voice enhance his magnetic screen presence, and he crafts a memorable figure in Riddick.
The technical aspects of the film are generally above average. While the creatures (designed by Patrick Tatopolous) appear to be distant relatives of those featured in the "Alien" franchise (albeit crossed with pterodactyls), the sound design, editing (by Rick Shaine), camerawork of cinematographer David Eggsby and Graeme Revill's appropriately atmospheric musical score work together to maximize the thrill potential.
Special mention has to go to Eggsby, who used the same Coober Pedy, Australia, locations for the now-classic "Mad Max" (1979). With the director, he developed a bleach bypass process that was applied to the original negative in order to make certain scenes appear more burnished and blown-out. This otherworldly effect adds yet another level to the storytelling.
Some hard-core science-fiction fans might nit-pick over details in "Pitch Black," but for the average moviegoer looking to be entertained, this roller-coaster of a film should not be missed.
*MPAA rating: R, for sci-fi violence, gore, and for language.
Vin Diesel: Riddick
Radha Mitchell: Fry
Cole Hauser: Johns
Keith David: Imam
Lewis Fitz-Gerald: Paris
A USA Films presentation. Director David Twohy. Screenplay David Twohy, Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat. Director of Photography David Eggby. Editor Rick Shaine.