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Weekly Alibi Monsterrific

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  A good monster goes a long way. The new sci-fi/horror movie Pitch Black, it should be noted then, has some damn fine monsters.

Things start out in solid enough science-fiction territory. Seems the crew of an unnamed deep space transport ship is in deep doo-doo. The ship has been pinholed by a rogue meteor shower, the captain is dead and an uncharted planet is rushing up to greet the crippled transport. Amid this post-credit chaos, the ship's docking pilot (Radha Mitchell), pulls off a dangerous crash landing, managing to save only a handful of passengers -- including a sybaritic antique dealer (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), a Muslim cleric (Keith David), a space-age lawman (Cole Hauser) and a deadly escaped convict (Vin Diesel).

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, the crash survivors soon realize that the parched planet on which they are standing is orbited by three suns -- a condition that allows them no relief from the punishing heat. As if that weren't trouble enough, the marooned crew is soon arming themselves as best they can against the threat of Riddick, the hulking, murderous convict now on the loose.

All those woes fall by the wayside, though, when it is discovered that one of the planet's suns is about to go into eclipse, plunging the planet into a rare bout of darkness. Turns out the crash victims aren't the only beings on the planet; and with the searing sun out of the way, it's a prime opportunity for the planet's other inhabitants to go on the hunt. ... It's monster time.

And oh what monsters they are -- big, gnarly bat creatures with toothy maws like hammerhead sharks. As the sun is swallowed behind a giant ringed planet (one of the film's coolest visuals), clouds of these winged nightmares swarm up from the planet's core to devour everything in their path. Here, of course, is where Pitch Black really starts rocking, trading in its sci-fi standard for a placard of pure horror.

Admittedly, there's nothing original going on anywhere in this effects-laden popcorn spiller. The story (by Jim and Ken Wheat of The Fly II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and The Birds II fame) basically sutures the plot of Aliens onto the setting of Nightfall, Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi story about a planet orbited by multiple suns and sent into apocalyptic chaos by a rare sunset (Nightfall, in fact, was the original title of Pitch Black). Fortunately, writer/director David Twohy treats all elements with a serious tone and a deft visual hand. Twohy's last contribution to the sci-fi genre was the Charlie Sheen UFO flick The Arrival (which didn't exactly win any critics awards, but did muster up a creepy atmosphere of paranoia and made enough of a box office impact to merit one direct-to-video sequel). Twohy isn't proving himself to be Hollywood's most innovative director, but he is proving to be a workhorse genre filmmaker. Pitch Black hits all the right notes and in the right sequence. We've got thrills, we've got chills and we've got a handful of eye-popping visuals (the monsters skittering around just out of range of the survivors' lights is one cree-peeee sight).

Naturally, there's a certain amount of contrivance to the proceedings. Some of it works (the monsters are easily frightened by light -- but, on a planet normally orbited by three suns, what's the use of having artificial lights lying around?), some of it pushes the bounds of believability (Riddick is conveniently blessed with surgically enhanced eyes that allow him to see in the dark). As expected, our squabbling cast members (including Riddick, who may not be as dangerous as he seems) must unite forces to combat the monstrous threat. Solid casting helps the film's appeal immensely. Australian actress Radha Mitchell (last seen in the art house hit High Art) does strong work in the lead role. But the show's stand-out performer is Vin Diesel (a one-to-watch actor after powerhouse turns in Saving Private Ryan, The Iron Giant and, most recently, Boiler Room). His scary charisma gives Pitch Black an extra boost of star-power in a cast stocked with relative unknowns.

In the end, the best thing that can be said for Pitch Black is that it's like a big bowl of Count Chocula -- not particularly nutritious or fulfilling, but tasty as hell and packed full of monsters! What more could you ask for?


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