[Screen It]


(2000) (Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell) (R)

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Sci-fi/Suspense: Having crashed-landed on an alien planet, a small group of survivors must contend with carnivorous monsters that come out in the darkness of a full solar eclipse.
Sometime in the future, a spaceship carrying an assortment of crew and passengers crash-lands on an alien planet. Among the survivors is Fry (RADHA MITCHELL), who's now their leader due to her captain being killed, Johns (COLE HAUSER), a lawman of sorts, and Riddick (VIN DIESEL), his bounty, a convicted murderer.

There's also Imam (KEITH DAVID), a Muslim cleric who's accompanied by three young pilgrims, Paris (LEWIS FITZ-GERALD), an antiques dealer, Shazza (CLAUDIA BLACK), a geologist, and Jack (RHIANNA GRIFFITH), a young teen runaway who suddenly idolizes the muscular and stoic Riddick.

Having survived the crash, several daunting issues face the survivors. For one, there's no water, so the crew heads out in search for some. Complicating matters is the fact that Riddick has escaped, with no one knowing his whereabouts or intentions. Then there's the fact that various odd creatures inhabit caves and other dark portions of the planet and a long abandoned mining facility.

The creatures appear carnivorous, but seemingly afraid of the light. Unfortunately, the crew discovers that a total solar eclipse is about to descend upon them and the planet, thus freeing the creatures to roam the surface. As the survivors race against time to find fuel cells for a spacecraft that may prove to be their ark, they must not only contend with the darkness and the creatures, but also their uncertainty about Riddick's possible actions against them.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Although it obviously peaks in childhood and then wanes as one grows older, darkness has a particularly unnerving effect on most people. Of course, it's debatable whether that's due to genetic coding embedded deep in our brains from prehistoric times when the carnivorous critters came out at night to hunt or because of a cumulative effect of scary stories and movies seen from an early age. Whatever the case, most everyone has, at one time or another, been unnerved due to being stuck in the dark.

While encountering a pitch-black setting - the rare instance of finding oneself where there's absolutely no light at all - creates its own set of uncomfortable fears, it's those moments where you can partially see something - particularly in an unfamiliar setting - that usually really gives people a serious case of the willies. That's the reason horror films nearly always take place in dimly lit surroundings, to more effectively allow the imagination to run wild.

That's the case in one of the classic horror/sci-fi series of all time, the "Alien" films." In the brilliant second installment, the little girl "Newt" tells the Ripley character (played by Sigourney Weaver) that the monsters mostly come out at night, thus playing off their and our fears of things that go bump (not to mention slither and hiss) in that night.

If there was one fault to that series, it was the many pallid imitators that it begot. While there are too many to count (and dredging up memories of them is painful enough), you can now add "Pitch Black" into the total. A completely derivative and mostly unimaginative knock-off of elements from the first two "Alien" flicks, the film looks, feels and plays out like a true "B" movie, but without the fun camp to make it enjoyable. There's not much worse than a bad film that takes itself seriously, and this is certainly one of those pictures.

Of course, one look at the credits (or the handy-dandy press kit that provides more details) would have been fair warning as to what would follow. While director and co-screenwriter David Twohy had some much deserved acclaim from his script work on the marvelous, "The Fugitive," he also penned or helped pen "Terminal Velocity," "Waterworld" and my favorite, "Critters 2: The Main Course."

That, coupled with the writing track record of this film's co-screenwriters, Jim and Ken Wheat - which includes "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" and a slew of films neither you nor I have ever heard of - should certainly lower one's expectations of what this film could possibly offer. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the filmmakers' collective pedigree before going in (that's why I'm warning you now), but have come to the conclusion that either way I would still feel that the film's title is clearly indicative of the abyss of novel ideas engulfing this picture.

For starters, the film "borrows" most of the entire "Alien/Aliens" set-up, where alien creatures hunt down the crew of a spaceship on an alien planet where they've done the same in the past to the previous colonists/explorers. Yet, just like most imitations or knock-offs, this one's clearly not of the same quality, and the more one picks at it, the faster it falls apart.

Beyond the fact that we've seen all of this before - including the leggy, insect-like creatures (which aren't seen that often or in full to keep the special effects production costs down, and that look and act rather similar to those in Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers") - little of it's suspenseful, and the dialogue and performances are flat when not laughably bad.

The lack of logic displayed by the characters and their creators is at times also quite startling bad. After all, if the planet's creatures hadn't had anything to eat - other than themselves -- for twenty some years (the time we're told the last inhabitants were around), they certainly leave the humans - their food - alone for quite some time.

Sensing this - or perhaps having read the script in advance - the human characters then stand around - such as near the end when two of them do so for quite some time at a spacecraft's open hatch, seemingly forgetting that the creatures could, at any moment, make a sudden dinner time appearance. That really shouldn't come as much of a surprise since one of those dim characters earlier questioned (upon seeing an abandoned outpost) why the previous inhabitants left so soon - this after having just had a close encounter with the carnivorous critters.

Of course, one can only assume that such behavior is meant to "goose" and induce some suspense in the viewer. However, by the time the lights finally go out on the planet and we get down to the anticipated action - an hour or so into the proceedings - the likely response that most viewers will have should be akin to watching the Discover Channel and believing that nature (the monsters) is weeding out the stupid (the humans) in as pure a form of Darwinism as one could imagine. It's just too bad that the filmmakers didn't join their creations on the planet - now that would have been entertainment.

What makes the film even worse is that it's not quite goofy, silly and/or campy enough to be enjoyed on even that level. While actor Vin Diesel ("Boiler Room," "Saving Private Ryan") gets a few Schwarzenegger type lines to spout in a similar, but clearly not as much fun, monotone delivery, the rest of the film proceeds as if everyone involved with it were making a serious art film.

Beyond Diesel, whose signature look here contains a pair of decidedly low-tech aviator goggles (to shield his character's surgically altered eyes - you know, so that he can see in the dark) the rest of the performances are flat and uninspired. Radha Mitchell ("High Art," "Love and Other Catastrophes") does her best Sigourney Weaver in space impersonation, but is hampered by a two-dimensional characterization.

Meanwhile, Cole Hauser ("The Cup," "The Hi-Lo Country") plays the stereotypical tough guy character, while Keith David ("There's Something About Mary," "Armageddon") is rather embarrassing as a Muslim cleric in a role that normally would appear in a goofy comedy. The rest of the cast is much pretty much fodder for the meat grinder, with the lucky ones being those who are eaten first.

As far as the creatures themselves, they have about as much personality and character development as their human counterparts. They are most likely to be hated, however, for simply not devouring their prey in a more expeditious fashion so as to shorten the film's one hundred or so minute run time and consequently our cinematic misery.

While those with absolutely nothing but the lowest of expectations, the heavily medicated and/or the criminally insane might find something redeemable here, the rest of the moviegoing populace will most likely find this work too derivative, unimaginative, and certainly not scary or suspenseful enough to be worth their time, money or effort. We give "Pitch Black" a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed February 3, 2000 / Posted February 18, 2000

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