Weirdly cool, coolly weird, assembled with throwaway flair from cast-off sci-fi-thriller pistons and gears, Pitch Black opens with a bang. A slam, actually, as a hurtling spaceship under the docking direction of a brisk pilot named Fry (High Art’s Radha Mitchell) makes a crash landing onto an unknown planet. The rest of the crew is killed; the passengers are all shook up and emerge ahead of schedule from their transport comas, blinking and bleeding in a seemingly lifeless land.
The customers are a typically colorful gang of the doomed: a Muslim imam (Keith David) and three pilgrims headed for New Mecca, an intrepid geologist (Claudia Black), a simpering antiques dealer (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), a runaway teenager (Rhiana Griffith), a grim lawman (Cole Hauser), and — as sinner and saint — a murderous prisoner called Riddick (Boiler Room’s Vin Diesel), whose capacity for violence is signaled by the manacles, blindfold, and gag worthy of Hannibal Lecter that restrain him. And each discovers that this brutally hot, eerily quiet planet — scorched by three suns — is filled with lethal creatures who prey only in the dark.
Oh, and a total eclipse is coming.
Among the movie’s recycled components, Fry, as a next-generation heroine, owes her job to the gender barriers broken by Alien’s Ripley; Riddick’s ancestry can be traced all the way back to the Beast who saved Beauty; and the fussing sybarite might have been played by Edward Everett Horton. The rampaging aliens, meanwhile, are your average downmarket menaces; they look like irradiated escapees from Jurassic Park, and they squawk reeee-reee-reee! as they pounce and devour.
But Pitch Black is so jaunty, so limber, and so visually self-assured that art peeks through where crap has traditionally made its home. Director-cowriter David Twohy (The Arrival) has made more of the latter — he cowrote Waterworld and G.I. Jane. But he lucked out with his collaborators: Cinematographer David Eggby and production designer Graham ”Grace” Walker both worked on various Mad Max movies, and they bring to Pitch Black that same disorienting thrill of a world turned upside down. (It’s a small galaxy after all — like George Miller’s seminal futuristic saga, this was shot in the Australian end-of-the-road pit stop called Coober Pedy.)
Rarely has the unknown looked so grubby and yet so beautiful; rarely have crash landings felt so visceral. Besides, the movie’s outlaw aesthetics liberate relatively unknown actors to make the most out of characters sketchier than guests on the Enterprise. I particularly like Mitchell as Fry, with her peppery whiff of melancholy. And I enjoy even more the developing relationship between Fry and Riddick, who, as played with growly gusto by Diesel, is a useful desperado of the future: He can see the way forward in the darkness, much as Pitch Black can see the light in sci-fi formulas.