A spaceship crash-lands on a harsh desert planet. Who among the survivors will emerge as the natural leader? The obnoxious, brutal cop (Cole Hauser), the brawny imam (Keith David), or the ruthless criminal (Vin Diesel)? In the future posited by Pitch Black, things really have progressed, because everybody falls into line behind the copilot, Fry (Radha Mitchell), who wears the de rigueur action heroine costume (tank top) but looks about as fierce as the toughest seventh grader on a suburban school bus. Resourceful as Fry is, though, she’s uncomfortable in her new role—particularly when the planet’s Mad Max-like landscape, thought to be uninhabited, suddenly turns treacherous. The hapless humans have aroused the wrath of something weird and hungry.
Director David Twohy, who made the aliens-among-us thriller The Arrival, keeps things moving, even if the screenplay (by Twohy and Jim and Ken Wheat) doesn’t contain many surprises about who among the Red Shirt victim-class will get chomped. Just as Pitch Black begins to seem tiresomely familiar, things change: The lights go out, thanks to a welcome lift from Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, and the balance of power among the survivors begins to shift. Mitchell, who was so effective in High Art, seems to be struggling with her character’s contradictions, while her more charismatic costar Claudia Black (of the Sci-Fi Channel’s Farscape) doesn’t get to do much. The real marvel of Pitch Black—aside from the eerie, burnt-orange light shining from the planet’s trio of suns—is Diesel, whose voice seems to be emanating from some scary sci-fi sub-basement. (Voicing the title character in The Iron Giant can’t have been much of a stretch.) His Riddick, a silver-eyed, musclebound escaped killer, is the most sequel-worthy sci-fi creation since the Terminator.