Like Die Hard, the first two Alien films have inspired a disreputable genre unto itself. And, like most Die Hard knockoffs, films that steal liberally from Alien (Supernova, Virus) tend to fail spectacularly. Thankfully, Pitch Black serves as a happy exception, a science-fiction thriller that works despite wearing its influences on its sleeve. Director and co-screenwriter David N. Twohy's film concerns a grimy cargo-bearing spaceship that crash-lands on a desert planet where night never comes, inhabited solely by nefarious, carnivorous beasts that live in darkness and are terrified of light. The motley crew surviving the crash—including a tough captain (Radha Mitchell) and a menacing mass murderer with excellent night vision (Vin Diesel)—figure themselves in no immediate danger before an eclipse dramatically changes the situation. On the surface, little seems to differentiate Pitch Black from any number of films featuring grimy folks battling beasties in an enclosed space. But Pitch Black features reasonably complex, vividly drawn characters, showy special effects, and assured direction: Twohy does a good job keeping things focused on human drama rather than cheap shocks. In the tremendously gifted Mitchell (High Art), Twohy has found a tough, gutsy, Sigourney Weaver-level heroine, while Diesel transcends his stock character: the brainy, manipulative serial killer. Even better, the special effects are deployed effectively and sparingly, while the design of the monsters is imaginative and unsettling. Pitch Black falters a bit in its last half-hour—the film's darkest moment reduces Diesel to delivering a pithy one-liner—but for the most part, it's terrific.
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