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Prepare for Blastoff!

Pitch Black puts some pop in this season's popcorn movie offerings.

Moviegoers, rejoice! The first fun movie of the year has arrived. Oh, Leo's little seaside adventure was pretty to look at, but its attempts at depth were a real bummer. And let's not even talk about Scream 3: Even the first one was highly overrated, and it's been downhill from there. Though this time of year is usually a dumping ground, save for a few foreign releases and repertory picks gradually making it into art houses -- the prevailing wisdom is that no one's gonna remember any spring releases come end-of-the-year wrap-up time, anyway -- you can usually count on at least one or two dumb fun movies. But this year, there didn't seem to be anything of that nature on the horizon: What's a testosterone-laden viewer to do now that Seagal and Van Damme are both going direct to video?

The answer arrives this week in the form of Pitch Black, which has it all.Carnivorous monsters. Spaceships. Bloody carnage. Radha Mitchell (of High Art) in tight, skimpy clothes. And, oh, yeah, one unstoppable, badass antihero in the form of Vin Diesel, aka the voice of The Iron Giant. Turns out he's something of an invincible machine in live action as well: The man shaves his head with axle grease and a homemade knife, mimics the body movements of predatory beasts before taking them on in hand-to-hand combat and deliberately dislocates both his shoulders in order to break free of his restraints. Did we mention he can act? Diesel's narration opens the film with the line: "They say most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep...[all except] the primitive side, the animal side. It's no wonder I'm still awake."

Besides, the cryosleep can't last very long: The spaceship carrying Diesel and his fellow passengers veers into a meteor shower and is sent crashing spectacularly onto the surface of a nearby desert planet in a sequence that recalls the plane crash from Alive. Few of the passengers or crew survive unscathed. There's the insecure pilot, Fry (Mitchell), Islamic fundamentalist Imam (Keith David) and his three young disciples en route to "New Mecca" (looks like black separatists get their wish in this future), eccentric English wuss Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), teen runaway Jack (Rhiana Griffith), hard-edged Aussies Zeke (John Moore) and Shazza (Farscape's Claudia Black), and finally, convicted murderer Riddick (Diesel) and the obsessive lawman, Johns (Cole Hauser), who has captured him at long last.

Once Riddick manages to break free, ample paranoia ensues as to whether he's going to simply enjoy his freedom or "skullfuck" the other survivors just for fun. This soon becomes a moot point, however, when it is discovered that the planet is infested with subterranean monsters. They're afraid of the light, but as luck would have it, the planet is about to enter its eclipse cycle, which will make the surface-dwellers fair game. Can our band of misfits manage to cooperate long enough to keep themselves alive? Or will they simply be eaten, one by one?

In other words, this movie is modeled on Aliens, inasmuch as James Cameron's epic pretty much defines the whole "people escaping from a nest of angry predators in space" premise. But it's a good deal better than most. Director David Twohy, writer of such guilty pleasures as Warlock, The Fugitive and Waterworld, has turned out an extremely well-crafted piece of entertainment that's substantially better than his directorial debut, the enjoyably pulpy Charlie Sheen- versus-alien-invaders The Arrival. He's aided by a stellar cast and Graeme Revell's standout score, which is laden with tribal-style percussion.

Still, Twohy is the one to thank for such breathtaking visuals as the gigantic ringed planet setting in front of the sun, the passenger ship's crash trail leading off into the distance and jettisoning plumes of smoke into the sky, the giant skeletons that look like trees from a distance and the deadly swarms of flying predators that violently emerge from the rock formations at sunset. Even the obligatory monster-POV shot is given a new lease: These beasts don't detect body heat like most of their cinematic predecessors; they use sonar, which is visualized on-screen as a cross between white noise and those 3-D pictures that you have to look deep into to make out an image. Best of all, the camera never lingers on the aliens for too long. By the film's end, we all have a good idea of what they look like, but they never sit still long enough for us to get complacent. Monster-maker Patrick Tatopolous may now consider himself officially forgiven for Godzilla.

Still, all the monsters and CGI visuals in the world won't help if you don't have a decent story or characters. Here, Twohy is ably backed with a script by Jim and Ken Wheat (Ewoks: The Battle for Endor) that manages to make us care about most of the characters and keeps us guessing to the last about whether Riddick really is a misunderstood good guy or a double-crossing murderer. And like last summer's Deep Blue Sea, the movie effectively undercuts traditional stereotypes of who dies and in what order. To quote Joe Bob Briggs's classic rule for a good drive-in movie: "Anyone can die at any time."

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