By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black
  • Movie

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.

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 the murderous prisoner Riddick, who, as played with growly gusto by Vin Diesel (”Boiler Room”), 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.

Pitch Black

  • Movie
  • R
  • 110 minutes
  • David Twohy