A disbanded clan of future-shocked strangers. A demolition detour onto a deserted planet. Sweats. Tempers. And the small matter of several thousand reptilian beastoids creaking from the landscape, hungry, heartless and hunting for lunch. Been there, jumped at that. To say Pitch Black's well-worn, plot-torn, easy-to-scorn scenario sparks a sense of déjà view is a given. But, much like cult pulper Assault On Precinct 13, this supersedes its derivative B-movie roots to emerge as a craftily crafted and stylishly shot outer-spacer.
It's no coincidence that John Carpenter's Rio Bravo remake should get a name-check. Director David Twohy has obviously been studying the dynamics of Carpenter's stripped style, because this really does play like Precinct 13 in space, even down to its jailbird protagonist. Fortified by a rippling brickhouse physique and a Hammerite-gargled voice that could strip a wall at 30 paces, Diesel is an imposing presence, rendering serial-murderer Riddick a potent anti-hero by way of Snake Plissken. Like lard-rinsed toilet paper, he doesn't take shit from anyone: a star has most definitely been born.
Twohy is also a talent to watch. Even though the survivors are left shivering in the open air, he cleverly concocts claustrophobia as each crew member has to heap and huddle around makeshift neon tubes, the only repellant against the flocking, gnashing masses. More importantly, so deft is Twohy's twisted utilisation of a no-name cast that you don't even know who the heroes are, let alone the victims. And it's this rare attention to the characters and the backstabbing politics of survival that really lifts Pitch Black above the norm.
And then there be monsters. Gargoyles snapped from a cosmic plinth, think the pronged pate of a hammerhead shark melded onto a bipedal pterodactyl and you've got a commendably grisly design: lethal killers armed with a rattling voice- box of hisses, roars and pings.
The modest budget might have been splashed on the above-par CG effects, but some creative camerawork proves that a modest tab should never restrict a movie's look. While Riddick's Predatorish night-vision POV and the scorched panoramas add to the atmosphere, a crunching ship crash and a key eclipse scene ups the spectacle. Admittedly, occasional choppy cutting garbles the action and Zog only knows what the intergalactic Muslims are all about (other than an excuse for Diesel to growl: "I do believe in God... But I hate the motherfucker!"). But as creature features go, this really is superior stuff. Our advice? Shred any naff monster-movie preconceptions, leave your brain in the foyer and go chew on one of the year's first genuine surprises.