First the good news: If you're of the opinion that the Alien series is the last word in sci-fi horror movies, Pitch Black was tailor-made with you in mind. Now the bad news: It's so derivative that any serious genre fan (which is to say, anyone who's likely to want to see this film in the first place) will see echoes of other movies-especially Alien movies-in virtually every scene. The other good news: Despite its low-profile cast and relatively low-budget special effects, Pitch Black is infinitely more watchable than the bloated, baffling Supernova.

In the grungy future, a battered space barge is drifting silently through deep space, its crew and passengers peacefully enjoying their hypersleep. Then something happens: The ship's computer springs into action and awakens the crew, who find themselves in the middle of a meteor shower or something...whatever it is, it damages the ship and they're forced to crash-land on a hellish desert planet. Only a handful of the people aboard live through the landing, and as the only living member of the crew, docking pilot Fry (Rahda Mitchell, of High Art) is suddenly in charge. Before she can begin to address the issue of trying to get them all home, the survivors need food, medicine, shelter and especially water, which is clearly in short supply on the desert-like planet, whose surface is scorched by two suns. And as if that weren't enough to keep Fry busy, there's the matter of Riddick (Vin Diesel), a psychopathic serial killer who was being transported back to prison by bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser). Riddick escapes every set of shackles he's put into, and had some freaky prison operation on his eyes so he can see in the dark; they gleam like smoky mirrors and scare the hell out of everyone.

While Riddick lurks menacingly behind a pair of dark goggles and Johns blusters, the rest of the survivors make some disturbing discoveries: a bunch of giant, sun-bleached alien skeletons; a suspiciously deserted geological research station; a bunch of oversized termite mounds covering a series of tunnels that prove to be crawling with hungry monsters. Fortunately, the monsters can't stand the light. Unfortunately, there's an eclipse on the way, and the entire planet is about to be plunged into darkness. Can the ragtag group find a way off the planet before those things with all the tentacles turn them into monster chow?

You know what happens next. Cue the running and screaming, negotiate a truce with the guy who can see in the dark, keep those pathetic little flashlights burning at all costs. Screenwriting brothers Ken and Jim Wheat have a truckload of genre sequel/retread experience under their belts (It Came From Outer Space II, The Stepford Husbands, The Fly II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Birds II, etc.), and they spin this familiar material nicely. But it's still very familiar...okay, let's stop being polite. It's the same old stuff in a nice package, briskly directed by David Twohy, whose goofy The Arrival was more entertaining than it had any right to be. It's hard to see why Pitch Black is being given a wide theatrical release; its small virtues will be much better served by video, where viewer expectations are lower.

--Maitland McDonagh