"Pitch Black"

Two commentary tracks on this almost-great sci-fi thriller fail to flesh out what happens when space goes dark and all hell breaks loose.

Published December 6, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Pitch Black"
Directed by David Twohy
Starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser
Universal; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Cast and crew commentary, additional scenes, making-of featurette, trailers

You want "Pitch Black" to be better than it is. Not because it sucks -- it doesn't -- but because it comes tantalizingly close to breaking free of the confines of its genre, only to scurry in the end back to the well-explored, monsters-in-the-dark territory that the "Alien" series does so much better.

The setup moves quickly enough. A commercial spacecraft runs into trouble when it crosses paths with a rogue comet, forcing it to crash-land on a three-sunned desert planet. The handful of survivors must cope with their inhospitable new surroundings as well as with the sudden disappearance of the fugitive murderer, played by Vin Diesel, as he is being transported back to interplanetary prison.

Unexpectedly, director David Twohy then chooses to slow things down, allowing the characters to develop and for the suspense to build gradually. The look and feel of the movie takes on a surprisingly indie tone, as if Twohy is signaling that there's more going on than meets the eye, and that the predicament of the characters, as opposed to slam-bang special effects, is going to propel the plot. Even when decidedly carnivorous creatures turn up, they seem (at first) like just another obstacle to be overcome.

That changes. The big twist arrives when we learn that the lights go out on this planet every 22 years as all three suns simultaneously go into eclipse. And when that happens, the monsters in the dark come pouring from their hidy-holes and, naturally, all hell breaks loose. So much for slow-moving indie atmospherics. Once the planet goes dark, "Pitch Black" switches into high gear and the story becomes simple and familiar: The good guys must race to safety before they all get eaten. There's some pretty good eye candy as the monster attacks grow in ferocity, but everyone you think will survive does; everyone else is kibble.

Diesel, who seemed more dangerous as a screw-the-clients stockbroker in "The Boiler Room," acquits himself well enough as the heel with a heart of gold. Physically, he has sufficient presence to make his escaped con a menace to those around him. But his transformation from serial killer to savior is seen coming a mile off, thus depriving the story of yet one more element of suspense.

The DVD has two separate audio commentaries -- an alarming and unnecessary trend among recent releases. Do the studios really think viewers want to sit through the entire movie several times to get all the goodies? One track features Diesel, costar Cole Hauser and director Twohy, and it seldom rises above the usual passing observations about how much they all loved this or that scene. The second track, with Twohy again, producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, is more informative, but contains little that will flesh out the overall viewing experience.

The best inside dope comes as Twohy explains one of the more difficult effects on a shot-by-shot basis. In the sequence, Diesel is fighting hand-to-hand with one of the creatures, and the effect is created by rapidly alternating use of a puppet with use of computer graphics. "Back and forth, back and forth, very quickly," Twohy notes. "Good example of how you can do it, if you do it right." In this case, he nailed it. Too bad the rest of the movie just missed.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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