Pitch Black, 2000. Directed by David Twohy. Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Keith David.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Supernova, the James Spader movie from which director Walter Hill removed his name. I couldn't help but think back to that experience while I was watching this unassuming little sci-fi thriller. In both instances, I kept thinking: "Why the hell wasn't this film a direct-to-video project?" The comparison does Pitch Black a world of good, because next to Supernova, it looks like some kind of masterpiece. Oh, don't get me wrong: Pitch Black is bad and bad for you, but diminished expectations are always a good way to approach a movie.

Writer/Director David Twohy's previous movie, The Arrival, had all kinds of interesting speculations and extrapolations built into it. Pitch Black makes no such concessions to the audience's intelligence: it wants to be an Alien-style thriller and it goes about it as ruthlessly and with as much derivation from other, better, movies as possible. The plot consists of a diverse group of people crash landing on a planet in a triple star system where night falls once every 22 years. They find a small colony that has been abandoned while searching for the escaped convict they were transporting. The colony has a Marie Celeste quality to it (pace Aliens), which hints at awful things. It seems that, when night falls, nasty beasties who live in the darkness come out a-hunting. Our characters must struggle to make it off the planet before they are all eaten. Simple enough, I hear you say...and it should be. But let's hold that thought for a bit.

The actual filmmaking craft on display in the movie is very interesting. Twohy has actually found an excuse for using amber and blue filters that doesn't smack of pretension--they represent the light from the various suns in this particular star system. He has saved his pretensions for the uses to which he puts anamorphic distorting lenses. There is a purpose to this--he is attempting to convey an alien environment without the benefit of expensive sets and special effects--but it is annoying after a while. Fortunately, once the plot kicks in, this kind of noodling ceases. The special effects Twohy HAS employed--namely his alien beasties--are very effective. They sidestep the glaring flaws of most CGI effects by placing all of the effects shots in darkness or semi-darkness. Pitch Black has some pretty effective imagery, too, including the crash landing sequence, the eclipse sequence, and the shots of the aliens emerging into the night. The performances are pretty good, for the most part, particularly Vin Diesel as the convict. But all of this is gloss. The SUBSTANCE of the film is where everything falls apart.

Pitch Black's SHOULD be simple enough. Unfortunately, there is an accumulation of odd details that conspire to wreck the movie. Everything is TOO convenient. For instance: how likely is it that a lifeform that can only exist in total darkness is going to evolve in an environment where night never falls? How likely is it that our heroes' space ship is going to crash land on a planet that not only has an abandoned outpost, but an abandoned outpost within WALKING distance from the crash? And how likely is it that one of the passengers--the convict--is going to be specifically adapted to the darkness?  Answer: literally trillions to one. The plot of this movie turns on events that simply couldn't happen in any plausible universe. I know, I know....many sci-fi movies have this particular failing, but very few of them are as obvious about it as Pitch Black. At least it's better than Supernova....