Before there was Riddick the Icon, there was 'Pitch Black.' It is always interesting to revisit the original film that spawned a franchise (or hoped-for franchise), especially when the film in question wasn't really conceived to be the launching pad for a toy line. Perhaps that's why I quite enjoyed watching 'Pitch Black' a second time for this review, because it makes no apologies for what it is -- a no-frills horror film with action, suspense, scares and very little pretense. Sure, this one may be little more than another 'ALIEN' rip-off, but because it is largely free of all that 'Chronicles of Riddick' mythology gunk it sure is a lot of fun.
As 'Pitch Black' begins we find ourselves aboard a nondescript transport ship in deep space. It is populated by another one of those ragtag band of blue collar space workers (led by Radha Mitchell as Pilot Fry and Cole Hauser as Lt. William Johns), but they are also carrying one very special piece of cargo -- legendary master criminal Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel). Unfortunately for the crew, the ship soon crashes on a barren planet and Riddick is now loose, though he will soon become the least of their worries. Seems they are not alone on the unknown planet, and whatever is out there lives in the darkness -- and it's hungry. With their numbers quickly diminishing, the crew will have to form an unlikely alliance with Riddick if they hope to survive.
'Pitch Black' is fun on a lot of levels. It has a nifty little gimmick -- the planet's creatures can only be seen with night vision so are essentially invisible -- and a nice assortment of characters, however stock they may be. Writer and director David Twohy nicely exploits the shifting alliances between Riddick and the crew, which gives 'Pitch Black' a bit more depth than your standard monsters-in-the-dark B-movie. Good and evil begin to lose their meaning as each character is compelled to commit acts that will reveal their true natures. Riddick's conflicting duality -- both heroic and mercenary -- leaves room for plenty of surprises in terms of body count, and who will eventually live and die is not as cut and dried as it first appears. That's rare for a horror flick these days, in which most of the victims announce their fates the minute they walk onscreen simply because they are so obnoxious.
Still, 'Pitch Black' ultimately lives or dies on the strength of its villain. Luckily, the creatures here are pretty cool. Sure, they are more than reminiscent of the grand dame of the modern monster movie, the Queen in 'ALIENS,' but they're still scary. My only complaint is that the CGI in the film is a bit weak (though I generally prefer mechanical effects anyway so perhaps I have a built-in bias). Interestingly, considering its massive-budgeted sequel, 'Pitch Black' was actually a fairly low-budget production. So while a few shots are chintzy, Twohy still makes the most of his limited purse strings by employing all sorts of effects (night vision, excessive stylization, creative use of dark and shadows) to keep the film looking expensive and polished. There is some pretty imaginative stuff in 'Pitch Black,' and if the plot is nothing new, Twohy's direction and the intriguing characters help make the film one of the better examples of its genre.
Presented in 2.35:1 and encoded at 1080p, 'Pitch Black' really tests the abilities of the HD DVD format with its overt stylization. Perhaps to help detract attention away from the fact that he only had $20 million and 60 days in which to shoot his movie, director David Twohy really went wild with the film's visual aesthetic. That makes it tough to judge the quality level of this first-ever HD release in the traditional sense, but I can say it provides a noticeable upgrade over the previous standard DVD release.
The daylight scenes on the alien planet have been extremely tweaked, with completely blown out whites and an almost monochromatic use of deep oranges and cyan. It is all harsh and barren and desolate, which really serves the film well but does hamper detail. However, resolution is clearly superior here in direct comparisons with the previous standard DVD release. I was able to detect more fine details, such as the texture on a rock and color differentiations on landscapes more readily than on the DVD. Though the image is not "sharp" per se due to the heavy processing, contrast is consistent and even across the entire grayscale and blacks are deep and pure. Color reproduction is also well done, with hardly any chroma noise (which is surprisingly considering how pumped up the palette is) and no apparent smearing. Nighttime scenes are also impressive for the level of shadow delineation visible, and the improved resolution of the HD DVD ironically makes some of the effects look even more obvious (especially the rather phony-looking flying creatures). Overall, given the film's visual style it is hard to imagine 'Pitch Black' looking much better than this.
Perhaps Universal got a little chintzy in the audio department on this disc, for though the standard DVD release of 'Pitch Black' included a DTS mix, this HD DVD release includes only a single English Dolby Digital-Plus track (there aren't even any foreign language options). However, in my experience Dolby Digital-Plus tracks have generally been superior in fidelity compared to standard DTS mixes, so I won't complain too much.
Overall, 'Pitch Black' has fairly solid sound design, though I can't help but feel the soundtrack was what the filmmakers skimped on to help keep the budget in check. Certainly, it sounds perfectly fine and doesn't detract from the experience. Dynamic range is pretty good with fairly spacious midrange and clean highs. Low bass is also fairly punchy, if weaker than most recent films in its genre (this is certainly no 'Resident Evil' or 'Underworld'). Though the film doesn't sound cheap, to my ears some of the ADR sounded flat and the effects aren't integrated organically in the mix with the dialogue and score. Surround use is also uneven -- there are some occasions of noticeable discrete effects, but they are sporadic and imaging between channels is not transparent. Again, this is a perfectly fine soundtrack, it is just not spectacular.
I have to hand it to the HD DVD folks and Universal. While the Blu-ray team is currently floundering, skimping not only on extras but also failing to include the unrated cuts of films on their releases (really, who wants to pay $39.95 for an R-rated version of 'Basic Instinct 2' on Blu-ray when you can get the uncut version for half the price on standard DVD?), the HD DVD side has consistently delivered all the goodies plus unrated versions on their discs. The trend continues with 'Pitch Black,' which is presented here in its longer "Director's Cut" form, including a special introduction from David Twohy. So kudos to you, Universal.
Unfortunately, the rest of the extras that have been ported over from the R-rated and Unrated standard DVD releases are disappointing, if only because there aren't a lot of them. And though Universal has added some content exclusive to the HD DVD (see below), it too kinda sucks. This release is not going to impress anyone on the strength of its supplements.
The best extras by far are the two screen-specific audio commentaries. The first includes Twohy and stars Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and the second a technical track with Twohy and producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. Personally, I found all of this to be a bit of overkill, because as fun as 'Pitch Black' is, it just really isn't that deep or technically pioneering. Also, Twohy sometimes takes all of this way too seriously, which can get a bit much after nearly four hours of talking. In any case, of the two I preferred the cast track just because it is more fun. Diesel hadn't yet become a star by the time of the recording so his ego is still largely in check, and Hauser seems to be a real fan of these kinds of movies. The technical track is far more standard, and unless you are really into effects or a film student, you might be bored out of your skull.
The remaining two extras are pretty poor. "The Making of 'Pitch Black'" runs only five minutes and is one of the most obvious pieces of PR fluff I've ever seen. "Raveworld 'Pitch Black' Event" runs a far more robust 20 minutes, but it is even more annoying. A promo piece comprised solely of footage from a series of rave events the studio held to help promote the movie, it is instantly monotonous and I can't imagine it even playing on MTV. Granted I'm not a huge techno fan, but 20 minutes of all that thumping is way too much.
Alas, once again Universal has elected to not include any theatrical trailers on this HD DVD, which remains puzzling. Hopefully the studio will rectify this continued oversight on future releases.
'Pitch Black' is a fun if derivative horror movie that is also notable for (almost) having launched a franchise. I enjoy it a lot more than 'The Chronicles of Riddick,' and the film looks quite good on HD DVD. Though the soundtrack and supplements are not all that exciting, there are a few pithy bonus HD extras included. And in terms of sheer picture quality this disc offers a nice upgrade over the standard DVD release. So if you're a fan of the series, this one is worth considering for purchase.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.