Pitch Black DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Universal Studios
Directed by David Twohy
Written by Jim & Ken Wheat and David Twohy
2000, Region 1 (NTSC), 112 minutes, Unrated
DVD released on October 24th, 2000
Vin Diesel as Riddick
Radha Mitchell as Fry
Cole Hauser as Johns
Keith David as Imam
David Twohy's underrated film The Arrival was a thought-provoking, well-acted science-fiction piece about aliens trying to take over (and terraform) the Earth. His next effort, Pitch Black, turns the emphasis from science to action and horror, and succeeds wonderfully as a nonstop thrill ride, showcasing up-and-coming star Vin Diesel as the anti-hero Richard Riddick.
The action gets under way from the very beginning, as the transport ship carrying serial killer Riddick (among others) blunders into interstellar debris, crashing out of its shipping lane and onto a remote, desolate planet. While most of the passengers and crew are killed in the crash, the handful of survivors face the challenge of finding their way off the planet under the heat of its three suns. But when the suns go down, they find there are worse things in the dark than a serial killer.
Radha Mitchell (High Art, Ally Sheedy's comeback film) plays the surviving crew member, the pilot Fry, as the emotional core of the film. She is the "everywoman" learning to do the right thing and save not just her life but the lives of her charges. The polar opposites around her core are the spectacular Diesel (Saving Private Ryan) as Riddick and Cole Hauser (Higher Learning) as Riddick's captor, the "blue-eyed devil" Johns, armed with good looks, a shotgun and a couple of secrets.
While Mitchell and Hauser are both talented, charismatic actors who turn in fine performances, it is Vin Diesel who is the centerpiece of the film, and he is magnificent. His performance showed he could be a leading man, and pushed him from indie films and supporting roles into leads in movies like The Fast and the Furious. He oozes style and charisma, and while both his acting and his part are a shade one-dimensional, he offers just enough nuance to nail the part.
The supporting cast is very strong, featuring Keith David (The Thing) as the spiritual Imam on his way to New Mecca, Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Breaker Morant) as the proper antiquities dealer Paris, Rhiana Griffith as runaway Jack and Claudia Black (TV's "Farscape") as the tough prospector Shazza. Their characters have a minimum of depth, but the acting is superb.
The run-and-gun plot is simplicity itself. The nine crash survivors explore the planet, uncovering some of its many secrets - and finding their salvation: an abandoned shuttle that can get them off the planet. But when everything goes dark, out from beneath the surface of the planet come (mostly CGI) monsters that best can be described as flying mouths with rams for heads. The crash survivors, pinned at their wreck by the onslaught, must trek across the desert in the dark, holding the bloodthirsty creatures at bay, to reach their ride home.
The "gimmick" to the film is that the ex-con Riddick had a "surgical shine job" done on his eyes, meaning he can see in the dark. Thus, when the longest night falls, it falls to him to help lead the survivors to safety. But can they trust this walking lethal weapon, or each other?
Note the Unrated Director's Cut contains footage not scene in theaters, but most of the additions are of a plot/character nature, rather than gore, and add nicely to the film. The R-rated theatrical cut also is available on DVD.
Video and Audio:
The video is a mixed bag that necessitates a lot of explanation. Twohy uses many filters and several unique point-of-view images throughout the film. When the three suns are up, different filters are used to represent their colors, and for the most part, that is handled well. There are also POV shots showing Riddick's "shine job" night vision, and shots from the creatures' eyes that resemble television snow until you realize you can see their targets moving.
As for the actual image quality itself, generally, the brighter the scene, the better the picture — in the scenes shot under the white sun, for instance, edges are sharp and clear. But in many of the darker scenes, particularly under the blue sun in the early part and in the nighttime that follows, there is often a surprising amount of grain, even considering the relatively low budget. There is also a certain amount of faint, but obvious digital noise and a lack of crispness in some scenes, particularly ones heavy on the blacks, blues and reds. And with much of the film taking place in the Pitch Black, these are real problems, made all the more disappointing by the contrast with the flawless picture of some scenes — which begs the question, is the disc a poor effort, or is the technology bringing out the flaws in the print itself? Adding injury to insult, there is a surprising amount of print damage for a recent film.
The picture is like the little girl with the curl — when it is good, it is very, very good (witness the scene where, under the blue sun, a character is splashed in red blood), but when it is bad, it is horrid. Well, not horrid, but disappointing, to say the least. This is a beautiful film in many ways, and the overall picture quality doesn't do it justice. Anamorphic widescreen is approx. 2.35:1.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is solid, using just enough surround for the music and effects to offer a total environment, with the occasional panning effect. Another disappointment: The dialogue is sometimes soft, though whether that is the mix or some of the actors' performances is hard to tell - Diesel has a low, raspy voice that particularly makes his early spoken narration very hard to understand, and Mitchell and Hauser are at times soft-spoken. Bass is, however, steady throughout.
The disc also contains a DTS 5.1 track, English captions and French subtitles.
The headline extras are a pair of audio commentaries, one with director Twohy and stars Diesel and Hauser, the other with Twohy, producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang.
The on-screen talent commentary is unexceptional. The director and two stars are recorded together, but the banter is regrettably bland, with some humor and anecdotes, but many noticeable pauses. The participants get a little punchy toward the end, and even at one point talk about the absurdity of the entire process. The production commentary is more active, but highly technical. It's interesting because of the many effects shots, but if you're not an SFX geek, it drags in plenty of places. Like the film, both commentaries suffer a bit from soft-spoken participants.
The longest and strangest non-commentary extra is the "Raveworld Pitch Black'Event," a 20-minute clip of poor-quality rave video mixed with poor-quality clips from the movie. The techno music is catchy, but the mix is bland and the video (pretty people dancing and DJs hard at work) quickly goes tiresome. What all this has to do with the film is anyone's guess, outside of the strange explanation that scrolls Star Wars style at the beginning of the clip. This gets a lot of votes online as one of the most pointless extras in the short history of DVD, and with good reason.
The stock extras are a four-plus minute EPK-type featurette and two widescreen trailers, the green-band one for general audiences and the somewhat more intense and violent red-band restricted one - which, if you have sharp eyes, regrettably gives away the fate of one of the major characters.
Also included are some brief, but interesting, production notes, cast and director biographies/filmographies and some recommendations (no trailers) and an ad for the Universal DVD newsletter.
The film was a sleeper that performed unspectacularly at the box office, but seems to have found a cult following in the home-video market - a benefit, because it grows more enjoyable with every viewing. The disappointment of the DVD, however, is that a beautifully shot movie is hindered by some questionable image quality. Nonetheless, Twohy's sharp direction and Diesel's fine acting make this a nail-biter that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you prefer the "science" in your sci-fi, try The Arrival, but if it's action and scares you want, you won't go wrong with Pitch Black.
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