With its big-budget sequel an overwrought bomb, some may forget that David Twohy's Pitch Black is a genuinely effective sci-fi horror thriller that hits just about all the right notes. Tightly scripted and directed, the picture is a model of B-movie efficiency with interesting characters, a fairly smart plot, and precisely measured chills and thrills. It's not necessarily a masterpiece of the genre, nor does it ever pretend to be, but unlike its sequel the original delivers exactly what it promises and leaves the audience satisfied. It's a shame that the Hollywood studio mentality wants us to believe that every modestly successful movie needs to be turned into a franchise. Some movies deserve to stand on their own.
Before he became the annoying star of so many crappy action movies, Vin Diesel was a terrific badass anti-hero as hardened criminal Richard Riddick. Chained up and muzzled like an animal, when the ship transporting him to a penal colony crash lands on a harsh desert planet, Riddick breaks lose and begins a taunting cat-and-mouse game with the bounty hunter who originally captured him and the remaining civilian passengers who survived. Little do they all know that soon Riddick will be the least of their problems. The planet orbiting three suns seems to exist in perpetual daylight, until a rare celestial eclipse casts them into total darkness, and on this planet darkness brings new dangers. Nocturnal predators who've destroyed all other life on the rock can smell the fresh meat and want a taste of it. The survivors will need to band together to stay alive, and the feral Riddick may actually be their best chance of making it through the night.
To be sure, Pitch Black treads some genre clichés. The story is basically Flight of the Phoenix (the Jimmy Stewart version, not the lousy remake) crossed with Aliens. What it lacks in originality it makes up in style and raw urgency. The script is smartly written and has been honed down to its bare essentials, without all that bloated backstory and mythology that sunk is follow-up, The Chronicles of Riddick. What we have here are exactly the right ingredients for a sharp, scary, thrilling little monster picture with nothing extraneous weighing it down. Riddick in this film is a pretty fascinating character: heartless, dangerous, and rather mysterious, all traits that were watered down or lost in the sequel. His fellow survivors are also better than the usual dim-witted stock horror movie characters. The film was made for only $23 million, but packs in a lot of production value. Most of the visual effects are quite impressive considering the budget, though some of the CGI monsters are a little iffy.
The movie holds up remarkably well to repeat viewings, even when you know who lives and who dies. It's certainly better than many similar exercises in the genre (Doom comes to mind). It doesn't have to be high art to be great entertainment, and on that mark Pitch Black definitely qualifies.
The HD DVD:
Pitch Black debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment two months after they'd already released its sequel. That's marketing logic for you. Technically, the packaging identifies the movie as The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black, an obnoxious attempt to retroactively rebrand the film as part of a franchise. The on-screen title remains just Pitch Black, fortunately.
The version presented on disc is the "Unrated Director's Cut" previously available on DVD, which runs approximately three minutes longer than the original theatrical cut.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Pitch Black HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
Wow, this disc looks great! In fact, I'd say it's one of the best releases so far on the HD DVD format. The picture is razor sharp with astounding clarity of fine object detail. You can frequently make out every pore in the actors' skins and every bit of stubble on Diesel's shaved head, even in medium and wide shots. The movie has a stylized appearance with intentionally blown out contrasts during the desert daylight scenes and deep blacks during the nighttime scenes, and the entire contrast range is flawlessly rendered. Dark sequences have rich, inky blacks with very good shadow detail (when they're supposed to). Colors look vibrant and terrific. The DVD edition looked pretty good itself, but the HD DVD just blows it out of the water. Unlike some discs on either HD disc format, this is excellent High Definition and could never be mistaken for an upconverted DVD.
The movie was produced on a relatively low budget and does occasionally have a grainy scene or two. For the most part, these scenes are well compressed to retain the appearance of real film grain rather than video noise, but in a small handful of places the image looks like it may be artificially sharpened with the grain looking just a little noisy. However, the disc does not exhibit any typical edge enhancement halos that I could see, which is an improvement over the DVD. Any problems noticed here are minor and I didn't find them objectionable.
The Pitch Black HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The film has a great sound mix that smartly balances periods of quiet with those of aggressive loudness. Unlike many sci-fi action pictures, it's not just bombast from start to finish. Sound effects are crisply recorded and the movie delivers no shortage of bass when the time comes for it. The opening crash landing gets things off to a rocking start. The monster scenes are also particularly impressive, with pinpoint surround directionality and the fascinating sonar sound that the creatures emit.
Dialogue seems to be buried a little low in this DD+ track, unfortunately, and at times the fidelity of the soundtrack comes across a little harsh. The DVD had a DTS audio option that has not been carried over here (unlike the Chronicles of Riddick HD DVD which offers either DD+ or standard DTS), but I wish it had been. The DD+ is very good but just a bit veiled in some scenes, so I can't rate it reference quality.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - None.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). Oddly, unlike most other Universal titles the main menu screen here displays just a generic studio logo without any clips from the movie.
Most of the major supplements from both the original theatrical cut DVD and the later Unrated Director's Cut DVD have carried over.
No interactive features have been included. Missing from the first DVD edition are the movie's trailer, production notes, and cast bios. The trailer is sorely missed, but the text features aren't much of a loss.
- Audio Commentary by Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, and David Twohy - A disappointing track where the participants spend too much time just watching the movie. Obviously, none of them did any preparation beforehand or had any topics they particularly wanted to discuss.
- Audio Commentary by director David Twohy, producer Tom Engelman, and visual effects supervisor Peter Chang - A little bit better, this track is more technical but generally informative. Main points of discussion include the visual effects and the bleach bypass process used to give the movie its contrasty look.
- Introduction by David Twohy (2 min.) – A pretty worthless intro that spends more time plugging the sequel than telling us anything about Pitch Black, though in it Twohy does admit that he never had any plans for a franchise when he made the first film.
- Johns' Chase Log (7 min.) – Identical in format to the similar feature on the Chronicles of Riddick disc, this is a cheesy and annoying in-character diary narrated by the bounty hunter who pursued Riddick prior to the movie's events. Cole Hauser reprises his character for the voiceover.
- The Chronicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopedia (2 min.) – Likewise continued from its similar feature on the sequel disc, this contains a few very short explanations of the film's mythology narrated by Cole Hauser speaking in character. The feature seems to be designed for children and is also very cheesy and annoying.
- The Making of Pitch Black (5 min.) – Pure EPK fluff, this looks very much like it may have been an HBO First Look promo. Directory Twohy sure likes to toot his own horn.
- Dark Fury: Advancing the Arc (2 min.) – A shameless plug for the animated "between-quel" available separately on DVD.
- The Game is On (2 min.) – A shameless plug for the tie-in video game.
- A View into the Dark (3 min.) – A shameless plug for the sequel.
- Raveworld Pitch Black Event (20 min.) – Truly one of the most tedious and worthless bonus features I've ever seen, this is 20 minutes of lame video watching raver kids dancing to throbbing techno music while clips from the movie play in the background.
A hugely entertaining B-movie that holds up much better than its overly-ambitious sequel, Pitch Black comes to HD DVD with a just plain amazing video transfer. The audio is pretty good though not great, and the bonus features are mostly junk, but the disc still easily rates a high recommendation.
The Chronicles of Riddick (HD DVD)
HD Review Index
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player
Toshiba HD DVD Product Introduction Event