Pitch Black

Pitch Black (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Making-of Featurette, Theatrical Trailers, Raveworld Event, Production Notes, Talent Files

It’s always exciting to see a filmmaker really come into their own and with "Pitch Black", writer/director David Twohy achieves that point. After having worked as a writer on good films such as "The Fugitive" and bad films such as "Waterworld" and "Critters 2", Twohy moved into feature directing the well-received 1996 vehicle "The Arrival". But, with "Pitch Black" Twohy is at the top of his mind, creating a genre-blending film that is both creative and visually stunning. Universal Home Video is bringing us "Pitch Black" in two separate DVD versions, the R-rated theatrical cut and a new unrated director’s cut with Twohy’s intended vision.

"Pitch Black" is set in an undisclosed future and opens with a ship traveling through deep space. The ship is loaded with passengers, who are in cryo-sleep. Suddenly, a rogue comet sends debris whizzing through the hull of the ship, forcing it to descend towards a nearby planet, despite the efforts of pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell). The ship crash-lands onto the planet, killing all but a handful of passengers. Among this colorful group are bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser, Wings Hauser’s son) and Riddick (Vin Diesel) an escaped convict. The planet is a very harsh, desert-like environment, and the group soon begins a search for water or shelter. As the planet’s twin-suns begin to set, Fry is sure that the cooler nightfall will make things easier. These hopes are crushed when a third sun comes over the horizon, proving that there is no night-time on this rock.

However, that doesn’t mean that there’s never any darkness on the planet. The group finds an abandoning mining encampment and it’s here that Fry learns that every 22 years, this planet experiences a total eclipse. Guess what’s due to happen again? As the darkness falls, hundreds of hungry, flying monsters emerge from the planet’s core. These creatures can rip a human to shreds in a second, but they must avoid any light source. As the survivors struggle to escape the predators, Fry realizes that the intimidating Riddick, with his eerie ability to see in the dark, is their only hope for survival.

With "Pitch Black" Twohy has created a smart, intense sci-fi/horror hybrid that has the viewer on edge from the very beginning. Within moments of the films opening, there is an immediate crisis and moral dilemma and the movie never lets up from there. Even during the rather mundane scenes where the survivors are debating about where to look for water, Twohy keeps things suspenseful by being very vague about who the characters are and what motivates them. Admittedly, it does seem to take a while for the monsters to show up, but once they do, the film really kicks into overdrive. The last third of the film is a series of highs and lows as the characters experience several "what else could go wrong" episodes. "Pitch Black" keeps you guessing until the end as to who will survive (think "Deep Blue Sea") and continues to reveal bits and pieces about the characters right up until the end.

The movie also gets a boost from its special and visual effects. In order to enhance the desolate feeling of the planet, the film was developed using a "bleach bypass" process. This makes the image look washed out and very hot. This process gives the film an otherworldly feel and solidifies the effect of being in an alien environment. (More on this in the review of the DVD image below.) The bulk of the creature effects are CGI, and they work very well. Twohy was wise to avoid many close-ups of the creatures and always has them flying by in packs. When we do see the creatures close-up, there’s a mixture of CGI and puppetry that works to give the monsters life.

"Pitch Black" arrives on DVD courtesy of Universal Home Video. The film is beautifully rendered in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. I realize that it’s my job to say this, but this is the truth: You must see "Pitch Black" on DVD. Because of the "bleach bypass" process described earlier, the color balancing on this film is very important. The DVD brings these strange colors and images across in a pristine manner. The "white hot" look of the movie comes across without appearing washed out or suffering from any bleeding. The image is very clear and even these "white hot" shots show only a very, very faint grain. Of course, the last 40 minutes of the film take place in darkness and in these scenes the DVD presents us with true blacks that show no distortion. The letterboxing appears to be accurate, as no information is lost at the edge of the frame. There are no obvious problems created by artifacting or compression.

The DVD offers two separate audio soundtracks, a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> and a <$DTS,DTS> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. (A nice move by Universal, considering that this is a low-budget sci-fi flick.) The Dolby Digital <$5.1,5.1 mix> offers a well-balanced surround sound experience. There is good use of the rear speakers during the spaceship crash and whenever the creatures attack. Also, the bass is used wisely, as the subwoofer only adds ambience without overpowering the sound. The dialogue is always clear and audible, although you may need subtitles during Vin Diesel’s speech at the beginning of the film (through no fault of the sound system). The DTS track is just as impressive, adding some clearer imaging to the overall mix. Although noticeable only through A/B-comparison, the DTS track shows a slightly better definition of subtle nuances and creates a mix that is spatially a little more distinguishable.

Although this isn’t an official Collector’s Edition, Universal has packed the "Pitch Black" DVD with several goodies. The DVD features two audio commentaries. The first one features writer/director David Twohy, actor Vin Diesel, and actor Cole Hauser. I hate to report that this commentary isn’t very good, and for a particular reason. This is one of those commentaries where you can tell that the speakers are very intent on watching the movie. The bottom line is that they just don’t talk enough. When they do, it is very interesting, though. It’s obvious that Twohy is a collaborative director, as Diesel (who is a director himself) points out several shots that he suggested. Hauser doesn’t speak very much throughout the film. I’m glad that they guys were into the film, but I wish that they’d talked more.

The other commentary, featuring Twohy, producer Tom Engelman, and visual effects supervisor Peter Chang, is much better, for the simple fact that the participants speak more often. This trio discusses the technical aspects of the film without getting too technical. Twohy makes sure to rephrase most of the points in layman’s terms so that the average listener won’t get lost. Also, this group touches on some of the plot points and themes of the film as well. So, we end up with about one and half good commentaries here. One additional note, the volume on both commentaries in very low and the sound had to be turned up very high in order to hear the speakers. This crated a problem when returning to the main menu, where the music was suddenly extremely loud.

There is a five-minute featurette, which focuses on the making of "Pitch Black". Unfortunately, the bulk of this featurette is made up of footage of the film, making it feel more like a trailer at times. For more detailed information about the making of the film, refer to the production notes, which are included on the DVD. There are two trailers for "Pitch Black" on the DVD. One is the standard general audience trailer and the other is a red-band R-rated trailer. Both are essentially the same and both are <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. For more information about the cast and crew, talent files are included on the DVD.

The final special feature is rather odd. In an effort to promote "Pitch Black", Universal worked with Raveworld.com and held several "Pitch Black" raves throughout the country and broadcast them on Raveworld.com. The DVD includes 20-minutes of footage from these various raves. While this is an interesting concept and the music keeps the subwoofer working overtime, this feature is incredibly boring. Watching a rave is like watching baseball — it’s much more enjoyable to actually be doing it than just watching it. This feature would’ve been much better had it been shorter — 20 minutes is just too long.

While most any film benefits from the DVD format, "Pitch Black" must be experienced on DVD. The film is a fun and scary sci-fi romp that will have you cheering for the villain. Due to the unique look of the film, the DVD gives the viewer the optimal viewing mode. And the choice of a Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack makes this disc a must for audiophiles. While some of the supplements are disappointing, overall "Pitch Black" is a great DVD. Just be careful about watching it in the dark. You never know what’s out there.