Pitch Black

Pitch Black (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Radha Mitchell, Keith David
Extras: Introduction, Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Animated Film, Interviews, Game Demo

I never viewed "Pitch Black" on DVD because the premise of the movie appeared superficial to me and simply a rehash of what had been done before in countless other movies. With the arrival of the film on HD-DVD I reconsidered and gave the film a spin to see how it looks like in high definition, and in a word, it is a treat.

"Pitch Black" takes us to a ship traveling through deep space with all its passengers in a cryo-sleep. Suddenly it is hit by shrapnels, debris from a rogue comet, ripping apart the ship's hull, forcing them to make an emergency landing on an undisclosed planet. Cashing the ship in the barren landscape of the planet, a mere handful of the passengers survive, including Riddick (Vin Diesel) a convict who was being transported to correctional facility. Always keeping him under lock and key, his hunter, Johns (Cole Hauser), tries to make sure Riddick has no way of escaping while the remaining survivors try to scour the desert planet for water and other means of survival. But Riddick breaks free and disappears in the baking desert, sending ripples of terror through the survivors, as Johns tells them that Riddick is no ordinary criminal but a murdering killing machine. As soon as the first survivors turn up dead, everyone suspects Riddick but when captured again, he explains to them that there is something much more dangerous lurking on this planet than him. "It is not me you have to be afraid of," he says and in fact, there are creatures living under the planet's surface, in the dark, afraid of the light, hungry and waiting. Not a problem, because with three suns, this planet never sees a normal night… and then a solar eclipse sends the planet into the darkest blackness imaginable!

While I enjoyed "Pitch Black" the fact remains that it is just another monsters on the loose, stalking and killing a group of herded-up humans film. Formulaic in some ways, the film nonetheless entertains and manages to keep viewers excited for a number of reasons. A big part of it is, no doubt, the remarkable cinematography of the film that creates images that do seem otherworldly. From the bleached look of the film in the desert environments that change hue with the change of the suns to the natural looking indoor shots, the film always creates an atmosphere that puts the viewer right there.

The film is well plotted and paced and gives you a fun ride as you guess who's going to be the next victim, dazzling viewers with some rapid and gruesome visuals when these deaths occur. It is exciting and entertaining all the way to the end, spectacularly translated into images and put into motion. Not novel, but certainly thrilling and dazzling.

Which brings us to the high definition transfer that Universal has prepared for this HD-DVD release. And once again, dazzling would be the word that springs to mind. The presentation is brutal in many ways, rendering one of the most detailed images I have seen. Throughout the movie, the HD-DVD manages to not only capture the movie's film-look, but also to bring out a level of definition in the image that is spectacular and no-doubt adds to the overall experience of the film. Whether it is the desert shots, the interiors of the space ship or other locals, the costumes or the close-ups, the picture is thrilling you subtleties that you have never seen before. Razor sharp at all times, the image also has a color reproduction and contrast that is remarkable. Colors are strong and vibrant, making sure they come across just as the director desired with vivid hues that are free of banding, noise or other artifacts. The contrast is staggering. For a film like "Pitch Black" in which many key scenes play in the dark and in which it is essential that the viewer can see into the shadows at times to see that and what is moving there, this high definition presentation is perfect. Every nuance in the shadows is perfectly rendered, adding to the suspense of the film as the dark is ominous and menacing. You always see enough to know that something is going on, but not enough to make out exactly what it is that is lurking there. Director David Twohy must be thrilled to see how reliably this transfer restores his film. Coming in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, "Pitch Black" is one of those films you have to see to understand what a difference high definition can make in the movie viewing experience in your own home. A showcase presentation through and through, it works so well, not only because it is an action film but also because it treads familiar territory so remarkably well making it fun to watch.

The audio on the disc is presented as a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus track, complemented by a Stereo track. Of course, this track is brutally in your face with a wide frequency response and a deep bottom end. For best effect, surrounds are engaged almost constantly, but interestingly, the mix is not as overtly going for the cheap overpowering effects but instead opts to create an active soundstage that is realistic in its dynamics. Unlike many other action movies, even the explosive moments are not distorted and create a natural sounding presentation at any time. Dialogues are integrated perfectly and are always understandable even when whispered.

The HD-DVD also contains all the extras found on both of the previously released "Pitch Black" DVD versions. It starts out with David Twohy's introduction to the film and is followed up by two commentary tracks. The first one features writer/director David Twohy, actor Vin Diesel, and actor Cole Hauser. It is a bit disappointing that this rather weak commentary track has been recycled for the third time now without having been replaced by a better track that offers more insight and maybe some "growth" as the 7 years since the making of the movie have passed. Essentially the information on the track isn't bad, there just isn't enough as the track has a lot of gaps and silent moments.

The second commentary track features David Twohy, producer Tom Engelman, and visual effects supervisor Peter Chang, which fares significantly better as the conversation is much more lively and covers exciting aspects of the production while trying to make them accessible and understandable for everyone.

You will also find the "Chronicles Of Riddick Encyclopedia" here as well as "Johns' Chase Log," the "Making Of Riddick" and "A View Into The Dark. All of these are featurettes covering various aspects of the story and adding a lot of background information the setting and the world of Riddick. Since the character is being extrapolated into a franchise, with the first sequel "The Chronicle Of Riddick" already being available, this makes a lot of sense to give fans a better understanding of the origins and intentions of the material. Especially "Johns' Chase Log" helps in that respect as it enters the universe at a point before the film, while "Advancing The Arc" an animated film on the subject also adds to it.
The release is rounded out by a "Sneak Peek" look at the Riddick video game "Escape From Butcher Bay," which is, of course old news, as the game has been released more than 2 years ago, and the Raveworld Pitch Black event footage.

"Pitch Black" is what I thought it would be, an aliens-stalking0human-prey flick that is dark and furious. But it is fortunately a bit more, as the story and in particular David Twohy's direction ensure that the material never feels old or rehashed. It is a solid movie full of thrills that moves at breakneck speed sometimes and barely gives you time to catch your breath. Best of all, on this HD-DVD version you will be amazed at what you see as the image and audio are pristine, detailed and amazingly rich. Check it out! It is a must-have disc for all scifi/horror action fans.