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PITCH BLACK (UNRATED)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David
Director:  David Twohy
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  October 24, 2000

Film ***

Part of me looks at a film like Pitch Black and thinks, ďIíve seen this all before.Ē  Itís a story about a spacecraft that crashes on an unknown planet, waking the crew from their hyper-sleep, and forcing them to come to terms with one another and their situation in order to survive.  There are vicious alien creatures out to get them.  If I threw that statement out there by itself and asked what movie I was describing, I could probably get back no less than twenty different responses.

But part of me looks at this picture and marvels.  Why?  Because the story details in this case arenít what make the movie.  The film is driven by a sense of style and urgency that few other similar movies have reached.  The look, sound and feel make Pitch Black more than just another sci-fi scarefest. 

For starters, it gets right into the action immediately.  No character introductions, no exposition.  A spacecraft is being spectacularly pummeled by meteors and debris.  The crew awaken from their hibernation amidst chaos and try to save the ship, which crashes onto an unknown planet.  This is about as well done and exciting as an opening ten minutes can get.

The captain is dead, leaving the second-in-command, Fry (Mitchell) in charge.  Among her human cargo are an officer, Johns (Hauser) who is responsible for an unusual prisoner, Riddick (Diesel).  Riddick is a convicted murderer:  a powerful, lethal man with strange looking eyes that can see in the dark.  They donít appear to be much use to him at first, however, because the unlucky ship has crashed on a strange world with three suns.

The three-sun look helps the filmís unique visual style.  One of the suns is always glowing, and each is a different color, which completely changes the look of the landscape and the people and objects in it.  Certain colors are reduced, making the scenes a surreal wash of monochrome that really brings out the sense of Ďaliení in alien environment.

The first order of business is to survive.  The find another ship, whose crew and passengers have been dead for sometime, but might be made space-worthy enough to get the marooned adventurers home.  But they soon discover theyíre not alone.  Underneath the surface, in the shadows and tucked away in the crevices where light canít reach, live strange flying monstrosities that kill and devour living prey.  The crew seems fairly safe at first, when they learn that light harms the creatures.  Stay in broad daylight, stay alive.

But then an unusual event takes place:  as Fry discovers using an elaborate model found on the derelict ship, a convergence of solar bodies is about to take place that will eclipse all three suns at once, throwing the planet into complete darkness.  And they know what thatís going to mean, just like we do.

Soon, the hapless crew are forced to make a trek from the wrecked ship to the freshly repaired one in total blackness.  They harness all the portable lights they can find, but they seem almost pathetic and weak compared to the blanket of darkness enveloping them.  Riddick reluctantly agrees to lead, since he has good night vision, but the others, particularly Johns, donít trust him entirely.  And soon, the crew finds they canít stop in-fighting enough to keep survival their primary instinct.  Meanwhile, the creatures are everywhere.  They canít always be seen, but they can be heard.  In one of the most awe inspiring shots Iíve seen, a lone man sits in the middle of the screen with a dying flame that barely lights his figure against the darkness.  He takes a drink and spits it into the flicking fire, which creates a big bright fireball that lasts just enough for him and us to see heís surrounded by hundreds of those things.  Then darkness, and awful, awful sounds.

It really is this sense of style that propels the movie and keeps it a tense ride.  Darkness is something we instinctively fear, and in this picture, darkness equals death.  To be huddled together in blackness and surrounded by things you canít see that are waiting to kill youÖwell, who wouldnít be scared out of their gourd?

This is a pretty good cast, even though the characters, as in most Ďmonsterí movies, are there simply to be chased, terrified, and done away with in grisly ways.  Vin Diesel is perfect as Riddick, with a great voice and physical presence that makes you believe heís a guy who could kill you just as easily as save you.

But the real star of the picture is David Twohyís visual environment.  He has created an outer space movie with a different look than any other foreign planet movie has achieved.  His visuals enhance the terror and increase the believability that his actors really are in a strange and hostile environment.  Then, when he switches to darkness, he captured the fear perfectly using very limited but well-placed lighting to keep the audience just aware enough of what is happening, but leaving a whole lot of room open for the imagination in the margins.  His skillful POV shots for both the creatures and Riddick, showing what the darkness looks like through their eyes, are impressively done and a nice added touch.

Pitch Black, therefore, takes and old recipe and bakes a new dessert with it.  And if the graphic violence is too much for you, an R rated version of this film is also available on disc, but for me, Iím convinced this unrated version is the one Twohy wanted us to see.  Just donít forget to leave a light on afterward.

Video ****

Quite simply, this is one of the best looking DVDs Iíve seen, and the reason I say that is because this film makes more demands on your systemís video capabilities than any Iíve seen.  Take the opening shots, for example, which feature dark scenes suddenly interrupted by harsh white lights and sudden bright stabbing colors that appear and disappear instantly.  Itís an all out assault on the eyes.  Then the rest of the film features extreme color shifts, as each sun brings out a different set of hues on the planetís surface.  The effect is almost monochromatic, but strong, and still with excellent detail and the kind of dimensional rendering you wouldnít expect from a suddenly limited color palate.  These are juxtaposed with indoor scenes and artificial lighting, which bring back a more natural spectrum.  Finally, the whole movie ends up plunged in blackness, with small amounts of light, sometimes in various colors, as the only source of visual, throwing accents and hues on figures and objects that are mostly darkened.  And in all instances, this is a stellar transfer:  it never suffers break up or shimmer, it never gets beyond a few slight touches of natural grain which are inherent in low-light high-contrast photography.  Iíd put this disc on for anybody who wants to see how good DVD can look.

Audio ****

This 5.1 audio track actual rivals the video transfer for quality.  I listened to the Dolby Digital version (DTS is also included on the disc), and was simply blown away.  Again, I mention the opening sequence, which is loud, powerful and a full out explosive attack coming at you from all channels.  Youíre really going to feel like youíve been through a meteor storm when itís over, but thatís not the end of the goodies.  There are plenty of quieter scenes that harness all stages for atmospheric effects (wind, storms, the flying baddies), that youíll be consistently immersed in the sound from beginning to end.  The dynamic range is awesome, and the subwoofer gets plenty of work, too.  Dialogue is clean and clear and never swallowed up by the other effects.  Your entire home system is going to feel like itís been on the treadmill after playing this disc.

Features ***1/2

The disc contains two commentary tracks, one by director Twohy with actors Diesel and Hauser, the second with Twohy, producer Tom Engelman and effects supervisor Peter Chiang.  There are also two trailers, the Ďall audiencesí one and the Ďrestrictedí one, a production featurette, and a collection of video images from a Pitch Black event that took place via the web on Raveworld.  Not a bad package!

Summary:

Pitch Black is a sci-fi thriller with a sense of style that makes it rise far above the mediocrity and familiarity of the core material and become an entertaining scare ride.  But even more importantly, this is one of the best discs ever released in terms of audio and video quality.  I promise you, this DVD is worth having just to convince those few remaining naysayers in your life that digital is the way to go.