Case Number 00797


Universal // 2000 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // October 17th, 2000

The Charge

They say most of your brain shuts down during cryo-sleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side. No wonder I'm still awake.

Opening Statement

Pitch Black is the kind of movie where you check your logic in at the door and watch with the lights on. The movie may not be the most original kid on the block, but for what it is, it certainly delivers the goods.

For their part Universal has delivered an image of reference quality and include both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Add into the mix the disc contains two commentary tracks, and you have a release well worth picking up.

Facts of the Case

Every 22 years on a distant planet in an uncharted region of space, the sky's three suns go dark in a total eclipse. It is during this extended period of darkness that the planet's nocturnal dwellers rise from underneath to hunt and feed on whatever is walking the surface.

This is a small bit of information that is unknown to a ship that has crash-landed while moving through space acting as a commercial charter.

Among the living is the sole surviving member of the ship's doomed crew, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), a holy man on a pilgrimage, Imam (Keith David), a young man with a surprising secret Jake (Rhiana Griffith) and a most uncomfortable couple. There's also an escaped murderer named Riddick (Vin Diesel) and the bounty hunter who is bringing him in, Johns (Cole Hauser).

Thinking they have found salvation in the discovery of an abandoned ship, the group fights the planet's heat, the internal tension of the group and the danger they perceive as coming from Riddick. Little do they know this man who they see as evil personified will be their last and best hope to fight the true evil that rises when the skies go dark.

This killer of men now has a choice: join with the others and fight, or stand alone and face the death that awaits them all in the pitch black.

The Evidence

There is a lot to like in David Twohy's film Pitch Black. The movie is like a pressure cooker that has been turned all the way up and left on overnight. The movie explodes often and in sometimes gruesome fashion, especially in this extended, uncut director's version.

Twohy is fortunate to have an actor at the center of his movie who plays one of the best anti-heroes to come down the cinematic pike in quite some time. Simply put, Vin Diesel (The Iron Giant, Saving Private Ryan) gives a star making performance here and is an actor I look forward to seeing again.

As sole surviving crewmember of the crashed ship Australian born actress Radha Mitchell is also quite good. Coping with her own feelings over the guilt she feels about her actions during the crash she now has the act the leader and hold the group together. Facing a force she is ill equipped to handle, Mitchell's character grows stronger as the odds grow larger. It is a performance remarkable in its intelligence, sexuality, and honesty. Diesel may be the brooding and dangerous center of the movie, but Mitchell provides Pitch Black with its humanity and its hope.

Also quite good is Keith David (Dead Presidents, They Live) as the spiritual Imam. A man of strong faith, he finds himself faced with an unstoppable evil, a force of nature that exists only to kill and destroy. It is the discussion of belief between Iman and Riddick that gives Pitch Black another layer of complexity and adds to the suspense, since it rounds out what are usually cardboard cutout characters, giving them, and the movie, a ring of truth.

From a style perspective, Pitch Black is also pretty exciting stuff. For this film director Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby (Mad Max) devised a bleach bypass process that, when applied to the film negative, gave the movie its distinctive blown-out, burnished visual palette.

In a film genre simply awash with studio backlots and blue screen trickery, Pitch Black has its own distinctive look. The evocative and lonely vistas go a long way toward separating this movie from the rest of a very large pack. Speaking from experience, I have seen a lot of sci-fi/horror genre movies set on far and distant locales, but none since Ridley Scott's Alien have carried such impact, looking both striking and original.

This brings us to the creatures of Pitch Black. Like Alien before it, Twohy believes that less is more. Giving away the look of the creatures in small bits and by the creative use of sound, Twohy holds his cards until the best possible moment, generating an intense feeling of fear and dread.

These creatures are certainly frightening in their design but they also possess a chilling elegance that in many ways makes them even scarier. As conceived by visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang and his team, there is a lot to be afraid of in the dark. Seamlessly blending CGI graphics and practical puppets, these animals pack quite a bite. While the work on creating the creatures does not approach H.R. Geiger's classic designs for Alien or Rob Bottin's for The Thing, Chiang and his group have nothing to be ashamed of. These creatures are some mean looking, nasty little bastards.

In regard to the CGI effects, I read a review on another site that thought they looked too much like CGI and this reviewer could always tell what was computer-generated and what was practical. Maybe I don't have as good an eye as this person, but I bought into the creatures totally. Sure, there are one or two moments when it's obvious these things have never seen the true light of day, but nothing in Pitch Black approaches the laughable CGI utilized in Deep Blue Sea. [Editor's Note: God, what's with everyone picking on Deep Blue Sea? Yeesh.] What I saw was an impressive display of the latest technology being used smartly and with every dollar of this movie's budget clearly on screen.

Framed at the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and given an anamorphic transfer, Universal turns Pitch Black into one of the very best images I have ever seen on DVD. Every difficulty and nuance that the movie poses is handled with great skill and ease. Colors are natural and frightfully unnatural when called upon. It also goes without saying that a movie titled Pitch Black is going to have quite few scenes that feature blacks that are of the deepest and darkest variety. This is another challenge that Universal answers with confidence and ability. Blacks are solid, yet possess deep detail and clarity. The picture shows zero breakup or shimmer, with there never being so much as a hint of edge enhancement. Source material is also ideal, with the image displaying no grain and no wear or tear. This, more than almost any other picture I have seen of late, deserves to be called reference quality.

Universal is the leader in providing both DTS and DD 5.1 audio options. The biggest surprise to me was how subdued the actual soundscape really is. Not to say this was bad, but surrounds are limited to directional effects and are used less for atmosphere than I would have thought. Differences between the soundtracks are slight but noticeable. To my ears, the DTS track sounds tighter and with better delineation between the channels. Also I found that the DTS was fuller and had deeper, richer bass. This is not to say that the Dolby Digital is bad -- far from it. I will be the first person to admit, however, that I think DTS is superior method of sound reproduction, and Pitch Black does nothing to change my mind. What is heard is well mixed and effective. Dialogue is clearly recorded, although to be honest Vin Diesel can be a little hard to make out at times, but that is a case of the actor and not the sound. Graeme Revell's atmospheric score is well placed and sound effects carry great weight when they are utilized. It goes without saying that the source material is of pristine quality and there are no background distortions.

For a non-labeled special edition Universal has packed quite a bit on this disc. Besides the two audio options to listen to the film, there are also two commentary tracks included. Both tracks feature Director David Twohy and the first is more acting oriented as it features Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser. The second track finds Twohy joined with producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. Of the two tracks the latter is much more interesting if for no other reason that group talks more. Diesel and Hauser seem to have had a great time together, but they spend a great deal of the time just watching the movie. On top of that, a lot of their comments are of the "I really liked that shot a lot" variety. Pleasant and easy going, but not very informative. The second track, on the other hand, is much more lively. The group goes into detail about what was CGI and what were hand puppets. The bleach-bypass technique is talked about at some length, and once more this sounds like a tight group of people who enjoyed working with one another. This is a pretty interesting discussion, with loads of information, and of the two this is certainly the way to go. It should also be noted that the rated and unrated versions of this disc used the same commentary tracks. The only difference is on the rated version those comments that refer to scenes in the director's cut are edited out.

The disc is closed out by a piece of promotional fluff pretending to be a "making of" featurette, theatrical trailers and something called "Raveworld Pitch Black Event."

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Anyone looking for an original idea in Pitch Black is probably going to be disappointed. The movie borrows heavily from Ridley Scott's Alienand James Cameron's sequel Aliens. Also present are strong nods to Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, but the film that kept coming back to me was John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. Twohy captures that sort of internal tension of which Carpenter is a master. The only problem is, that is fine when John Carpenter makes a movie, but where is Twohy's voice? The one that was so very present in his earlier film, the vastly underrated The Arrival? The man obviously has a great deal of talent and skill. I just wish he would challenge it a little more.

Besides the various films this one borrows from, there are several gaps in logic throughout the movie that someone could drive a truck through. Normally with this kind of flick I would be more forgiving, but after just coming off some time with New Line's Final Destination, I suppose I was feeling a little pickier than usual.

With all that said, Pitch Black is still pretty entertaining and packs quite a few shocks and chills.

As for the disc, well, Universal could have done more with the production featurette. What we have on the disc is nothing more than a long advertisement for the film. I would have loved to seen more creature CGI design work, and some extended demonstrations of the bleach-bypass process would have held a lot of interest for me as well.

Also, if there is going to be a commentary track, well, it kind of helps if the people actually speak. Some pauses are to be expected, but to sit back and watch a great deal of the movie with the microphones running does not make a whole lot of sense to me.

To close out the gripe section of the review, let me take Universal to task for the choice of keep case Pitch Black came packaged in. It is not Amaray or the preferred Alpha. It is not even the dreaded Warner Snapper. No, it has some six-pronged center spindle that makes it almost impossible to remove the disc easily or safely. It really is a pain and one choice of package that I wish would just go away.

Closing Statement

Pitch Black is a really good sci-fi/horror flick of the highest popcorn mentality mold. It moves like a shot with very few pauses for anyone to catch their breath, or to think for that matter.

Universal has outdone themselves with a truly spectacular transfer. To see this picture is to understand why we love DVD. Universal has also seen fit to give everyone the option of having the best available sound at their disposal. Commentaries are also a great inclusion, if only the one featuring the actors were more informative.

All in all this is a pretty solid package that deserves a rental at the very least. If you are into this style of film or you are just looking to show off your home theater, Pitch Black will not let you down.

The Verdict

Universal is once more thanked for their contributions to the world of DVD. David Twohy is thanked for a fun ride of a movie but is asked to show a little more originality next time around.

Otherwise I have nothing else. Case dismissed.

Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 100
Audio: 97
Extras: 85
Acting: 89
Story: 82
Average: 91

Perp Profile
Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

* English
* French

Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary Track with Director David Twohy and Actors Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser
* Commentary Track with Director David Twohy, Producer Tom Engelman and Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang
* Making of Pitch Black Featurette
* Theatrical Trailers
* Raveworld Pitch Black Event

* IMDb