There's a new reason to be afraid of the dark.
David Twohy, writer of The Fugitive and writer/director of The Arrival, has hit a solid double if not a home run with Pitch Black, a tense, gripping tale of adventure and character that is also a science fiction tale almost as an afterthought. While many of the elements of the film are not exactly original, the combination of the pieces makes for a whole that kept me on the edge of my seat. A fine performance by Vin Diesel (Boiler Room, Saving Private Ryan) and a stylishly filmed tale with outstanding visual effects work with a human story that explores trust, character, and ethical dilemmas. Perhaps the human story pales in comparison to the science fiction one, but the whole still makes for an exciting and interesting experience. Universal has released this film in both an unrated version and the theatrical R-rated cut, which I'm reviewing here. Spectacular visual and picture quality, both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, and a decent collection of extras make either version worth your money.
Facts of the Case
A ship travels through deep space on a long voyage with crew and passengers frozen in cryogenic sleep. When the ship takes damage, the crew is awakened and forced to crash-land on a planet that is seemingly without night; at least one of the planet's three suns seems to always be aloft in the sky. Once downed, it is found that one of the passengers is a prisoner being brought in for murder. He has one very unique capability: eyes that can see in the dark. Seemingly that ability would have no use on a planet without night, but that reasoning would be wrong. Unfortunately, the timing of the crash couldn't be worse for one big reason: beneath the surface live voracious flying creatures who cannot stand the light, and the planet is about to have its once every 22 years nightfall due to an eclipse. What started out a space tale becomes a game of cat and mouse as only light can protect the survivors of the crash from the creatures, and only the killer can see them coming. Who will trust whom, and who will live or die comprises the rest of the tale.
Before I get into my thoughts on the several very positive elements in this film, I want to address this review as the Rated version vs. the Unrated version for which we are also publishing a review. The differences between these two versions are minimal; comprising less than three minutes of scenes extended with some additional gore. The picture quality, sound, and extras on the two discs are identical. There are only two reasons for this disc to exist. Those reasons are first that this is the original work as it appeared in theaters, and purists will always want that version to exist for posterity, and second so that the more puritanical retail outlets will still carry it. There are a fair number of outlets that won't stock unrated material. From my personal perspective, I'd rather see the version that didn't have to be trimmed so the MPAA can take their hands out from over their eyes. I truly can't imagine anyone who would see the other disc and say, "Oh that was too much. Cut a couple minutes of the worst gore and the film will suddenly be something I can watch." If you like this version, you will probably like the other one better. If the unrated disc was too much or not to your liking, the little snips taken out in this version won't make a bit of difference to you. So to some degree I'm writing against my own best interests, as I'm doing a competing review against the version I think you'd be better off with.
All that said, I'll just speak about how I feel about the film. First off, the cinematography and style shows a bleak, stark over-lit world during the day and dark night and shadow the rest of the time. The bleach bypass process used on the film stock accentuates the contrast and blacks and whites at the expense of vibrant color. The look of the film is simply terrific; with shadow and blue tinted scenes creating an altogether surreal alien landscape. The creatures are the majority of the special effects and are done very well, especially when you see the creatures in shadow or close up (which are mostly physical rather than CGI). Only when they are in large groups do you get the feeling you're just looking at a computer drawn construct. Scary creatures they are too; ones that can make you want a light on while watching. The scenes in space comprise the rest of the special effects and are among the only time real color comes through with an exquisitely beautiful look at the planetary system with it's ringed planet. These scenes and the futuristic hardware are very realistic and help keep believability.
I mentioned the word "character" a couple times already. In that context I meant the word as the ethics and honor of a person rather than a film role, but I'd like to mention both. The most successful parts of the human story had to do with character; which is only put to the test when things get difficult and your own well-being is at stake. The first instance of this is as the ship is crashing and the dilemma the pilot is faced with. The ship needs to level out and perhaps the only way to accomplish this would be to jettison the passenger cabin. The pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell) has to decide between her own well-being and that of numerous other lives, and whether she can save any of them. Dilemmas such as this crop up at other times in the story as people have to choose whether to stick their own neck out to help someone else or not, and also to question whether saving that person now will mean that person will reciprocate later. This is particularly interesting with Vin Diesel's character, an already convicted killer who has little use for the others and who have little regard for him. When it's his unique talent that means life or death for all, does he use it for the benefit of all or only himself? With his unique situation what should he do?
Here is where the conventional film use of the word "character" takes over. Vin Diesel's character Riddick is quiet, seemingly simple, yet hiding complexity beneath. His presence and even his voice provide a strength that makes this "evil" character likable. Diesel's performance makes this film click from the human standpoint more than any other. Another noteworthy performance is from Keith David (Platoon) in his role as an imam providing the spiritual and moral foundation for the film.
From a technical standpoint this disc has virtually nothing to complain about. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is flawless. This is one of the best transfers I've yet to review. The white hot daylight scenes, the dead-on blacks and superb shadow detail gives way to vibrant color the few times it is called for, and both source and digital transfer are virtually perfect.
Likewise both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks provide wonderfully spacious and clear sound. Directionality to the split surround channels work well for pans and placement of sounds. Dynamic range is terrific, and bass response well integrated into the whole. Sound effects, dialogue, and musical score are balanced perfectly. This is starting to sound like a broken record but the DTS track is superior in very subtle ways, especially with imaging and bass response, though dynamic range is a hair wider as well. That said, the Dolby Digital track won't leave anyone complaining either. The only complaint I can come up with here is that the tracks could have been a bit more aggressive in the use of surrounds.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On paper the disc has everything you could want for extras. Two commentary tracks; first with director David Twohy and actors Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and a more technical track with Twohy, producer Tom Engelman, and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. The first track is perhaps more entertaining as Twohy and Diesel discuss the rigors of shooting the film with, Hauser only occasionally saying something, but the main problem I had with the track is there are too many gaps without comment. The second track is more technical, though Twohy does a pretty good job of describing things in terms laymen can understand. At least they talk more on this one. The featurette "The Making of Pitch Black" is a big let down. Lasting only five minutes, this is pure promotional fluff and only addresses the methods of marketing rather than true behind the scenes insight. Also disappointing is the "Raveworld Pitch Black Event" which is 20 minutes of footage of raves that have little to do with the film itself. If you like the music it could be entertaining perhaps, but 20 minutes of it was too much. Production notes, two trailers, and cast and crew information round out the extras. On paper this looks great, but it was a bit of a disappointment when it comes to sitting through all of it.
Back to the film. Twohy created an interesting world, but left holes in it. I hazarded a guess that these creatures must have something to live on underground during the long daytimes, but the idea of a species that cannot stand light flourishing on a planet that is in near-perpetual daytime needed some extra support to be believable. It was just presented as fact, which only works if you keep your brain on hold.
More troubling to me was what Twohy did with this world once he created it. Surely there was something better to do than to turn this into a human drama where people are pitted against each other even though there is a terrible common enemy. I enjoyed the aspects of ethical dilemmas as I said, but I still feel the world was the real star of the film and didn't get the proper billing. Critics have panned the film somewhat for being derivative of Alien and other similar films, and they have a right to do so. Not being original isn't always a bad thing, and it isn't so bad here, but it could have been better.
The film isn't perfect but the palpable tension and style wins out over its less powerful elements. I enjoyed it very much. The disc is absolutely solid on picture and sound, and the sheer number of extras offers something for everyone although they could have been better as well. I highly recommend this disc.
The script is fined for resorting to a too-human story told in such an alien environment, but the fine is suspended because of the wonderful look and intensity it brings as a thriller. The disc is acquitted, but I'd like to ask the commentary participants to keep the talk going better next time. Universal is acquitted for another fine disc that isn't even labeled as a Collectors Edition.
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