Blu-ray
Worth a Look
4 stars
Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
3 Stars
HD Video Quality
4 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
2 Stars
High-Def Extras
3.5 Stars
Bottom Line
Worth a Look

Pitch Black

Street Date:
March 31st, 2009
Reviewed by:
Peter Bracke
Review Date: 1
March 12th, 2009
Movie Release Year:
1999
Studio:
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Length:
112 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated R
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Non-Format specific portions of this review also appear in our HD DVD review of 'Pitch Black.'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Before there was Riddick the "icon," there was 'Pitch Black.' It is always interesting to revisit the original film that spawned a franchise (or hoped-for franchise), especially when the film in question wasn't really conceived to be the launching pad for a toy line. Perhaps that's why I quite enjoyed watching 'Pitch Black' a second time for this review, because it makes no apologies for what it is -- a no-frills horror film with action, suspense, scares and very little pretense. Sure, this one may be little more than another 'ALIEN' rip-off, but because it is largely free of all that 'Chronicles of Riddick' mythology gunk it sure is a lot of fun.

As 'Pitch Black' begins, we find ourselves aboard a nondescript transport ship in deep space. It is populated by another one of those ragtag band of blue collar space workers (led by Radha Mitchell as Pilot Fry and Cole Hauser as Lt. William Johns), but they are also carrying one very special piece of cargo -- legendary master criminal Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel). Unfortunately for the crew, the ship soon crashes on a barren planet and Riddick is now loose, though he will soon become the least of their worries. Seems they are not alone on the unknown planet, and whatever is out there lives in the darkness -- and it's hungry. With their numbers quickly diminishing, the crew will have to form an unlikely alliance with Riddick if they hope to survive.

'Pitch Black' is fun on a lot of levels. It has a nifty little gimmick -- the planet's creatures can only be seen with night vision so they're essentially invisible -- and a nice assortment of characters, however stock they may be. Writer and director David Twohy nicely exploits the shifting alliances between Riddick and the crew, which gives 'Pitch Black' a bit more depth than your standard monsters-in-the-dark B-movie. Good and evil begin to lose their meaning as each character is compelled to commit acts that will reveal their true natures. Riddick's conflicting duality -- both heroic and mercenary -- leaves room for plenty of surprises in terms of body count, and who will eventually live and die is not as cut and dried as it first appears. That's rare for a horror flick these days, in which most of the victims announce their fates the minute they walk onscreen simply because they are so obnoxious.

Still, 'Pitch Black' ultimately lives or dies on the strength of its villain. Luckily, the creatures here are pretty cool. Sure, they are more than reminiscent of the grand dame of the modern monster movie, the Queen in 'ALIENS,' but they're still scary. My only complaint is that the CGI in the film is a bit weak (though I generally prefer mechanical effects anyway so perhaps I have a built-in bias). Interestingly, considering its massive-budgeted sequel, 'Pitch Black' was actually a fairly low-budget production. So while a few shots are chintzy, Twohy still makes the most of his limited purse strings by employing all sorts of effects (night vision, excessive stylization, creative use of dark and shadows) to keep the film looking expensive and polished. There is some pretty imaginative stuff in 'Pitch Black,' and if the plot is nothing new, Twohy's direction and the intriguing characters help make the film one of the better examples of its genre.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Pitch Black' arrives on Blu-ray a good two years after the HD DVD. I found the latter a very good presentation when I originally reviewed it in 2006, and the same holds true now. We get a 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.35:1, and of the Unrated Director's Cut version) that doesn't offer anything new over the previous HD DVD, but remains impressive nonetheless.

'Pitch Black' is certainly a film of contrasts. The daylight scenes on the alien planet have been extremely tweaked, with completely blown out whites and an almost monochromatic use of deep oranges and cyan. It is all harsh and barren and desolate, which really serves the film well but does hamper detail. However, resolution is superior here, and I was able to detect fine details, such as the texture on a rock and color differentiations on landscapes, with ease. Though the image is not "sharp" per se due to the heavy processing, contrast is consistent and even across the entire grayscale and blacks are deep and pure.

Color reproduction is also well done, with hardly any chroma noise (which is surprisingly considering how pumped up the palette is) and no apparent smearing. Nighttime scenes are also impressive for the level of shadow delineation visible, and ironically, the improved resolution of high-def makes some of the effects look even more obvious (especially the rather phony-looking flying creatures). Overall, given the film's visual style, it is hard to imagine 'Pitch Black' looking much better than this.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

Universal gives us an upgrade here over the Dolby Digital-Plus track found on the HD DVD. Though 'Pitch Black' already sounded quite good before, this DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) is just a little bit better.

I never thought 'Pitch Black' boasted the greatest sound design, it's generally aggressive and atmospheric. Unfortunately, the surrounds are inconsistently deployed. Discrete effects can be loud and blaring when trying to shock us, but some scenes suddenly go quiet, with little rear action. Still, this DTS-MA mix offers a hint better integration of the score and pumped-up ambiance. Transparency and panning remain solid, if not exceptionally improved.

Dynamic range is slightly extended. Low bass is the biggest benefactor -- the DTS-MA just sounded stronger and punchier. Upper ranges are just as clear and bright. Dialogue is fairly well-balanced, though there were spots I felt were obscured, so I had to bump up the volume on occasion. 'Pitch Black' is still not a reference track, but sounds quite good all-in-all.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

The same package of basic extras can be found on this Blu-ray as on the previous HD DVD and DVD versions of 'Pitch Black.' Unfortunately, there's not a lot of them -- most of the good stuff here can be found in the exclusives below. Video is presented in 480i/MPEG-2.

  • Audio Commentaries - The best extras by far are the two screen-specific audio commentaries. The first includes Twohy and stars Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and the second a technical track with Twohy and producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. Personally, I found all of this to be a bit of overkill, because as fun as 'Pitch Black' is, it just really isn't that deep or technically pioneering. Also, Twohy sometimes takes all of this way too seriously, which can get a bit much after nearly four hours of talking. In any case, of the two I preferred the cast track just because it is more fun. Diesel hadn't yet become a star by the time of the recording so his ego is still largely in check, and Hauser seems to be a real fan of these kinds of movies. The technical track is far more standard, and unless you are really into effects or a film student, you might be bored out of your skull.
  • Featurette: "The Making of Pitch Black" (SD, 5 minutes) - This piece runs only five minutes, and it is one of the most obvious pieces of PR fluff I've ever seen. Skip it.
  • Additional Featurettes (SD, 8 minutes) - Also included are three more "featurettes," to use the term loosely. "Dark Fury: Advancing the Arc" has to be the shortest such featurette I've ever seen, running less than two minutes. Essentially a commercial for the animated 'Dark Fury' direct-to-video movie currently available on DVD, you're shameless, Universal, shameless! Just as bad is "The Game is On," which is another promo for the 'Pitch Black' Xbox game. "A View Into the Dark" is the best of the three, as at least it is a genuine production featurette with behind-the-scenes material and cast and crew interviews. Alas, it is so damn short (less than four minutes) that it can't go into any real depth on the making of the movie. A missed opportunity.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

The real goodies can be found in the HD content. Universal has carried over the HD DVD-exclusive features, as well as added a couple of new features just for the Blu-ray. It's way better than the standard set of extras.

  • Pitch Black Raw (U-Control) - Here's a neat feature -- the ability to watch the film with raw blue screen footage in a PIP box. The footage does not fill the entire runtime, but most of the key action scenes are detailed. Truth be told, this does get a bit old, at least if you are not a diehard effects fan, but it's still a cool addition.
  • Picture-in-Picture (U-Control) - Not content with a single PIP track, we also get a more traditional making-of. Behind-the-scenes and EPK interviews are provided for a good portion of the runtime, some that borrows from the previous featurettes, and some that looks fresh. Nicely balances out the "Raw" version.
  • John's Chase Log - This is a weird one. Actor Cole Hauser narrating a series of ten text screens chronicling his character's state of mind as he progressed throughout the film. I'm just not sure what this feature is supposed to do exactly -- had Universal produced logs for all of the characters, maybe fans would have really dug it, but I found it more of an oddity than anything else.
  • "'The Chronicles of Riddick' Visual Encyclopedia" - This feature acts as sort of a prequel to the similar "Visual Guide" feature found on 'The Chronicles of Riddick' Blu-ray. Here you can watch Hauser again narrating three different short video segments on a different aspect of the 'Pitch Black' universe. These are also super-short (less than a minute) and have nothing interesting to say about anything. But maybe I just don't get it?
  • BD-Live - Finally, the disc comes BD-Live-enabled. At presstime, there is no unique content available for download.

Final Thoughts

'Pitch Black' is a fun, if derivative, horror movie that is also notable for (almost) having launched a franchise. I continue to enjoy it a lot more than 'The Chronicles of Riddick,' so you can just skip that one and start here. This Blu-ray is quite nice, with very good video and audio, plus an array of bonus features and exclusives. 'Pitch Black' fans should definitely check this one out.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
  • Bonus View (Profile 1.1)
  • BD-Live (Profile 2.0)

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1
  • 480i/MPEG-2 (Supplements Only)

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 2.35:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit)
  • French DTS 5.1 Surround (1.5mbps)
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 Surround (1.5mbps)

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles

Supplements

  • Audio Commentaries
  • Featurettes

Exclusive HD Content

  • Picture-in-Picture
  • My Scenes Sharing