Pitch Black (4K UHD Review)
Release Date(s)2000 (September 1, 2020)
Studio(s)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/Interscope/USA Films/Universal (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A
You know, there’s nothing I like more than a savvy little sci-fi thriller, one that’s smart, with great effects (low-budget or not) that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is. That’s Pitch Black in a nutshell.
The plot is simple. A freighter is travelling through space with its crew and passengers in cryosleep, when it accidentally passes through a comet’s tail and suffers a series of hull breaches, which kill its captain. The ship is knocked off course, into the atmosphere of an alien planet, and its docking pilot, Fry (played by Radha Mitchell), manages to crash-land it in such a way that nine of the forty-plus people on board survive (in a very cool little VFX sequence). So there they are, stuck on an alien planet with limited supplies and little hope of rescue—pretty bad right? Well, it gets worse. One of the passengers who survived is a psycho escaped convict named Riddick (played by Vin Diesel). He was being transferred back to prison, but now he’s on the loose. In addition, while this planet is routinely bathed in the light of the system’s three stars, once every twenty-eight years an eclipse plunges it into complete darkness. That’s when the shit hits the fan... because the planet’s only major life forms are nasty little creatures with razor-sharp claws and teeth that only come out to play in the dark—think fast-flying piranhas and land sharks quick as cheetahs. And guess what time it is. That’s right... nearly lights out. How’s that for a premise?
Pitch Black was co-written and directed by none other than David Twohy, who previously made another nifty little sci-fi flick (which I also highly recommend—you can find it on BD here), The Arrival (1996). Twohy also helped to pen the screenplays for G.I. Jane, Waterworld, and The Fugitive, and later wrote and directed two sequels to this film, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and simply Riddick (2013). One of the reasons Pitch Black is so effective, is that Twohy keeps it nice and simple, and he knows that what you don’t see is infinitely more scary than what you do. You’re only really asked to buy into one plot contrivance—the fact that the ship just happens to crash on the day before the twenty-eight year eclipse. Otherwise, it’s a pretty straightforward “survival of the fittest” yarn. I was also surprised at the depth of each character—these aren’t the most well-rounded people you’ll ever see, but for this type of flick, there’s more to each character than meets the eye. The special effects are generally excellent and effective—particularly the creature effects. These aliens are some strange little mothers, straight out of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. The acting isn’t half bad either. Mitchell plays her character very well, and I really like Vin Diesel in this role. What’s more, the pair are backed by a solid supporting cast, which includes Claudia Black (of TV’s Farscape), Cole Hauser, and Keith David.
Pitch Black was shot on 35 mm film (in Super 35 format) using Panavision camera and lenses. It was finished on film at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio using a skip-bleach photochemical process, with visual effects produced digitally in 2K resolution and printed back out to film. For its release on Ultra HD, the original camera negative was scanned in 4K, with restoration and color grading supervised by the director (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 options are available and are of similar quality) resulting in a new 4K Digital Intermediate. Both the Theatrical Cut and Director’s Cut are included here in 4K. The new scan results in notably greater fine detail and more refined texturing than the previous Blu-ray presentation, though you don’t notice it right away. Because visual effects open the film—and those were produced at lower resolution—you really have to wait until the ship crashes on the surface to see the improvement. The high dynamic range makes a big difference though, and you do spot this right away. In the crash sequence, it deepens the cockpit shadows while giving instrumentation lights a real pop, yet there’s abundant detail in both. The fiery reentry plasma looks genuinely hot, and sparks and flashes have an ever greater glare. But again, the presentation really shines on the surface. The planet in the film has three suns, each of which gives off a different quality of light. Over the course of the film, the color and brightness shifts constantly, always extreme enough to look like a truly alien environment, and the added color bit depth and expanded contrast really enhance the stylized look. One final note on the subject of VFX for a moment: The good news is that they do hold up pretty well (save perhaps for the very final shot of the film, a perspective view flying over the planet’s ring plane).
Audio is included in lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD MA format (with optional English SDH subs). This appears to be the exact same mix found on the 2009 Universal Blu-ray release. It’s a modest improvement upon the Dolby Digital Plus mix found on the previous HD-DVD release (which was itself a modest boost over the original DVD’s lossy DTS mix). That said, the soundfield is more front-biased than is typical of today’s state-of-the-art surround mixes, with less true directionality than you might be expecting. The surround channels tend to be used for atmospheric sound effects and music, with only a modest amount of panning and movement. But low end is tight and firm (if not especially boisterous), especially during the film’s pounding-drums chase scenes and the opening crash sequence. Dialogue is also clear and distortion free (an issue that occasionally plagued the DVD release). To be clear, this is in no way a bad mix. But it does give the presentation a bit of a period feel.
Arrow Video’s 4K disc includes the following extras, most of them carried over from the previous Blu-ray and DVD releases:
- Audio Commentary with David Twohy, Vin Diesel, and Cole Hauser
- Audio Commentary with David Twohy, Tom Engelman, and Peter Chiang
- Nightfall: The Making of Pitch Black with David Twohy (HD – 23:51)
- Black Box: Jackie’s Journey with Rhiana Griffith (HD – 12:02)
- Black Box: Shazza’s Last Stand with Claudia Black (HD – 7:14)
- Black Box: Bleech Bypassed with David Eggby (HD – 10:44)
- Black Box: Cryo-Locked with Peter Chiang (HD – 13:00)
- Black Box: Primal Sounds with Graeme Revell (HD – 11:28)
- The Making of Pitch Black (SD – 4:46)
- Behind the Scenes (SD – 18:13)
- Pitch Black Raw (SD – 11:38)
- 2004 Special Edition Extras
- An Introduction by David Twohy (SD – 2:24)
- A View into the Dark (SD – 4:05)
- Johns’ Chase Log (SD – 6:08)
- The Chronicles of Riddick: Visual Encyclopedia (SD – 1:42)
- The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury (HD upsampled – 34:48 with optional English SDH subs)
- Animatic to Animation (SD – 32:45)
- Advancing the Arc (SD – 1:29)
- Bridging the Gap (SD – 8:31)
- Peter Chung: The Mind of an Animator (SD – 5:03)
- Into the Light (SD – 5:04)
- Beyond the Movie
- Slam City (SD – 8:04)
- Into Pitch Black (SD – 43:55)
- Raveworld: Pitch Black Event (SD – 20:37)
- UK Trailer (HD – 2:36)
- Green Band Trailer (SD – 2:30)
- Red Band Trailer (SD – 2:33)
- The Chronicles of Riddick Trailer (HD – 1:34)
- Riddick Trailer (HD – 2:24)
- Escape from Butcher Bay (SD – 1:48)
- Image Galleries
- Production Stills (HD – 100 images)
- Concept Art & Special Effects (HD – 57 images)
- Storyboards (HD – 175)
- Publicity Gallery (HD – 16 images)
Newly-produced for this 4K edition are Nightfall: The Making of Pitch Black with David Twohy and 5 Black Box featurettes. Each is essentially a new interview with a member of the cast or crew. Nightfall actually has Twohy on camera, and his comments are interesting and insightful, not just focused on the production but the story and development too. (He even points out a couple details in the film you may have missed.) The Black Box interviews are all audio-only, conducted over the phone or the Internet, presumably due to budget concerns or the current COVID pandemic. But strangely, this actually adds an interesting quality—an analytical remove that somehow makes them more compelling. The comments are structured logically and film footage is edited to complement them. Against all odds, it works. Rhiana Griffith discusses the real bond she had with star Vin Diesel (which lends authenticity to the bond their characters have in the film). Black talks about coming to this project even as she was auditioning for and filming the first season of Farscape. Cinematographer David Eggby discusses the film’s unique look and the skip-bleach process used to achieve it. Peter Chiang, the film’s visual effects supervisor, talks about his background and contributions to the film. And composer Graeme Revell (whose work also includes The Crow, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Sin City) delves into the score. The new content is all produced and directed by our friend Daniel Griffith (of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures), and it genuinely adds value to the viewing experience. This is good work done with limited resources in difficult circumstances.
Of course, the other nice thing here is that the 4K disc also carries over all of the previous Blu-ray extras (save for the BD-Java/U-Control content—note that The Game Is On is also here, though it’s called Escape from Butcher Bay—it’s just a game trailer). Arrow even reaches back to the previous DVD releases to bring that content forward too (the Blu-ray omitted much of this). So this is certainly the most complete batch of extras ever assembled for this film. There’s even a good 42-page insert booklet with liner notes, production notes, the original Black Box Reports from the film’s website (a nice touch), disc credits, and restoration details.
In the panoply of second-tier (non-tentpole) genre films of the last thirty years, David Twohy’s Pitch Black has earned a respected position. This is a great little sci-fi gem, with an original story and compelling characters. It’s also certainly the film that (along with The Iron Giant) helped turbocharge Vin Diesel’s early career. Pitch Black is worth your time and it’s never looked better than it does here in 4K Ultra HD from Arrow Video. The disc is worth the upgrade for fans (and if you’d rather have just an upgraded Blu-ray, Arrow has one of those available too—click here for that). Recommended.
- Bill Hunt
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