Pitch Black 4K Ultra HD Review: Riddick Starts Here

The first film in what became a sci-fi trilogy is a fun throwback action thriller, now in 4K UHD.
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Pitch Black was released in 2000, and it feels very much like the last science fiction action film of the '90s. This was a time when digital effects weren't cheap enough to make the generic movies that clogged the schedule at SyFy, back when it used to show science fiction movies. It comes from a time before the massive cultural influence of The Matrix was fully absorbed. Pitch Black began shooting a couple of weeks before The Matrix was released, but in style and tone it feels like the older film.

The setting is distant future movie space opera - space travel is regular, if (with a slight touch of scientific realism) long ship voyages require cryogenic sleep. The transport ship contains a number of travelers, and one prisoner: Riddick, who besides being contained in a frozen pod, is blind-folded and manacled. He's a murderer, a notorious super-criminal, the sort nobody would get on a ship with if they had to do it awake.

En route to wherever they're going, a disaster: something pelts the ship, striking vital systems, killing the captain. The two remaining members of the ship's crew awaken, and try to do something to salvage the situation. They're landing on the nearest planet - but the landing is too hot, the ship's nose is pointed right at the ground. The pilot Carolyn Fry tries to jettison everything she can to slow the ship's descent and make landfall... including ditching all the passengers. Unfortunately, that lever's jammed, so some survive the crash. And Fry has to live with the guilt of being ready to kill everyone to save herself.

It's the first of many minor character touches that elevate Pitch Black above the standard sci-fi "stranded people against impossible alien odds" fare. Of course, it owes much to Alien, and Aliens, which have served the template for this kind of movie from the '80s onward, so much so that, along with Jaws, the other permanent "monster on the loose" template, you'd think these were the only stories it was possible to tell in sf-horror.

Once all the wreckage is sorted out and the survivors come to some kind of understanding, they begin to assess their situation. It's a desert planet, no apparent water. No wildlife. Little hope for survival, and then the cop on board gives them the worse news: the prisoner he was escorting is some kind of mad-dog killer, and he has escaped. He's out there somewhere, and may be as much of a challenge to their survival as the harsh environment.

The cast of characters serves up some of the usual disaster movie stereotypes: the serious captain, the skeptical cop, a religious traveler and some kids, the rich guy, the tough guy, the resourceful woman. Fun character actors fill the roles: Keith David, Claudia Black, Cole Hauser. But the first 45 minutes of Pitch Black is most interested in creating the mythology of Riddick, the most dangerous man in the galaxy. He even has magical eyes (oh, wait, this is science fiction, "augmented eyes") that can see in the dark, and provides the movie's boogie-man. Until one of the cast is brutally murdered, and it becomes clear, though he was on the scene, Riddick wasn't the killer. There's something on the planet that is much more dangerous than just one man.

After that revelation, the plot pretty much follows the numbers: the group finds a way to escape the planet, but it hangs by a thread and can only be accomplished if everyone in the fractious group sticks together. And one by one, through circumstance or stupidity, they find themselves at the mercy of the alien creatures or each other, and their numbers dwindle. Betrayals, surprises attacks, setbacks, monstrous horror, Pitch Black doesn't play new notes for the genre but it knows the old tune and plays that well.

Whether the character of Riddick was worthy of a trilogy (soon, apparently, to have a fourth movie added) is for the fans to answer. As a film of the sci-fi horror type, it does what it does well with above average characterization. The evolutionary cycle of apparently the planet's only inhabitants is deeply questionable, since no species could sustain its existence on cannibalism alone, with the off chance of strangers showing up every 20 years to fill in the nutrient gaps, but it's just a movie. Mostly silly, but pretty good.

Stylishly made, too, with heavy use of wide angles and filtered visuals. Director-writer David Twohy opted for a variety of optical strategies that make Pitch Black look unique. The planet the unfortunate ship crash-lands on has three suns of different temperatures, thus different colored light, so when the blue sun is prominent Twohy opted for a specific chemical process for developing the film, the skip-bleach process that maintains the silver nitrate in the film which is usually bleached away, given it a darker, contrasty feel - David Fincher's Seven used a similar process to achieve its distinct look.

This look has been presented in 4K Ultra HD on this new release. It's a new transfer, and along with the higher resolution it's a much improved presentation over the previous Blu-ray release. This disc has a more detailed imaged, with a stronger color pallet. The high resolution has the additional, unfortunate effect of showing how poorly the CG aliens have aged, looking a little more like something from a PlayStation 3-era vg cinematic than top of the line Hollywood vfx.

But that doesn't take away too much from the fun of the film, the most unlikely b-movie to spawn an epic trilogy I can think of. The character of Riddick is an interesting character, even if the bad guy fighting the worse guys isn't a wholly original invention. But Pitch Black's fun isn't in originality, but in the throwback charm of simple science fiction action story. For fans of the film, this 4K UHD release is an easy upgrade to recommend.

Pitch Black has been released on 4K Ultra HD by Arrow video. It should be noted this release contains only a 4K UHD disc, with no standard Blu-ray disc included. Two versions of the film are available: the original theatrical edition, and a director's cut with three more minutes of footage. The disc contains copious extras about the making of the film. First, there are a pair of archival commentaries: one with director David Twohy and stars Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and another with Twohy, producer Tom Engelman, and vfx supervisor Peter Chiang. New to the disc is an interview with Twohy, "Nightfall: The Making of Pitch Black" (24 min), and several audio interviews: "Black Box: Jackie’s Journey with Rhiana Griffith" (12 min), "Black Box: Shazza’s Last Stand with Claudia Black" (8 min), "Black Box: Bleach Bypassed with David Eggby" (11 min), "Black Box: Cryo-Locked with Peter Chiang (13 min), "Black Box: Primal Sounds with Graeme Revell" (12 min). Also included is the animated sequel that bridges this film with its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, Dark Fury. Extras for that animated film, directed by Aeon Flux's Peter Chung, include video extras "Animatic to Animation" (33 min), "Advancing the Arc" (2 min), "Bridging the Gap" (9 min), "Peter Chung: The Mind of an Animator (5 min), and "Into the Light"(5 min).

There are also several archival bonuses from previous releases: "The Making of Pitch Black" (5 min); "Behind the Scenes" (18 min); "Pitch Black Raw" (12 min); "An Introduction by David Twohy" (3 min); "A View into the Dark" (4 min); Johns’ Chase Log (6 min); "The Chronicles of Riddick: Visual Encyclopedia" (2 min); "Slam City" (8 min), a motion comic prequel directed by Twohy; "Into Pitch Black" (44 min), an odd little made-for-TV promotional film that the disc describes as "non-canon"; and "Raveworld: Pitch Black" (20 min), a dance music event held to promote the film. There's also trailers and promos. The accompanying booklet contains an essay on the film by Simon Ward, original production notes, a 2000 interview with Vin Diesel by Marc Shapiro, and "Black Box Reports", character profiles taken from the film's 2000 website, as well as information about the film's 4k restoration.

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