3.5 out of 5 stars

Vin Diesel’s big breakthrough was the sleeper hit Pitch Black, and it’s also the moment writer-director David Twohy announced himself as a filmmaker to watch after chalking up minor hits with Timescape (1992) and The Arrival (1996). Pitch Black led to sequels that were received less positively, but I have a soft spot for Twohy’s twisted sci-fi universe that mixes together elements from Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), and Mad Max (1979).

Pitch Black finds spaceship the Hunter-Gratzner crash-landing on a barren planet after an accident involving micrometeoroids kills the captain and sends it off course. The survivors of the crash are docking pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), Muslim preacher Abu al-Walid (Keith David) and three boys, art dealer Paris P. Ogilvie (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), settlers Sharon ‘Shazza’ Montgomery (Claudia Black), John ‘Zeke’ Ezekiel (John Moore), and teenager Jack (Rhiana Griffith), tough bounty hunter William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), and the notorious criminal he’s transporting called Richard B. Riddick (Diesel).

It’s essentially a sci-fi version of The Last Flight of the Phoenix (1965), with the survivors having to work together to find a way off-world, complicated by having to rub shoulders with a brooding mercenary who might murder them all in their sleep just to escape. But as the gang start to adjust to their situation and enter survival mode, coming to an understanding with Riddick, they soon realise they have a bigger problem to deal with: the planet entering a period of total darkness as its three suns vanish behind a neighbouring planet, awakening thousands of apex predators evolved to eat whatever dares come out in the darkness.

Simple ideas are often the best and Pitch Black embraces its concept with enthusiasm and more nuanced characters than one might expect. We’ve seen countless variations on this story before, but not often in a sci-fi context, so the idea of being hunted by a swarm of monsters in pitch darkness adds a healthy dose of creature-feature entertainment. And that’s really the strength of Pitch Black; it’s three good ideas combined. It would be a decent movie if it was only about a bunch of disparate characters having to find a way off a stricken planet, but then it puts an infamous serial killer in their midst, before adding thousands of flying hammerhead shark for good measure.

The concept keeps raising the stakes and remembers to give the leading characters worthwhile arcs, with unassuming Fry thrust into a leadership role after saving everyone’s lives in the landing, and Riddick softening through his interactions with these people and becoming more of a team player. But in the latter case, I enjoyed that the transformation of Riddick isn’t clean and irreversible because that made it feel more realistic. This one experience doesn’t change his whole outlook on life and alter his personality, but it gives him pause for thought a few times.

Riddick is the undoubted star of the show, as Pitch Black would be a less enjoyable film without the curveball of having his character in the mix. It would be like a version of Alien if synthetic Ash was more like The Terminator, perhaps. Vin Diesel isn’t a great actor with incredible range, but Riddick is a role written that plays to his strengths and limitations. We’d moved away from the kind of muscles heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the 1990s, favouring more everyman types like Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis, but Pitch Black offers a throwback to simpler times. Diesel plays Riddick like a mix of Conan the Barbarian and Snake Plissken, which works surprisingly well. He’s a great example in the long tradition of anti-heroes.

The rest of the cast is a little more humdrum, but I appreciated having a female become the de facto leader instead of the more likely Johns. Pitch Black is also notable for having a Muslim amongst the team, and I can’t think of another example. It’s common to ignore religion in sci-fi and suggest our technological progress required atheism, but it’s not unheard of to have a Christian member of a spaceship’s crew. One could even say it’s a fun addition for a sci-fi horror with some religious overtones. But to have an Imam stands out as interesting and different for the film, and considering the religious aspects of sequel The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) this is clearly something Twohy included to help differentiate his universe from the mostly atheist Star Trek and fictional mysticism of Star Wars.

In terms of the production values and VFX, Pitch Black does an admirable job with its $23M. The location shooting in the Australian Outback helps give the movie even more of a Mad Max vibe (helped by having a few Aussies in the cast), and the concept clearly benefits from the endless desert vistas that cinematographer David Eggby could point the camera at. A post-production ‘bleaching’ process with the camera negatives also gives the daytime scenes an oversaturated look that feels alien and unnerving.

The monsters themselves were mostly achieved using CGI, but the fact they’re always shrouded in darkness helps keep them from dating. A few close-ups of the creature’s fangs may look poor detailed by today’s standards, but they’re successful because of the strange design by Patrick Tatopoulos (Godzilla, Dark City) and excellent animation of their fluid movements. The fact the beasts hunt in darkness also means Pitch Black benefits from the Jaws (1976) rule of never showing the monster too much until the climax.


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4K Ultra HD Special Features:

Arrow Video mark their long-awaited move into the realm of 4K Ultra HD with Pitch Black, which is a deceptively clever choice. It may not be a prestigious classic, but the movie’s use of bright sunny sequences and inky darkness is exactly the type of content ideal to demonstrate what High Dynamic Range (HDR) can offer cinephiles. The result is a gorgeous image that really brings this movie alive in a way I don’t remember from when I last saw it, on DVD admittedly. Shot on 35mm, film grain is evident but it’s well resolved and never becomes an issue in the nighttime shots.

There’s sadly no Dolby Atmos sound mix to level up this disc from the previously released Blu-ray, but the existing DTS-HD Master Audio track is no slouch. The opening crash sequence offers strong bass with sounds rushing around your speakers, expertly placing you into the moment and making you grip your chair and hang on too. Other aural gems include the whooping calls of the creatures, appearing all around the soundstage.

Only the first disc of extras features were available for review.

  • Brand new 4K restoration by Arrow Films of the Theatrical and Director’s Cuts of the film, approved by director David Twohy.
  • 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible).
  • Original DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround on both cuts.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing on both cuts.
  • Archive commentary with director David Twohy and stars Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser.
  • Archive commentary with director David Twohy, producer Tom Engelman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang.
  • ‘Nightfall: The Making of Pitch Black’, a newly filmed interview with director/co-writer David Twohy. This is a great extra that gives you a lot of background on how the project came about, plus the difficulties of shooting in the middle of nowhere. Twohy is quite candid about everything, mentioning the early setbacks due to inclement weather and the strangeness of having a small mining town as the only source of civilisation nearby. He even gets into the studio-enforced changes to the creature design and how he had to threaten walking away from the film if Riddick had been played by an unnamed but apparently ‘difficult’ famous face.
  • Black Box newly filmed interviews: ‘Jackie’s Journey’ with actor Rhiana Griffith, ‘Shazza’s Last Stand’ with actor Claudia Black, ‘Bleach Bypassed’ with cinematographer David Eggby, ‘Cryo-Locked’ with visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, and ‘Primal Sounds’ with composer Graeme Revell. These are interesting interviews with key players of the cast and crew, but it’s disappointing nobody is on-camera. The interviews are audio-only played over clips.
  • ‘The Making of Pitch Black’, a short behind-the-scenes featurette.
  • ‘Pitch Black Raw’, a comparison between early CG tests and the final footage.
  • Additional behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the film.
  • 2004 archive bonus features, including an introduction by Twohy, ‘A View into the Dark’, and ‘Chronicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopedia’.
  • ‘Johns’ Chase Log’, a short prequel narrated by Cole Hauser detailing the character’s hunt for Riddick.
  • ‘The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury’ (in 16:9 widescreen with DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio), an animated short film directed by Peter Chung that acts as a bridge point between Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick, featuring vocal performances by Vin Diesel, Keith David and Rhiana Griffith reprising their roles.
  • ‘Dark Fury’ bonus features including ‘Bridging The Gap, Peter Chung: The Mind of an Animator’, ‘A View Into The Light’, and a “pre-animation” version of the film.
  • ‘Slam City’, a motion comic from the film’s official website.
  • ‘Into Pitch Black’, a TV special offering an alternative non-canon glimpse into what happened before and after the events of the film.
  • ‘Raveworld: Pitch Black Event’, footage of a dance music event held to promote the film.
  • Theatrical trailers, plus trailers for the two sequels and video game.
  • Image galleries.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned “night” and “day” artwork by Luke Preece.
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Simon Ward on the film’s creature designs (including a new interview with creature designer Patrick Tatopolous), original production notes and information from the film’s official website, and an archive interview with Vin Diesel from Starlog magazine; plus collectable O-card with “night” variant artwork by Luke Preece.
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Cast & Crew

director: David Twohy.
writers: Ken Wheat, Jim Wheat & David Twohy.
starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Claudia Black, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore & Simon Burke.