DVD Review #25: The Chonicles of Riddick: Pitch Black (Unrated Director’s Cut) (1999)

February 28, 2010 at 1:51 PM | Posted in DVD Reviews, Franchise Film, Horror, Sci-Fi | 1 Comment

Vin seriously urges you to consider going green.

Preface:
No, this is not another Spike Lee movie. It’s a documentary about Vin Diesel’s summer vacation, where he fended off over a dozen sharks with his bare hands. Slightly dramatized.

Summary:
A spaceship is damaged by micro-meteroids from the trail of a comet (not really possible, but whatever), and crashes on a desert planet with three suns. Among the survivors are the guilt-laden acting captain, a mercenary, and the vicious convict he is escorting, as well as some unimportant people.

The planet is found full of bones and uninhabited, but when one of the group is suddenly killed and dragged away, it is discovered that the escaped convict is not the culprit.

In true horror fashion, the survivors find that the planet is infested with ravenous creatures that can only survive in darkness, and to their misfortune the planet is about to have an eclipse.

Caught far from safety and in danger of being picked off one by one, the group tries to return to an abandoned ship with the power cells they need to escape the planet.

Luckily, the killer Riddick has had his eyes polished so that he can see in the dark, but no one can be sure whether or not they can trust him.

Review:
Pitch Black is a film in another one of those niche genres that doesn’t have a lot to choose from: sci-fi horror. There aren’t a lot of sci-fi movies made each year. Too expensive. Compared to how many science fiction novels and short stories exist, there’s barely any. And even less that have a blend of horror.

For that sub-genre, it’s a very good film. Like The Mist, it was shot very cheaply and quickly, and for whatever reason, this adds to the film. The aesthetic works perfectly. You never see the monsters full-on. The effects blend seamlessly for the most part. It’s not a spectacle movie. It does what it does as well as possible.

The brilliant thing for me in regards to Pitch Black is that the full onset of the horror portion of the movie doesn’t start until halfway through its duration. It’s perfect timing for one main reason: you can’t drag out suspense and horror for two hours. I like the first half of the film for its discovery. You’re thrown into the situation with the characters. And while you’re taking in the premise and the setting, you’re also learning about the people involved. The movie takes its time without becoming dull. There’s always new information in each scene. And the suspense of waiting for the horror makes everything you learn that much more intriguing because you’re paying attention.

While the story seems derivative of films like Aliens and Predator, there’s enough that’s new here to avoid the film looking like a clone. The aliens (called “predators” by the filmmakers, but lacking any true name) are less the grotesque humanoid monsters of Ridley Scott’s film, and more animalistic. Visually, they resemble flying sharks, and at times bats. The characters aren’t hardened soldiers or screaming victims. Riddick is a man who survives, but rather than being the leader, he is caught in the same mess as everyone else.

The film does have one thing I’ve never seen before, and that’s a shot of someone dislocating both shoulders and rotating them behind his back and over his head to escape handcuffs. The movie deserves praise for that if nothing else. The character of Riddick is also a unique creation, familiar as an action hero, but twisted enough as an anti-hero to keep him interesting.

Critically, there’s not much to say. The movie is somewhat derivative, but compared to other horror movies that take place on alien planets, it stands out as a contender for top five at least. It’s a hell of a lot better than Red Planet, and that’s really down to the distinctive alien threat (as opposed to multiple threats) and the writing of the characters. It’s not Aliens, but it manages to work as both escapist science fiction and horror, without being too focused on technology, special effects, or gore. It is as well-constructed and restrained as Starship Troopers is carefree and over-the-top. Each approach suits each film.

The only thing that didn’t work for me was the supposedly shocking revelation that “Jack” was actually a girl, and not a boy. The implication seems to be, though I may be wrong, that because she is a thirteen year-old girl, she is menstruating, and that the predators can smell her blood (even though menstrual fluid actually contains no blood). If that’s NOT the case, I am confused as to when and where and how “Jack” started bleeding. If I’m right, then it’s a little weird. But regardless, I was never fooled that she was a boy. The first time I saw the film, I must have missed the two or three references to her being a boy. It was obvious she was acting somewhat masculine, but I merely assumed she was a tomboy and thought nothing of it. This may be my fault for not paying attention, or for being too familiar with tomboys and short haired girls. Then again, maybe the characters in this movie do have to be a little bit dumb to not catch on to this. Either way, I think the character presented as just a tomboy would have served the plot as well, as proving her ability to hold her own would have given her the same role. The “twist” is just odd and doesn’t really play very well on further viewings.

If I felt like the movie needed anything, it’s a shot of the ship plowing through the creatures as it is leaving the planet, or at least a shot of it taking off. I’d have to agree with the producer on that call. Even though the idea was clear, more of an indication of motion would have helped the scene.

I’ll admit as to being slightly confused about the exact nature of the transport ship that everyone is on, and to be honest, not all of the characters are that well defined. But the ones who aren’t tend to die off pretty quickly. It’s certainly a step up from The Mist in that sense, where that movie has dozens of people in the background who never speak or even get acknowledged. As far as horror movies go, I suppose it’s an acceptable flaw.

Certainly there are many little details you could nitpick about the logic of the movie, but they have no effect on whether it works as sci-fi horror. It does, and it introduces a real badass into the dreamscape of Hollywood.

Where the “unrated director’s cut” is concerned, there are some little scenes and pieces of scenes here and there that clarify the plot and add some interesting character moments. Certainly nothing of the “unrated” variety. But that’s okay because no one in the cast has huge boobs, and the horror works better with less gore.

Visually, the DVD is not a great print. There are spots all over this thing. That may not bother anyone, and I haven’t seen any mention it on Amazon. It’s no different than what you’d see at the theater. But it’s certainly not a print I would use for Blu-Ray.

Commentary:
There are two commentaries included, one with the director, Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and one with the director, producer and visual effects supervisor.

You can tell this is the early days of commentary, because the tracks are a little noisy and there are frequent pauses. And also because Vin calls commentaries one of the most asinine things ever created. That should give you a sense of what the track is like. Typical talk about the days, the takes, the lines, etc. It’s a solid, entertaining track where Vin and the director do most of the talking.

What you’d normally get from bonus features, you get in the “visual effects commentary.” They go over what’s a model, puppet, or CG effect, and the processing done on the film. They talk about the lighting, etc. There’s a decent dynamic between them, so it doesn’t get too boring despite a few pauses.

Extras:
This reissue of the film focuses on, and really operates as promotion for, The Chronicles of Riddick. The introduction by the director briefly mentions Pitch Black, and talks about his approach to the sequel.

“The Game Is On” is merely a fancy title for the video game trailer.

“The Johns Chase Log” is an interactive menu comprising seven minutes of narrated pursuit logs from the character Johns. Featuring Cole Hauser chuckling to himself far too much.

“Dark Fury: Advancing The Arc” (1:31) is a short clip promoting the 35 minute animated DVD.

“The Chonicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopedia” is an interactive feature (meaning that it’s menus and not just video) with Johns narrating a few entries about the series. The last one tells you to get the Chronicles of Riddick DVD for an expanded version.

“A View Into the Dark” (4:07) briefly summarizes Pitch Black and then promotes Riddick again.

You’d think a big, fancy-ass DVD would have at least one substantial feature. “The Making of Pitch Black” is not that. It’s only a four minute long vintage TV featurette promoting the original movie. And while it’s not remarkable, it is the only extra not promoting a different product.

It’s hard to fault the DVD for not being a better version when there is no better version. But it’s pretty easy to fault it for having fifteen minutes of promotion for other discs when it doesn’t even have a single feature about this movie’s special effects. I can’t exactly NOT recommend this DVD. If they didn’t release a better version when the sequel came out, they’re not likely to ever release a better version. Not even when the next one comes out. But I can’t really recommend it for the extras, unless the two commentaries mean a lot to you. And they’re both on the previous version.

As for the new DVD title, I guess that means the sequel is called “The Chronicles of Riddick: Nothing”?

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  1. I remember when the movie originally came out, there was a gigantic promotional deal on Sci-Fi, including a featurette. The most interesting thing about all this is that they were acting like it was Farscape’s Claudia Black who was the star of the film, and the ads never even mentioned Diesel being in it, as if the creators (or just the marketers) didn’t intend for Riddick to be a major player.


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