The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black Review

Back in 2000, the careers of David Twohy and Vin Diesel were kick-started by the release of Pitch Black – a sci-fi thriller that bombarded the audience with chills and spills; a savage and bloody film that featured hungry creatures relentlessly pursuing a group of terrified castaways. Yet, instead of being set on some remote desert island, writer/director Twohy set his opus on a remote desert planet. After their ship crash-lands on this bare terrain, suddenly Captain Fry (Radha Mitchell) must lead her crew to some form of shelter.

This arduous landscape is enforced by three suns that bear constantly down on the dozen or so survivors, a constant thorn in their collective side and something that means no water can be found. But, as quickly as they found themselves between this proverbial rock and hard place, the suns disappear and a total solar eclipse is formed: time for a breather, at least…until an army of these vampire-like creatures burst forth and begin to terrorise each and every one of the survivors, trying to maim and digest any scent of flesh that gets within a metre of their faces. Although they may be allergic to light, they sure know how to take advantage of a solar eclipse.

As well as dealing with a lack of food, water or shelter, along with a hoard of malevolent beings after their blood, the survivors must battle another demon: Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel). Boasting an imposing physique and a horrific past history, Riddick is a convicted killer who has been shunted around prisons all his life – before the ship crashed, he was on his way to another hole in the ground, to be locked away indefinitely. The crash results in his escape, leading to a figure that lurks in the shadows weighing up his options…all of which revolve around his own survival and how many kills he will need to perform to guarantee that. But, as the eclipse sets in, the survivors must put aside their differences and learn to co-operate – otherwise they might not live to see the sun rise…

It's undeniably an impressive premise, and Pitch Black soon cemented something of a cult classic status. It went from being a low-budget, little-expectation picture to something that swept box office takings and launched Vin Diesel as an all-American action icon. This success resulted in a sequel being made, released this summer, entitled The Chronicles of Riddick – indeed David Twohy was smart enough to realise that the strength of Pitch Black came from Diesel's extraordinary performance, so the sequel focuses solely on his character. In true Hollywood fashion, The Chronicles of Riddick is a mega-budget follow-up that is bursting with special effects, which also results in the usual beatings of the cash cow, leading me onto this very DVD release.

Re-dubbed The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black, just in case audiences failed to make the connection themselves, I am actually amazed at how popular the first film became. Yes, it has its moments and features some excellent touches – which I will explain in good time – but in all honesty it's a cheap knock-off of Alien, featuring lifeless characters save for the titular anti-hero.

The film's greatest strength is its photography: melding some fantastic work by the DOP with Twohy's inventive touches. Just like Alien, which featured Ridley Scott at the top of his game, Twohy does at least try and separate Pitch Black from Scott's '70s classic by manipulating the lighting and various compositions (including some very impressive SFX considering the budget). Perhaps it's the Australian location used as the barren planet, or it might just be that Twohy possesses real directorial talent – therefore it's a shame that the script he's working from, which he co-wrote, is so dire. The idea of creatures attacking a group of humans is certainly not original, but if it's written well – with rounded characters, a real sense of imminent danger and some original touches – then it can break out of its mould. Hell, the Alien saga retains that exact premise, yet each film is something fresh and engaging.

To say that each character is a cardboard cut-out would be offensive to the worst B-movie writers out there. Instead, each character in Pitch Black originates from a basic dynamic that has been seen so many times before…a 'boy' with a secret, a religious man who tries to preach to those around him, the one who doesn't believe, the captain who realises she must rally round for everyone's sakes. Although a few conflicts are presented – namely between a bounty hunter and Riddick – they soon grow tiresome. Only Quentin Tarantino's trademark dialogue could inject any life into their exchanges.

So, ignoring the quality of the screenwriting, just what is left? Aside from the aforementioned photography, the answer is not a lot. Vin Diesel does indeed deliver a strong and formidable performance as Riddick, a man who has been tortured for his entire life, but it's how the character is introduced and developed that becomes the film's greatest asset – atmospheric lighting, deep and vibrating tones, looks of pure evil. The rest of the cast try their best to slip into the clichéd shoes of their respective characters, succeeding to an extent, but the plastic shells originating from the screenplay inhibit their range.

The climax of the film is both predictable and lacking in excitement – it will come as no surprise that some of the crew didn't make the journey to the end, either. After watching the film more than once, it's obvious that I dislike it; I should, however, emphasise how all is not lost and there are some good points, albeit lost within a hollow shell of a film.

The Disc
Re-released and re-titled, this disc, bizarrely, begins with the 9-minute opening sequence from The Chronicles of Riddick. Because there is no prior warning, first-time viewers might mistake it for the opening to Pitch Black.

The menus are animated and better than the previous release, focusing on a solar system design. They are fairly easy to navigate.

This is the same transfer as the previous R2 release, which is no problem whatsoever – it's an incredible showcase for the film's varied colour scheme and lighting. It's also a way of seeing how Twohy emphasised the solar power of the planet: the negative was over-exposed, to give a white hot look, and that has been replicated superbly with this transfer. No dust or compression signs are visible at any time.

Losing the DTS soundtrack from the otherwise identical R1 release, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is provided still remains an excellent way to test out your surrounds. The opening sequence – when the ship crashes – is one of the pivotal moments for your setup, making excellent use of all the speakers. Dialogue remains crisp and clear throughout, with no other problems to report.

Two audio commentaries are the best features: one with Twohy, Diesel and Cole Hauser; the other with Twohy, producer Tom Engleman and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. Both are insightful and informative, making the listener privy to all sorts of information.

Meanwhile, an introduction by Twohy is merely an excuse for him to talk up The Chronicles of Riddick and explain Universal's approach to greenlighting it. Talking of the sequel, the same 9-minute opening from the start of the disc can be accessed through the extras' menu.

A 4-minute making-of featurette serves as an extended trailer and offers little; 'A View into the Dark' is another way for Twohy to amp up the sequel and talk about the character of Riddick.

'The Johns Chase Log' and 'The Chronicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopaedia' are both narrated by actor Cole Hauser – the former describing Johns' successful attempt to snare Riddick before the start of Pitch Black; the latter informing the viewer of the Riddick universe. Both extras are fairly pointless and act merely as a filler.

The following trailers are included: The Chronicles of Riddick, Thunderbirds, Van Helsing, the animé spin-off Dark Fury and the video game spin-off Escape from Butcher Bay.

A mediocre film presented on a technically-sound DVD, although the extras are lacking in most areas. This may be worth a rent for horror and sci-fi fans, or those wishing to see The Chronicles of Riddick, but otherwise avoid.

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