Pitch Black

To the ancient astronomers, it pleased their beliefs that the cosmos was an ordered place where the stars and planets moved on fixed and fully predictable paths, that the heavens were fundamentally ordered and unchanging, as governed in their motion as the clockwork of the mechanical orreries they built to represent the orbits of the planets; they were mistaken.

In the pitch black of deep space en route to the Tangier system, the commercial transport ship Hunter-Gratzner‘s crew and passengers are oblivious in cryostasis as it slips out of the Sol-Track shipping lanes and encounters a rogue comet whose dust perforates the hull; Captain Tom Mitchell killed instantly, docking pilot Carolyn Fry wakes in fright to take the helm.

The ship literally dissolving as it tumbles into the atmosphere of a nearby planet, the superheated plasma stripping the communication antennae and the maneuvering fins from the hull, if Fry is to have any chance of landing the beast at all she will have to shed weight, jettisoning the rear portions of the Hunter-Gratzner along with anything and anyone aboard them.

The handful of survivors taking stock of what they have and exploring the desert world on which they have crashed, they find an abandoned mining outpost with an apparently spaceworthy skiff; if it can be powered, they may be able to return to space, but what of the unwanted passenger in their midst, the chained prisoner Richard B Riddick, escaped convict and murderer who was being transported back to a maximum security facility?

Filmed in the outback of Australia for around twenty million dollars, Pitch Black was originally developed under the name of Nightfall by writers Ken and Jim Wheat but was offered to director David Twohy who substantially reworked the script, introducing the character of Riddick to present a danger within the group of survivors to balance the threat of the hostile nocturnal indigenous lifeforms.

Released in 2000 and now presented on Blu-ray by Arrow Films as a new 4K restoration approved by Twohy, Pitch Black is a science fiction horror film which becomes more than the sum of its relatively simple parts which merges the premise of Alien and Aliens as a crew is picked off one by one on a planet infested by a swarming enemy which only comes out after dark, yet offers a unique vision of the future and voice in the antihero Richard B Riddick.

Fully half way through the film before night falls, the planet falling into eclipse behind the ringed gas giant it orbits alongside, it is sufficient time to set up the diverse and complicated characters, their rivalries and resentments, and pitch them against each other when it comes to survival, but once the darkness sets in the chase is on and the rule is that of survival of the fittest.

Unusually, the accents and skin tones are not uniform; space does not belong to a single section of the population, nor are the travellers all they appear to be: despite being a killer “educated in the penal system,” Riddick (Vin Diesel) shows more regard for the other survivors than his captor William J Johns (Cole Hauser) who purports to represent the law.

In fact, Johns is a drug addicted mercenary and bounty hunter whose only motivation is self-interest; the new edition containing two versions of the film, the director’s cut may be less than four minutes longer than the theatrical release but the minor changes are significant, including an insight into the cause of Johns’ reliance on painkillers – assuming, of course, it is not a lie to gain sympathy.

Then there is Imam (Keith David), a holy man sworn to peace on a pilgrimage to New Mecca with his three sons, they are connected with the desert though that does not mean they wish to die there; he alone does not judge Riddick, and while Riddick questions Imam’s enduring faith in the circumstances in which they find themselves, he does not mock it. Does Riddick, as Fry puts it, wish to rejoin the human race?

And what of Fry (Radha Mitchell) who made a decision that meant some died that others might have a chance to live, however slim, and must pay back that debt; her ongoing anger at Johns is justified, but towards the young passenger Jack (Rhiana Griffith) it is momentary, caused not by the fact that she was misled but that Jack did not feel safe enough to confide in her, a flash as swiftly replaced by empathy and understanding of the lone traveller’s fears.

Creatively shot by David Eggby in the reflective gypsum fields near the mining town of Coober Pedy, the original film negative stock was treated so the excess silver nitrate was not bleached out before the fixing process, leading to a luminous, overblown effect which enhances the feeling of an alien environment under the triple stars of the system which illuminate the barren world.

An ambitious film with a limited budget, the emphasis is on practical solutions wherever possible, the bioraptors rarely seen and when they are often through the distortion of Riddick’s night vision, managing the limitations of the then-nascent contemporary digital effects, with Twohy instead using sound to emphasise the claustrophobia of the downed ship in which the survivors are trapped or the treacherous route to the skiff across open ground where attack can come from any direction.

The new edition of Pitch Black featuring recently recorded interviews with Twohy, Griffith, Claudia Black who plays passenger Shazza, Eggby and composer Graeme Revell, it also contains a comprehensive archive of material from previous releases including the flash animated Slam City, Johns’ Chase Log, the television special Into Pitch Black and the Blu-ray debut of Dark Fury, as well as two commentaries on the feature.

Pitch Black is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films from Monday 17th August

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