David Twohy's 2000 sci-fi thriller Pitch Black was a model of B-movie efficiency. Despite treading some hoary old clichés (the plot was basically Flight of the Phoenix crossed with Aliens), the movie was tightly scripted and directed, had some appealing roguish characters and clever dialogue, and made then-emerging star Vin Diesel into a badass anti-hero worth cheering for. It's not a great movie, but is a very entertaining one. Produced for a modest $23 million, the picture grossed almost twice its budget and has had a healthy afterlife on video and TV syndication. Jumping forward a couple of years, Vin Diesel's stock in Hollywood had risen. Although he has yet to prove himself as the next great action star, studio executives seem intent on making him into one. So somehow a Pitch Black sequel gets greenlit, budgeted at an astounding $110 million (almost three times as much as the first movie grossed in its entire theatrical run), and the resulting film The Chronicles of Riddick turns out to be one of the biggest box office bombs of 2004. I guess not every modestly successful movie needs to be turned into a franchise.
Picking up five years after the first movie, we find our charismatic criminal Riddick on the run from bounty hunters. Surprisingly, instead of trying to send him off to prison, their job is to deliver him to galactic capital Helion Prime, where returning character Imam believes only the bald muscle-man can save their planet from a race of death-worshipping religious freak invaders called Necromongers trying to assimilate them Borg-style. Riddick, you see, is the last of a race of legendary fighters called the Furyans (get it, fury-an?) and has been prophesized as the man who will defeat the Necromonger Lord Marshal. So before he can do that he has to make a side trip to the prison planet Crematoria (where, get it, it's really hot like a furnace) to pick up Jack, the little girl who survived the first movie with him but has grown up into a criminal badass now calling herself Kyra (a name we're supposed to think sounds tougher than Jack?) modeled after her idol Riddick. Now Riddick needs to fight a bunch of people, blow some stuff up, escape the prison with Kyra by outrunning the scorching sunrise on foot, fight some more people, and get back to Helion Prime so that he can single-handedly defeat the entire invading army by, well, fighting a bunch more people and blowing some more stuff up. Meanwhile, the mulletted Necromonger first lieutenant Vaako and his Lady MacBeth wife (Thandie Newton) have their own plans to wrest the throne from Lord Marshal, plans which Riddick may wind up playing a part in.
The problem with The Chronicles of Riddick is that it's essentially the exact opposite of Pitch Black. Bloated and indulgent where the original was lean and economical, the sequel just has too much of everything. There's too much action, too much plot, too many characters, too many planets and locations to visit, too much backstory and mythology, and way too many CGI visual effects. It's everything that Hollywood executives think teenage audiences want to see (and generally do) crammed together into one rickety package that can't possibly hold it all. Writer/director Twohy deserves some points for his ambition; he was clearly trying to build a new science fiction franchise with enough intriguing facets (religion, politics, action adventure) to spawn a string of further sequels. Unfortunately, the end result leaves much to be desired. Aside from the overwrought execution of it all, Twohy makes the mistake of undercutting the basic appeal of the Riddick character, that he's a heartless anti-hero only interested in himself, by turning him into a standard issue universe-saving hero. That's not the man we enjoyed so much in Pitch Black; it's a humorless Bruce Willis wannabe on steroids.
The theatrical cut of The Chronicles of Riddick that disappointed audiences ran 119 minutes. Later for DVD (and now this HD DVD), director Twohy expanded the movie to a 135-minute Director's Cut that adds some footage, loses a little bit that was in the theatrical version, and restructures things here and there. The Director's Cut is indeed a generally better movie than the original version. The plotting is a little more coherent and the pacing has been decidedly improved. One of the biggest problems the first time around was that the action scenes were all slammed right up against one another with no breathing room between them, leading to an unavoidable feeling of overkill. That's less of an issue here, but the movie still suffers from too many frantically edited shaky-cam action sequences shot entirely in extreme-close-ups that make it impossible to follow the action. The Director's Cut also can't solve some of the fundamental problems with the film stemming from its basic concepts and scripting. Twohy has managed to change a bad film into a moderately decent one, but the project is still too flawed to live up to his ambitions for it.
The HD DVD:
The Chronicles of Riddick debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. For some strange reason understood only to marketing executives, they've chosen to release the second film in the series before the first, Pitch Black, which is scheduled for July. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Chronicles of Riddick HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.
The movie has a very dark and grimy photographic style, often with heavy digital color manipulation. Combined with the extensive use of CGI in almost every shot, this tends to flatten the image. The picture is pretty sharp and detailed, and in selected scenes very vibrantly colorful, but I would not call it the reference quality demonstration material that some had hoped for. In its best scenes, the picture is really terrific, while in others it looks a little dull and filtered. It's a good-looking transfer for the movie, but it just didn't blow me away.
As mentioned in the video introduction, some of the scene extensions for this Director's Cut have jump cuts where the new footage was inserted.
The Chronicles of Riddick HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is offered in your choice of Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or standard DTS 5.1 formats. As expected for a big budget sci-fi action flick, this is an extremely loud and aggressive sound mix, with frequent split-surround activity and lots of deep, deep bass. The mix has plenty of dynamic range, which will have the bass junkies in the audience raving, though overall fidelity of the audio is about average. Dialogue is always intelligible, sound effects are generally crisp, and the music sounds just OK. It gives you what you expect, but I've heard better on both the DVD and HD DVD formats.
In direct comparison between the DD+ and DTS tracks, the DTS mix is set for a louder default volume. Once you compensate for that, differences between them are subtle. DD+ offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD, but in this instance I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. It sounds like pretty much any other action movie DD 5.1 track. I found the DTS track to be just a little bit crisper and fuller, with slightly tighter bass. It's not a dramatic improvement, but I did prefer the DTS.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Future releases may offer more advanced features.
Most, but not all, of the supplements from the Director's Cut DVD appear to have carried over.
Missing from the DVD edition are a subtitle trivia track, an interactive 360º view of the film sets, and a playable XBox video game demo. To make up for that, we get three new featurettes originally contained on a bonus disc included with copies of the DVD sold at Best Buy stores.
- Introduction by David Thowy - A very brief notice at the beginning of the film to explain why certain new scene extensions have jump cuts.
- Feature Commentary - With director David Thowy and stars Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos. This is a very chatty and self-congratulatory track where the participants spend most of their time praising each other and marveling at the sets and visual effects. Not a whole lot of insight is to be found here.
- Virtual Guide to the Chronicles of Riddick - A series of ten very short explanations of the film's mythology, narrated by cast members speaking in character. The feature seems to be designed for children and is pretty cheesy and annoying.
- Toombs' Chase Log (10 min.) - Also cheesy and annoying, an in-character diary narrated by the bounty hunter who pursued Riddick about all the boring things he had to do in preparation for the capture.
- Visual Effects Revealed (6 min.) – Straight EPK material here. The CGI artists explain how they built the virtual worlds and creatures seen in the movie.
- Vin Diesel Guided Tour (3 min.) – Exactly what it sounds like, the muscle-bound star takes us on a brief walk around the soundstage sets.
- Deleted Scenes - With optional commentary by David Twohy. Three scenes are featured, all of which were clearly expendable.
- Creation of New Mecca (11 min.) - Further elaboration on the film's mythology, this is actually a pretty good look at the production design, costumes, and visual effects. Some of the excited talk about making the franchise into a series of further films seems just a little sad now.
- Riddick Rises (13 min.) – Discussion of the transition from Pitch Black to its more ambitious sequel. The pre-production process from storyboards to fight choreography is covered in depth.
- Keep What You Kill (17 min.) – A closer look at the Necromonger villains.
Even in this somewhat superior Director's Cut edition, The Chronicles of Riddick is an overblown and disappointing follow-up to the superior Pitch Black. Still, it has lots of action and special effects, which should satisfy undemanding sci-fi fans looking for nice eye- and ear-candy. It merits a mild recommendation.
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