We're a long way from 'Pitch Black' with 'The Chronicles of Riddick.' Much had changed in the three years between 'Black' and its sequel -- namely Vin Diesel became a household name. Emboldened by the his leading turns in such megahits as 'xXx' and 'The Fast & the Furious,' it was good-bye 'Pitch Black 2' and hello to name-above-the-title, splashy star vehicle 'Riddick.' Granted, there is precedent for a continuing series of adventures for the character, as he was borne out of popular literary source material. But the film that was supposed to launch a new franchise might have been more commercially successful (and just plain fun) had Diesel and the filmmakers not taken the whole thing so seriously.
It is 500 years into the future, and after the events of 'Pitch Black.' Riddick is now a hunted man, and finds himself the unwitting pawn in a major battle between the forces of good and evil. Lord Marshal (Colm Feore) is a warrior priest, the leader of a sect that hopes to wage a final crusade against mankind. On Riddick's side is Aereon (Dame Judi Dench, in a career highpoint), the "ambassador from the Elemental race," an ethereal being who helps Riddick unearth his origins. Somewhere in between will come various characters of vacillating alliances, very noisy outer space battle scenes, and lots of shots of Diesel running across apocalyptic landscapes.
If all of this sounds a bit plotty, it is -- I couldn't even begin to explain how intricate the mythos, characters and interrelationships all become by the end of 'Riddick's 135 minutes. Not helping matters it that this HD DVD contains the expanded "Director's Cut" of the film, which tries to squeeze in even more mythology by adding 16 minutes onto the theatrical cut's already packed two-hour runtime. Now, backstory is not a bad thing (George Lucas has wrung six blockbusters out of far less), but 'Riddick' seems so preoccupied with trying to launch a new franchise it ultimately gets in the way of the film simply being satisfying on its own terms.
Yet, despite the hard sell, 'Chronicles of Riddick' does have some pleasurable moments. There is something oddly sublime about watching Diesel in ultra-serious mode, scowling in every scene while he lobs bad one-liners back and forth with Oscar winner Dench. Just as incongruous is the rest of the admittedly impressive cast, including notable talents as Thandie Newton, Karl Urban and Linus Roache, who stand around looking slightly embarrassed at having to wear funny costumes and make pseudo-profound dialogue about "Necromongers" sound plausible. I also liked the sorta cool, sorta chintzy production design, which has a weird throwback feel to such '70s and '80s camp classics as 'Krull,' 'Flash Gordon' and 'Battle Beyond the Stars.' And of course seeing the filmmakers attempt to sell Diesel in a heterosexual love story is always hilarious.
But perhaps what is most surprising about 'Riddick' is that it likely does not appeal all that much to the horror-oriented fans that made the original 'Pitch Black' such a sleeper hit. Far more epic in scale, grandiose and mythic, 'Chronicles of Riddick' seems as if it wanted to be the new millennium's answer to 'Stargate,' but that may not have been what fans who originally lined up for 'Black' wanted to see in a sequel. But if you readjust your expectations and don't compare the two films to each other -- and can deal with Diesel's complete self-absorption as an actor -- 'Chronicles of Riddick' offers a couple of hours of goofy and rather charming popcorn fun.
Notch up another winner for HD DVD. I've seen many great transfers in the month since the format launched, and 'Chronicles of Riddick' certainly ranks up there with the best of them. I don't know if this is in fact the greatest piece of demo material out there, but it is as good of a candidate as any of the HD DVD discs released thus far for such a lofty label.
Though shot on film, 'Riddick's transfer was created from a digital intermediate scanned from the original film negative, so this HD DVD transfer was minted direct from the digital master. As you would except, the image looks flawless -- absolutely clean as can be, with pitch-perfect blacks and terrific contrast. The level of detail is also often breathtaking (and boy, do I hate using such a cliched term) -- there really are moments that look as photo-real as a video image possibly could. Sharpness is also as good as it gets, with no softness to speak of even during the film's extensive CGI sequences. Colors are also very bold, rich and smooth, with no apparent noise or inconsistencies.
If I sound like I'm gushing, I suppose I am a bit -- it is just rare as a reviewer that I've encountered a transfer that gives me nothing to complain about. Granted, I'm sure there are transfers out there that could potentially look better than this, but there is no doubt that just about every aspect of the video quality of 'Riddick' is first rate.
If ever there was a soundtrack that deserved a TrueHD Dolby mix, it is 'Chronicles of Riddick.' Alas, Universal has elected not to produce one for this HD DVD release (and, in fact, the studio hasn't included one on any of its HD DVD releases so far). However, we do get a very good Dolby Digital-Plus track as well as a DTS 5.1 surround option. However, I felt about the DTS track here the same way I do about their inclusion on HD DVD releases in general -- namely, given the higher bitrate of the Dolby-Plus format, a DTS track seems largely superfluous. And 'Riddick' did little to change my mind.
In any case, 'Riddick' sounds great. As expected for a big summer action film budgeted at over $100 million, this is a very aggressive mix that plays like gangbusters. Surround use is often intense, at least during the action scenes (of which there are many). Imaging is excellent throughout, with pans between all channels near-seamless. I also like some of the subtle atmospheric effects employed during the films quieter, more talky passages. Dynamic range is also sterling, with sounds emanating from the rears and fronts sounding equal in their authenticity and fullness. And the strength of the low bass is also a real treat, with some serious subwoofer action going on. Definitely crank this one up -- it's what home theater was made for.
Another port of standard DVD extras, 'The Chronicles of Riddick' on HD DVD includes most (but not all) of the supplements that appeared on both the Theatrical Cut and Director's Cut special editions previously released in 2004. Though there are no extras here that match the level of excellence achieved by the disc's transfer and soundtrack, it is nonetheless a fine batch of goodies fans of the film should appreciate.
Aside from a brief if rather pretentious introduction to the Director's Cut by David Twohy (who explains you may see some jumps and splices where the new footage has been inserted), all of the disc's extras are accessible from the main menu. First up is an audio commentary with Twohy and stars Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos. However, Twohy largely dominates, sharing mostly antecedents from the shoot but not as much in the way of in-depth production details. However, he does talk about some of the reinserted footage. Eventually, Urban and Davalos pop in occasionally, but they also have little to share beyond a few cute stories. All in all, a decent if unexceptional commentary.
The heart of the supplements are four featurettes totaling about 30-odd minutes. What is most unique about these extras is that most are told from the perspective of the film's characters, which gives them a bit of a promo feel, but at least it is somewhat more interesting that the usual EPK fluff.
"Virtual Guide to 'The Chronicles of Riddick'" is basically like going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, except it is the world of Riddick. The film's cast members (all except Vin Diesel) narrate, and it is a nice look at the mythology behind the character's world. Similar is "Toomb's Chase Log," a somewhat long-winded recorded journal as told by actor Nick Chinlund (in character) on how he led the capture of Riddick in the film. "Vin Diesel's Guided Tour" features the actor sharing perspective on the film's many futuristic sets, some of which are indeed massive. Finally, the most straightforward of these vignettes is "Visual Effects Revealed," a six-minute overview with Twohy and effects supervisor Peter Chaing, who discuss the film's biggest setpieces.
Next up are 8 minutes of additional deleted scenes not included in the Director's Cut. Most are merely scene extensions or alternate versions, including a different introduction for the Dench character. Twohy contributes optional audio commentary for all the scenes.
Note that missing on this HD DVD are a few key features from both of the previous standard DVD releases. Gone is the "Escape from Butcher Bay" Xbox demo (no big loss), nor are any of the film's theatrical or teaser trailers included (a bigger bummer). But the biggest omission is the "Riddick Insider" subtitle fact track, which had lots of cool minutiae on the world of 'Riddick' -- why Universal didn't port it over for the HD DVD is a mystery.
'The Chronicles of Riddick' is a pretty silly movie, but it is highly entertaining in the grand tradition of dumb summer popcorn entertainment. And I have no hesitation in recommending this HD DVD to fans of the film -- it boasts a terrific transfer, an enveloping soundtrack and abundant extras, all of which make this one of the best efforts seen on the format so far. I only wish Universal would have ponied up to create a "Total Experience" HD bonus feature like they did with 'Bourne Supremacy.' Otherwise, well recommended for 'Riddick' diehards.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.