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Before I begin this review I have to admit an affinity towards science fiction fantasy films. It all started when I was very young and, like many of you, seeing Star Wars on the big screen for the very first time. For several years I would watch any film that had to do with space, strange worlds and aliens, taking in anything from Alien and Star Trek to Battle Beyond the Stars and Space Raiders. As I have grown a little older and wiser I have been more discriminate towards what movies I actually sit down and enjoy, but that love of the big, operatic space saga still lives within me. I even paid full price to see Battlefield Earth in the theatre after all of the reviews hit…so yes, sometimes it is a curse but I lived through it to tell the tale.

Chronicles of Riddick: Widescreen Unrated Director's Cut, The
I tell you this so that you know where I am coming from when I write about The Chronicles of Riddick. I was looking forward to this film since I had heard about its production. The film that it follows, Pitch Black, was a small film that I had heard barely anything about before wandering into the multiplex to see it over four years ago. I found it to be one of the best films of its type I had seen in quite a while. I decided to see the film based on its director, David Twohy, who had written and directed one of the best sci-fi sleepers of 1996 in The Arrival. He seems to have a knack for churning out a good film with little money to do so and further evidence of this was the criminally underrated Below a couple of years ago. I had wondered for some time what Twohy would do given a larger budget and I guess I got that answer this year with The Chronicles of Riddick.

The film picks up a few years after the events of Pitch Black. Once a wanted murderer when the universe knew he was alive, Riddick (Vin Diesel) has been in hiding for all these years in the furthest reaches to maintain the illusion of his death. After a failed attempt at collecting a bounty placed on him, Riddick finds himself seeking answers as to why the only man who knew him to be alive would betray his confidence, leading him to the planet Helion Prime and the city of New Mecca, home of Imam (Keith David) who Riddick had saved from the creatures of darkness years before. Imam explains that the bounty had been placed to draw Riddick out of hiding so that he might play the saviour once again, this time on a global scale.

A race known as the Necromongers have been traversing from star system to star system on some sort of intergalactic, ethnic cleansing crusade converting all they encounter to their ideals and destroying those who do not submit. Followers of a mysterious leader known as the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore), it is their belief that there exists a place where heaven and hell co-exist, a place called the ‘Underverse’, and their next stop is Helion Prime.

Not convinced that he is the saviour that Helion Prime is looking for and narrowly escaping the Necromongers and the Lord Marshall, Riddick is captured and taken by the resurfaced bounty hunters to a prison on the planet Crematoria; a planet where anything caught in the sun’s rays is almost instantly turned to ash. Riddick, however, has ulterior motives for wanting to go to the hottest prison in the universe and once there he becomes reacquainted with the other survivor from the previous film, Jack (who for some peculiar reason now calls herself Kira). Soon they embark on a daring escape from the penal colony before the pursuing Necromongers can pay Riddick a not so conjugal visit. But soon Riddick is forced to travel back to Helion Prime and face the Lord Marshall once again in order to save the only person he has ever cared about besides himself.

Chronicles of Riddick: Widescreen Unrated Director's Cut, The
As I said before, I normally love these types of films and tales of planet hopping, narrows escapes and galactic conquest, but The Chronicles of Riddick left me a little cold. For all its great special effects, soundtrack and action sequences it has a myriad of problems, most of which surprisingly stem from the screenplay. David Twohy has written some good films in the past several years (most notably The Fugitive) and has made better films on much lower budgets than Riddick. I’m afraid that perhaps the sheer size of the production may have hindered this one crucial element during its development.

The screenplay’s biggest problem is that it creates a real emotional disconnect with its audience. Watching the film, I never once felt any type of sympathy or feeling towards any of the characters and couldn’t have cared less about their fates, much less the fate of the entire planet that is placed in Riddick’s hands. It seems as though because Riddick could care less and is seemingly disinterested in nearly everyone in the film except one relationship that the screenplay and the actors fail to convey any real sense of depth between the two characters, a weird kind of transference takes place between the film and its audience. Given that Riddick is an anti-hero to begin with, this was a major hurdle that needed to be avoided in the film for it to work and it just couldn’t manage it. It all amounts to action scenes that have no real sense of drama and a film that drags like a funeral procession during the mostly mundane and repetitive dialogue scenes while you await the next set of on screen explosions.

The film also feels too familiar, as if this is what you would get if you mixed David Lynch’s Dune and Conan the Barbarian in a blender and added in a splash of the Borg from Star Trek. The problem is that the concoction doesn’t taste as good as its individual parts and comes across as a muddled and silly mess; it’s all been done before and done better. The sets, costumes and out of place mysticism involving Riddick’s destiny are all reminiscent of Lynch’s earlier film, and many of the basic plot elements are right out of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories and to a certain extent the 1982 film. I was almost willing to let the similarities between the Necromongers and Borg slide at first until I heard the Lord Marshall’s mantra of “Convert or be destroyed!” and about fell out of my chair laughing in astonishment since I swear I almost sensed it coming in some preternatural way.

A few of the characters could have been thankfully excised from the script before production but instead made it to the screen to befuddle and bore you to death. Judi Dench’s Elemental character Aereon serves little purpose and her dialogue is as equally useless. Perhaps she had some larger role to play in the proposed trilogy, but in the context of this one film the character is simply filler material. The same could be said of the one note Dame Vaako played by Thandie Newton, who seems to be channelling some long forgotten high school portrayal of Lady Macbeth in her performance. In nearly every scene the character is scheming to get her husband to ascend to power by having him kill the Lord Marshall and after about two scenes it grows redundant and then annoying enough you hope that her husband would just put him and the audience out of its misery by throwing her out of the nearest airlock. At least one scene involving the two characters about halfway through the film should serve as a good bathroom break without having to hit the pause button on your remote.

Chronicles of Riddick: Widescreen Unrated Director's Cut, The
In all honesty I really wanted to like this film. I was, and still am, a big fan of Pitch Black and the Riddick character. There are some really good points to the film in the effects and sound department and Graeme Revell’s score is good, building nicely on the previous film’s themes. I will watch any film with Keith “I’m not putting these f***ing sunglasses on!” David in it. But while not really a sequel to Pitch Black as much as it is a continuation of the character’s story, I thought the film's mystical elements were too much of a departure from the previous film and just not the right story for the Riddick character. The many technical goodies in the film are wasted on the screenplay, and poor Keith David isn’t in the film for the majority of its running time. I was hoping that the director’s cut presented on this DVD would fix many of the editing or story problems that I had with the film after seeing it in the theatre, but alas it did not. The new cut tries to add a deeper connection between Riddick and the Lord Marshall and furthers the idea of Riddick as some sort of messianic avenger to his extinct people, both of which just didn’t work for me.

While not on the same level of bad that Battlefield Earth inhabits, the film is no Star Wars either. It falls somewhere in between the two in that realm of totally forgettable science fiction films where movies like Lost in Space wander around, the guilty pleasure zone. The film is entertaining in a turn off your brain sort of way…you might even find yourself watching it a few times just for that sci-fi, special effects fix that I know I crave every once in a while myself. But be warned, it’s a craving not unlike the one for Taco Bell...it tastes good enough going down, but you’re going to be sorry in the morning.

Video
Universal Home Video has presented The Chronicles of Riddick in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at the film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Like some other recent Universal transfers, this one is nearly flawless with virtually no grain and edge enhancement to speak of, a clear, sharp picture and no noticeable screen artefacts. The large colour palette employed in the film’s different scenery is rich and colourful in contrast to the film’s darker levels.

Any problems with the transfer lie more with technical issues of the DVD and film and not the actual transfer itself. First, you will notice every once in a while the digital jump that occurs when added scenes play in the director’s cut. I will give Twohy and the DVD producers the benefit of the doubt when they explain this as a necessary evil to place the new material into the film, but at the same time other DVDs have presented extended or director’s cuts without these hiccups in the transfer. While director of photography Hugh Johnson’s cinematography is good for the most part, his sporadic use of Dutch angles in the film is unnecessary and the film is also hampered by the hyper-editing technique used in most of the action scenes; both are a detriment to the film overall. These issues aside, the transfer is near reference quality and what one should expect from a film released theatrically this year.

Audio
Universal has supplied The Chronicles of Riddick with a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track along with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. Much like the video transfer, the Dolby Digital track found on this DVD is near reference quality and a great representation of what a Dolby Digital track should sound like. Dialogue, aside from the occasionally mumbling Vin Diesel, is crisp and clear coming from the centre channel and the film’s great sound effects create a nice, enveloping sound field for your home theatre system. Graeme Revell’s score is good and builds well upon themes from the previous film while adding nice touches for the new film. There is, however, the strange omission of a secondary language track on the DVD for our foreign language speaking friends, and the possible inclusion of a DTS track would have been a very nice addition. What is included though is excellent and gives the DVD a great audio presentation overall.

Chronicles of Riddick: Widescreen Unrated Director's Cut, The
Extras
The Chronicles of Riddick has been supplied with a number of extras for its release on DVD, and while not nearly as extensive as other recent DVD releases should still please fans of the film while leaving others mildly entertained.

First is a commentary track which features filmmaker David Twohy and actors Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos. The track is adequate and is a good way of finding out more information about the film’s production, but it would have been nice if Vin Diesel had contributed to the commentary track in addition to or instead of the secondary actors present. The commentary track on Pitch Black benefited greatly by having Diesel and Cole Hauser included and this track could have used Diesel’s comments on returning to this character in a much different film. The track also comes in handy for those who viewed the theatrical cut as Twohy points out nearly every difference between the two versions of the film and explains why new material was added and other material altered or excised altogether.

Next is 'Riddick's World', a feature that gives the viewer a 360 degree look at eight of the sets used in the film. A similar feature was included in Universal’s Van Helsing DVD presentation, and while there are more sets here to get a closer look at the same problem in that it isn’t presented in any great detail still remains. Those looking for some facts on the set design will feel short changed, but for those simply wanting to give the sets another look will get what they want.

Also included is 'Toombs’ Chase Log', which is more or less as audio feature supplemented by some visuals representing a recorder device or ship’s log with actor Nick Chunlund providing the character’s exploits leading up to the beginning of the film. The feature has some funny dialogue and if you found the Toombs character enjoyable you might like this feature, but for most it runs way too long to hold interest.

A virtual guide to the film’s main characters and locations in presented on the DVD as well. As the film seems to leave a lot of back story unexplained in Twohy’s attempt to craft a living, breathing universe, this feature could come in handy to those with questions after the film or as a primer beforehand.

The only true featurette on the disc, ‘Visual Effects Revealed’, goes behind the scenes of the film’s many visual effects and action sequences. Since the film is a visual feast, this feature is interesting in finding how the some of the films effects were brought to life, but ultimately feels a little short.

The rest of the extras feature a facts on demand subtitle track while watching the film that gives interesting facts and trivia about the production, five minutes of deleted scenes, an XBOX video game demo for The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and standard DVD-ROM content. The DVD’s menu system is unique in that it branches into two distinct styles after the user selects ‘Convert’ or ‘Fight’ from the first menu and fits in nicely with the tone of the film.

Chronicles of Riddick: Widescreen Unrated Director's Cut, The
Overall
Universal’s DVD package for The Chronicles of Riddick is probably more than the film actually deserves, but thankfully they didn’t see fit to skimp on the disc with a great video transfer and audio presentation and some nice, if underwhelming extras. Far removed from its predecessor, the film itself may become a guilty pleasure for those looking for a no-brainer, sci-fi film now that has been released to DVD and should be a welcome addition to many libraries for fans of the film and fans of this type of film alike.


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