Pitch Black/The Chronicles of Riddick Double Feature (US - BD)
Gabe revisits Richard Riddick's two live action adventures in high definition...
After a freak accident a spaceship ferrying private citizens crash lands on a planet with three suns. Survivors include de facto captain Fry (Radha Mitchell), intergalactic copper Johns (Cole Hauser), and Johns’ deadly prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel), along with a small collection of stragglers. Riddick escapes and quietly haunts the other survivors, who quickly discover that the tri-sun climate means no night, and no escape from the heat. Then things get worse. The crew discovers that the planet’s bleached bones are a result of hordes of ravenous monsters lurking beneath the ground. Fortunately they’re allergic to sunlight. Unfortunately today marks the first day of an elongated solar eclipse…
Pitch Black was something of a minor revelation when it was first released back in 2000. Looking back with more tempered expectations the film still stands up pretty strongly against real deal sci-fi/action/horror hybrids like Alien, Aliens, and The Thing, and even develops a solid universal mythology with very little specific information. Following the relative disappointment of the sequel film, The Chronicles of Riddick, along with an STV animated film and a couple of video games, it’s fun to recall that Riddick is a true blue antihero for the first two thirds of his first adventure. If the ads hadn’t given away the alien danger (which likely brought folks into the theatre) audiences might have honestly assumed that Riddick himself was the real villain of the piece. The later act character changes and reveals aren’t huge surprises even for the unprepared (the script shows its hand a hair too early in my opinion), they turns are still intriguing, and deepen the rather obvious characters with admirable efficiency.
The film’s strongest asset is still its strong visual sense, including three differently colour coated landscapes, strong light play during the dark scenes, and creative character and landscape designs. Director David Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby go to great lengths to ensure that Pitch Black is never a dull looking film, taking cues from Ridley Scott, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg, while still maintaining a enduringly original look. The budget constraints should effect the film’s larger scale action more, but in maintaining creativity, and never shooting an uninteresting shot the filmmakers take their seemingly simple concepts beyond the made for Sci-Fi and direct to video garbage that has plugged sci-fi hybrid creative veins for years.
Chronicles of Riddick
After years of avoiding humanity on a dark and frozen planet Riddick returns when Imam (Keith David) sends mercenaries after him. It turns out Imam’s intensions are not related to Riddick’s criminal past, but his possible heritage. It seems a group of totalitarian jerks called the Necromongers are converting humans across the universe to their twisted religion, and killing anyone that isn’t turned towards their cause. Riddick may be the only surviving member of a race called the Furyans, and may be prophesized to bring balance back to the force, err, universe.
David Twohy sets up his new scope very well from the first shot, but he suffers through some terrible choices early in the movie. Beyond a really badly directed invasion scene, with really stupid use of strobe, Twohy picks some strange battles in experimentation. This is a very expensive movie, we all know that because it was a somewhat notorious US box office flop, but sometimes it looks kind of like a cheap Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. It’s clear that there was money spent, but for some reason Twohy just can’t grasp the massive production values. The film looks big, but the stylized colours and fetishistic use of CG is unfortunately garish. The Star Wars prequels looked pretty garish too, but there was a level of detail and painterly addition that made it work for me about half way through The Phantom Menace. Riddick sits between a cartoon and gritty realism, and it would’ve been better to choose one over the other.
The stuff that works best is the stuff that draws thickly from pulp fantasy like Conan the Barbarian (check out that final shot). In some ways The Chronicles of Riddick is kind of a live-action Heavy Metal Magazine, minus the slutty sex appeal. Even in its unrated form the whole thing plays a bit ‘edited for television’, never truly fulfilling the vulgar promises of intergalactic murders, an army of pseudo-zombies, and a dirty maximum security of the prison. If it had been lighter the film probably would’ve been a bigger hit, even if it would’ve been ‘untrue’ to the first film, but had it been darker film it might’ve been a bigger cult film. I can imagine a few bare breasts and some old fashioned gore honestly making Riddick a better movie.
The Necromongers and their technology are kind of a mix of Clive Barker’s Cenobites, Superman’s nemesis android Braniac, and some of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ (visually Twohy has taken a few cues from David Lynch’s movie version). That said, it’s still an intriguing direction for mainstream sci-fi filmmaking, and really should’ve worked for audiences post Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The script is tight so long as it’s focusing on Riddick, but loses major focus when it wastes time on Necromonger characters like Commander Vaako (Karl Urban) and his wife Dame Vaako (Thandie Newton). Through little fault of the actors the characters are whiny, poorly defined, and yet they appear to have originally served some greater purpose in the story. The choice of Colm Feore as the Lord Marshal is another problem that I don’t blame on the actor, but the casting department. The majority of the cast is selected for their faces and voices, not their talent, and Feore just looks like some dude’s step dad in a cool costume.
Pitch Black was a relatively low-budget film, and sometimes it’s pretty obvious. Quite fortunately director David Twohy and his co-conspirators take creative and graphically intense steps to widen the small production values. Contrary to the usual, the high definition image on this Blu-ray actually helps sell the effects and manipulations rather than revealing their phony nature. The only effect that is occasionally dimmed by the increased detail and clarity are those of the creatures, which are so smooth they sometimes don’t exactly blend into the real backgrounds. The super saturated outer planet shots are gorgeously clean and solid, creating reference level quality. There is base of grain that wasn’t as obvious on the DVD release, but nothing intolerable, or even unappealing. The dark scenes are occasionally a little noisy, specifically in warm flesh tones (which aren’t all that common considering the often blue tinting of the light sources), but the contrast is more impressive than that of the standard definition version, and I believe fans will find new joy in the film’s sometimes ingenious cinematography.
Riddick is the newer film, and thus the sharper film, but it doesn’t share the same experimental, single colour schemes, and is generally less visually interesting. The high definition doesn’t do a lot for some of the film’s negative points, namely the less than realistic sets and digital effects. The colours are very nice, though, and scenes on Helion Prime reveal some bizarre schemes I pretty much missed entirely in theatres. With the exception of the Crematoria sets (which still kind of look like papier-mâché), everything looks incredibly smooth. It’s bad for the movie I think, but is a good example of the formats abilities over standard definition discs. The fine details are sharper, though I am a little surprised at the softness of a lot of the contrast and focus, which almost works to blend the not so good effects with the live action, but mostly just looks like a mimic of Lucas’ much maligned prequel look.
To better serve the light on cash production, not to mention the thriller aspects of the plot, Pitch Black features a creative and effective surround soundtrack that fills in the missing slices of action for the audience. This new DTS-HD Master Audio track is swimming with screaming creatures, pouring rain and crashing spaceships, along with much more subtle fizzling torches, and fluttering creature wings. The surround tracks are almost always busy, whether their teeming with action, or throbbing with the electronically enhanced symphonic music. The centre dialogue is clear even when the other audio elements verge on the overwhelming, and the conversation is whispered.
Riddick isn’t quite as aurally overwhelming as I’d expected, but I also can’t find anything tangible to complain about. Directional effects are sometimes a bit abstract, especially when it comes to the space battles and the silly Helion Prime invasion scene, but there are some more down to earth (so to speak) shootouts, creature attacks, and fist fights that take a more realistic approach. There are also some neat stylized choices that will make your LFE throb including pulse rifles and the Necromonger ships. Some of the sound editing choices made are a little strange, especial bits concerning the juxtaposition of the score and sound effects. Sometimes the sound effects will drop to support the score, which won’t increase volume in response.
I’m going to save a little time here by only briefly running down the catalogue extras in these releases. Like many of Universal’s catalogue releases the majority of the special features are straight from the DVD special editions, including the non-anamorphic, SD video. The only new extras are all U-Control options, which mostly don’t work for my Profile 1.0 player. Pitch Black features ‘Pitch Black Raw’, while Riddick features ‘Anatomy of a Fight’, ‘Complete Chronicles’, and other PiP options, which delve into the making-of the film and the greater mythology the creators were aiming to create. Riddick also features the text based ‘Chronicles Compendium’ option, which includes extra information about the films’ races, worlds, character’s religious beliefs, and bios of the key players.
Pitch Black has two feature commentary tracks. The first features Twohy and lead actors Cole Houser and Vin Diesel, while the second features Twohy with producer Tome Engelman and effects supervisor Peter Chaing. The first track is quiet, and not at all entertaining, despite the energy of the actors on screen. The director/producer/effects supervisor track isn’t much better, but is more informative. Riddick starts with an equally low-key commentary track featuring Twohy, this time joined by actress Alexa Davalos and actor Karl Urban. Twohy is too tempered but somewhat informative, Urban offers some joy and insight, and Davalos is especially quiet.
The non-anamorphic and super fluffy extras include an introduction from Twohy, ‘The Game is On’ (concerning the Escape From Butcher Bay videogame (01:50), ‘Johns’ Chase Log’ (07:10), ‘The Making of Pitch Black’ (made for television, 04:45), ‘ Dark Fury: Advancing the Arc’ (concerning the animated movie, 01:30), a visual encyclopedia (which is finished on the Riddick disc, 02:20), and ‘A View into the Dark’ (04:05).
Following an introduction to the Unrated version by Twohy, and the audio commentary, the Riddick disc features a collection of deleted scenes with optional Twohy commentary (08:00), ‘A Virtual Guide to The Chronicles of Riddick’ (kind of moot following the new PiP extras, fourteen chapters, 07:40), ‘Toombs’ Chase Log’ (10:00), and a series of fluffy interview/behind the scenes featurettes including ‘Visual Effects Revealed’ (06:00), ‘Creation of New Mecca’ (11:10), ‘Riddick Rises’ (13:30), and ‘Keep What You Kill’ (17:30).
The Riddick films are available separately, so it’s easy enough to avoid Chronicles of Riddick if you hate it. Looking back after a few years away I’m still very impressed with the first film, and much less unimpressed with the second film than I’d assumed I would be. The hatred geared towards it has always been a bit of a mystery to me, but I understand it falls very short from greatness. These Blu-ray versions look all but perfect, easily reference level, and sound outstanding, though are not an overt improvement over the DVD versions. The extras are disappointing in both quality and familiarity.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 31st March 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentaries, Director/Actor Commentary, Theatrical and Unrated Cuts, U-Control PiP Options, Catalog Featurettes
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Twohy
Cast: Vin Diesel, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Judi Dench, Colm Feore, Thandie Newton, Karl Urban
Length: 475 minutes