With the impending release of Riddick, the titular anti-hero (Vin Diesel) returns to home video in time to build some hype and bring you up to speed via Blu-Ray. This set includes Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick as well as a DVD copy of the animated feature The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury.
Given that Chronicles was released nine years ago and Pitch Black thirteen, one of the more pressing concerns for me was how these films would look in hi-def. Mid-to-late 90’s and early 00’s sci-fi can be particularly problematic, given that era’s over-reliance upon fledgling CG effects, which simply don’t translate well in the high definition conversion. The clarity of the hi-def image often causes them to “pop” in a rather cartoonish manner which can play hell with your ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Thankfully, both of these films fare well on Blu.
I feel Pitch Black ends up looking the better of the two despite being older. It’s perhaps accidental, the minimal use of CGI and the directorial decisions regarding lighting were likely the result of making the most of a smaller budget, but the end result is a film that holds up well to the Blu-Ray treatment. In fact, director David Twohy’s washed-out and over-saturated sequences depicting the various forms of daylight provided by the planet’s three-star system look downright gorgeous. While I have no idea what that would actually look like, I buy the effect, and it gives Pitch Black an almost art-house horror feel.
The look of the film’s CG is buttressed by the fact that the creatures, which are the most pervasive digital effect, only come out at night and are therefore usually obscured by shadow. Again, what may have been a budgetary decision at the time ends up being a solid stylistic choice in terms of hi-def presentation. The exterior space-travel scenes and background asteroids/planetscapes look serviceable, and other little touches like Riddick’s night vision come across okay, if slightly dated.
I expected Chronicles of Riddick to be a much messier experience as I recalled it being heavy on CGI, but was surprised when reminded that a lot of the film relies on practical effects and massive physical set-pieces. This is not to say that it isn’t without a few groan-inducing moments, particularly centered on the laughably named air elemental, Aereon (played by Dame Judi Dench). Like a much paler and decidedly more British Tupac hologram, she wisps about the screen accompanied by an unintended light-bleed/glow. Similarly, external shots of planetside troop and ship movements and a scene involving a mine cart-like transport look a little ‘toony, but overall the majority of the film looks quite crisp and tactile.
There is a CGI-heavy scene towards the middle of the film in which a character wanders out into high-intensity sunlight and bursts into flames, his flesh flaking from bone, that I was surprised to see translated very well to hi-def. Again, credit to Twohy who crafts this scene to be awash in light, allowing the effect an ideal canvas upon which to play out believably. The prop department also scores points for providing the cast with firearms that produce an actual gas-powered muzzle flash, meaning there are no “flashbulb” pops of obvious CG lighting up the screen as can be noted in films that rely upon CG to bring their firearms to life.
And the sets, dear god the sets. They are nearly as overly embellished and excessive as the film’s plot, but they add so much presence! These are things that would likely never be practically realized in a film today. Sure, portions of the set may be constructed but the rest would be filled in with CGI in post. This film made me miss and long for the days when sets and large-scale environments were actually built by hand.
I found myself nostalgic for other things as well re-watching these films. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Pitch Black and what a decent sci-fi horror flick it is. It has a great ensemble cast of really interesting characters, from the morally dubious bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser) to the unshakeable Imam, Abu al-Walid (a great performance from Keith David). The Muslim faith is represented prominently and positively, and there are some fascinating if not entirely profound discussions of spirituality and good and evil contained herein.
This dialogue between good and evil is also the crux of the Riddick character, and though this particular brand of brash, macho anti-hero has fallen back into cliché in the decade that has lapsed since Pitch Black was released, watching it for this review I was able to feel the badass-ness all over again. Say what you will about Diesel (and I know you’ll say plenty, I’ve read all your blogs) but the guy does tough-talkin’, muscle-bound, gravel-voiced, ice-cold killer very well. And Riddick may be the best expression of that he’ll have in his on-again/off-again/back on-again career. Factor in that with Fry (Radha Mitchell) you have a capable and resourceful female counterpoint to Diesel’s testosterone, and an ending that gives you pause as to who the real tough-guy is and Pitch Black ends up being a film very much worth revisiting.
The animated Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury is a direct continuation of Pitch Black and attempts to set the tone for what is to come in the sequel film. It’s an odd combo of CG and cel animation, stylized with a look that will be very familiar to fans of the Aeon Flux animated series. Peter Chung, the animator responsible for both this feature and Aeon Flux is perfectly at home with excessive violence, and though the exaggerated fluidity of the action is slightly less than realistic, it sure is fun to watch. Dark Fury employs the voice actors from the previous and subsequent films, which keeps things nicely congruent in tone even when the visuals stray a bit far from what we’ve seen before or are about to see. I was happy it was included with the set, and its mere existence points to how much those invested in Riddick cared about enriching the universe he inhabits.
Chronicles of Riddick is a bit more convoluted affair. I found that if I ignored all the overwrought space-armored goofiness of the badder-than-bad bad guys, the Necrons, and focused on the pursuit of Riddick by the bounty hunter Toombs (the underappreciated Nick Chinlund) and subsequent escape from the prison moon, it can be a very cool and fun action sci-fi ride.
As I watched, I kept imagining an edit in which Riddick isn’t some “c
hosen one” destined to defeat the Necrons, but is instead just dropped into their midst, Indiana Jones style, to wreak havoc on their attempt at dominating the galaxy. It’s a shame the script wasn’t kept a bit leaner, throwing around a bunch of high-fantasy space-gibberish as exposition has never worked for me and it doesn’t work here. That said, we are treated to a fantastic performance from a young Karl Urban as the glowering and ambitious Vaako. And it’s hard to deny the dark and baroque majesty of the Necron’s design aesthetic, it’s like a sci-fi mall goth’s architectural wet dream, realized in full glory.
The upcoming third feature Riddick seems to get back to the roots of the story with a plot that looks much more Pitch Black than Chronicles. Having been reacquainted with how much I love Pitch Black, I am looking forward to it, but will make sure I put any expectation that it be profound or enlightening into cryo-sleep for the film’s run time.
Pitch Black – The film is presented in an unrated Director’s Cut including additional footage as well as a Theatrical Cut.Audio Commentary Track 1: director David Twohy, stars Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser Audio Commentary Track 2: Twohy, producer Tom Engelman and effects chief Peter Chiang
FeaturettesThe Making of Pitch Black Dark Fury: Advancing the Arc The Game is On A View Into the Dark
Blu-Ray ExtrasPitch Black Raw (U-Control) Picture-in-Picture (U-Control) John's Chase Log The Chronicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopedia BD-Live
Both commentaries are likely only of interest to hardcore fans of the film, though the first one is fairly fun with the actors playing well off each other in discussing their roles and on-screen activities. The Featurettes are all brief and fluffy, the "Dark Fury" and "Game is On" features are basically commercials for the animated feature and the Xbox game Escape From Butcher Bay, respectively. The U-Play extras are essentially picture-in-picture and side-by-side comparisons of effects, stunts and behind the scenes footage, transposed with the final product. I thought the “John’s Chase Log” was the most interesting feature, giving you some background on John’s search for Riddick prior to the events of Pitch Black, narrated by Cole Hauser. It’s brief but satisfying.
Chronicles of Riddick – The film is presented in an unrated Director’s Cut including additional footage as well as a Theatrical Cut.
Audio Commentary: Twohy, stars Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos
FeaturettesVirtual Guide to The Chronicles of Riddick Toomb's Chase Log Vin Diesel's Guided Tour Visual Effects Revealed Introduction by David Twohy Deleted Scenes
Blu-Ray ExtrasCreation of New Mecca Riddick Rises Keep What You Kill Anatomy of a Fight (U-Control) Complete Chronicles BD-Live
Since Chronicles was shot when DVD extras madness was peaking, we see a lot more supplemental material gathered. That doesn’t mean it’s all worth combing through, but there’s definitely a lot more meat on the bone here than what was compiled for Pitch Black. It’s all largely oriented towards giving you more of the Riddick brand’s flavor, fleshing out the universe and giving you background and history. The U-Control feature is more fun than those included with Pitch Black as it focuses directly on the action and fight choreography, flooding you with details ranging from historical influence on fighting style to design influence of weapons used.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury
FeaturettesAnimatic to Animation From Pitch Black to Riddick: Bridging the Gap Peter Chung: The Mind of an Animator Into the Light
These features are brief, but provide some insight as to why the animated feature was undertaken and how it connects to the larger story. Peter Chung is an interesting guy and it’s fun to hear him speak passionately about bringing these characters to animated life.
The one thing that is abundantly clear watching the additional material for all three films is how incredibly serious director David Twohy is about the Riddick universe. It’s as though this is the man’s religion, and sometimes his focused intensity is a bit much. It’s in service to the films, and is very effective in Pitch Black and Dark Fury but seems to reach a bit too far with Chronicles. Here’s hoping he has reeled things in a bit for the next installment.
Bottom Line: If you own DVD copies of these films, you’re likely already enough of a fan to want to convert to Blu-Ray. The extras specific to the Blu-Rays are nice and again, if you’re a fan, worthwhile. Whether you have the DVDs or would be purchasing the films for the first time, you have the added incentive of a low price point, the set retails for $24.99 but can be found easily for $20 or less (mine was purchased for $13). The Pitch Black Blu-Ray on its own is typically listed at $12-15 making this a pretty solid deal.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.