The Chronicles of Riddick: Unrated Director's Cut Review
Space. The final frontier. The universe continues to hold our undying interest; a cornucopia of unlocked secrets and worlds beyond our wildest dreams. It’s hardly surprising that filmmakers have always plundered the solar system for their stories, with thousands of tales played out in alien environments; far removed from the dull rigours of everyday life. If we ever manage to colonise distant worlds, let’s hope they’re more hospitable than the planets encountered in The Chronicles of Riddick, director David Twohy’s sequel/follow-up to sleeper hit Pitch Black. Released earlier this year to mixed opinions and disappointing box office, it has slowly earned cult appeal, and with this longer “Director’s Cut”, it warrants another look.
There are probably many reasons why Chronicles failed to ignite the imagination of cinema-goers, though its plot is usually maligned by critics. Taking Pitch Black’s most successful element - Vin Diesel’s murderous convict Richard B. Riddick - Twohy and the action star decided to create a whole mythology behind the character, with a plethora of different solar systems to explore, and diabolical villains to face. The news of the project filled me with excitement. After all, the character was a blast of fresh air; a figure that was a genuine anti-hero. He was imposing, tough, mean, and often downright cool. The possibilities were endless. What we eventually got though, is a story of disarming density. It’s a plot with many convoluted strands, and various critics rightly called it “incoherent”. While I can pick many faults in Twohy’s storytelling, I walked out of the theatre satisfied. The Chronicles of Riddick could very well be the most underrated sci-fi epic of recent times, making up for its laboured narrative with gorgeous visuals, kinetic action, and Diesel’s gruff performance.
A million miles from Pitch Black’s simplistic premise, Twohy’s universe is certainly widespread. Five years after he escaped a world of shadow-dwelling creatures, Riddick is fleeing from planet to planet with bounty-hunters on his tail. Living under the radar, he’s trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. A life of peace it seems, is all this killer needs. Naturally, his retirement is short-lived. Sought out by resourceful mercenary Toombs (Nick Chinlund), he decides to travel to the source of said bounty; the planet Helion Prime. Here, he encounters “Elemental” Aereon (Judi Dench) and old friend Imam (Keith David), who hope Riddick can defeat a threat to all life in the universe. Apparently, an army known as “The Necromongers” are travelling through the solar system, destroying everything in their path, and killing those who refuse to join their ranks. Led by the sinister Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), they’re on a quest to find the mysterious “Underverse”, and only Riddick can stop them...
No time is wasted in build-up, since The Chronicles of Riddick moves a-mile-a-minute. Those unfamiliar with the character will face a head-scratching dilemma, since his background is never recapped (the likeable anime Dark Fury did a decent job of bridging these films). Even those who loved the previous picture, will need several viewings to fully understand Chronicles. The whole mythos behind the Necromongers is never fully developed, and the reasoning behind Riddick’s destiny is just as sketchy (apparently, he’s the last in a long line of “Furions”, whatever they are). Such enthusiasm for details makes Twohy’s film more than a little pretentious, but if you’re willing to endure the haphazard plotting, there is plenty here to enjoy.
Never since George Lucas created a ‘galaxy far, far away’, or David Lynch leaped head-first into Dune, has a filmmaker been so enamoured with the world at his disposal. The glue that holds Chronicles together, is the visual finesse that litters every shot, stopping it from becoming a mere retread of superior films. In most respects, Pitch Black didn’t boast anything new, stealing from the Alien franchise and various other classics with deep affection. Making it all work, was Twohy, who gave the film a masterly sweep and stunning vistas. Luckily for us, his eye has remained razor-sharp. Riddick’s latest adventure is a production designer’s wet dream, with plenty of opportunities for “money shots” throughout. One such sequence, is when the Necromongers first arrive on Helion Prime; their ships blasting the resistance out of the skies and literally crash-landing. Marked in silhouette, Riddick gets plenty of flattering close-ups as he races across rooftops, as explosions roar around him. Twohy manages to ratchet up a great deal of excitement with his over-the-top approach, and the editing matches his exuberance.
Indeed, most of the action is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chaos, that really hits you in the face with its speed. Such editing tricks are an acquired taste (most people complained about the frenetic pace), but it appeals to me. Perhaps my tastes are odd, but a film like Riddick warrants a different approach, and the action follows accordingly. Twohy is certainly trying to test himself, and by proxy, the skills of cinematographer Hugh Johnson. Like Pitch Black, there’s a fascinating approach to colour here. Depending on which world Riddick inhabits, there’s a different colour palette signalling the change in environment. No matter how confusing events might be, at least the director gives us pretty images to savour. People may argue that it’s style over substance, but it’s clear that thought went into every second of screen time. Whether it paid off, is up to the viewer.
To me, the most disappointing aspect of Riddick is the principle villains. The Necromonger’s main goal is pretty irksome, but their manner is stilted. Feore is often good value in evil roles - anyone who caught his sadistic turn in Highwaymen should know that - but he seems restricted here. It also doesn’t help that the costume design is fairly laughable. Still, it’s his character that reveals the biggest problems in Twohy’s elaborate screenplay, with some truly cheesy speeches about “The Underverse” and universal domination. It’s the age-old kind of villain, that has worked time and time again, but the character needed more definition. Much more interesting, are Thandie Newton and Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings), who add some spice to the Necromonger ranks. They also spark off each other well, in scenes that drip with sexual tension (some of which is more explicit in this cut). That said, our main focus is Diesel’s unstoppable menace, and thankfully, the Necromonger’s take a back-seat for the films thrilling centre-piece.
Captured by Toombs, Riddick is carted off to the Crematoria system; a prison found 24 kilometres beneath the surface. Venture outside, and the heat will burn you to a crisp. Naturally, Riddick launches an escape, but not without inmate “Jack” (Alexa Davalos). She was the girl that Riddick saved in Pitch Black, and has since grown into a homicidal mercenary just like her idol. The entire middle-portion, is Riddick at its best. Throw him into an alien terrain, and let him duke it out. Much more exciting than the main story arc, the Crematoria sequences provide Twohy with his best action. Attempting to escape the planet before the Necromongers arrive, Riddick and his cohorts must race across the surface, attempting to outrun the deadly sunlight. Large holes in logic aside, the scenes are enormous fun. That said, we’re soon brought back into Twohy’s self-important tale; with actors delivering silly philosophical dialogue (some of which, is more grating than The Matrix Reloaded). Even Dench has trouble, yet her experience and abilities allow the scenes to soar higher than they probably should.
So what of Diesel? Surprisingly, he has the best performance in the film. He was born to play the character, and his charismatic presence makes up for many of the screenplays faults. This is the same criminal we saw killing monsters in Pitch Black - Diesel slips back into those futuristic Ray Bans with ease. While the role exudes cool, Diesel also handles his dark side with gusto. We’re never sure when Riddick will strike, and who he’ll kill to stay out of handcuffs. No wonder the star was so jazzed about returning to the role. It’s just a shame that Riddick is far more suited to simple action fare, than a complex “epic” that Chronicles tries to be.
Ultimately, I consider The Chronicles of Riddick to be a huge guilty pleasure. Quite shamelessly, I enjoyed every minute. While many of the ingredients fail to work, I have to congratulate Twohy and his star for trying. It’s the kind of sequel that takes story over repetition, and the choice to further his universe is more intriguing than planting him on another planet with bloodthirsty creatures. Sadly (or luckily as the case may be), we won’t be seeing more of Richard B. Riddick, since the film failed to make a dent at the US box office. It’s a film you’ll either love or hate, but it remains a fascinating failure. Breathtaking in its beauty, but disappointing in its story, Riddick is a cult odyssey every step of the way...
Those lucky Americans once again have the choice of which version they buy. Available in separate “Theatrical” and “Director’s Cut” editions, I wisely chose the latter. It’s unrated, with 15 minutes of footage not shown in cinemas (the UK copy released later this month, is the former cut). The new material largely consists of character-building moments, all of which are welcome (and allow some of the plot elements to become clearer). Naturally, there is more violence in this cut, with some grisly moments that would have bagged the picture an R. While it won’t make Riddick-haters appreciate the film, it does improve it slightly, and gives the cult audience more to digest.
The Look and Sound
Universal have once again produced a reference-quality disc, that should appease Riddick’s fans. As the film begins, we get a quick introduction from Twohy, who explains that the new footage might reveal subtle differences in the picture quality. However, I didn’t notice them - the scenes have been integrated effortlessly. Shown in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1), the transfer does the films design justice. Striking and full of searing colour, the image reveals those acute details with aplomb. Everything is sharp and defined, with few artefacts on sight. A slight spot of edge enhancement is the only offender, but it’s such a good-looking image, that any deficiencies are quickly overlooked. Riddick looks amazing.
Just as good (or possibly better), is the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which really does reveal the films blockbuster roots. Filled to the brim with directorial effects, the whole track pops with activity. While the lack of DTS surprises, this is one soundtrack that makes the film breathe. Graeme Revell’s score is full of orchestral power, with some pounding shifts in tone. It helps to set the scene, yet it is perhaps the sound design that works best. A multitude of effects creep up from every speaker, and often erupt into audio chaos. Skip to the scene in which the Necromonger’s arrive on Helion Prime - this is one loud mix, that really entertains. On a technical level, The Chronicles of Riddick is dazzling.
Studio titles usually boast great menus, and this is no exception. As the disc loads, you get a choice - “Convert” or “Fight”, a rather neat addition. Each menu is slightly different, but both contain the same options. They’re pleasing to the eye, and feature the films score. My only complaint, is that some of the menu transitions are a little long. That said, they’re still fabulous.
Audio Commentary with Twohy, Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos
This is a fairly diverting yack-track, providing sufficient information about the production; including production design, reshoots, working with the actors, fighting styles and Riddick himself. The material was recorded separately and then combined, so there isn’t a group dynamic. Still, it’s Twohy who provides the most useful comments, with Urban and Davalos offering quick soundbytes and praisings of the crew. There’s a few dead spots, but it’s worth a listen. Twohy keeps it entertaining, and his love for the world is clear from every word.
If the cast and crew don’t interest you, there’s the “Riddick Insider” option, a fact track played alongside the movie. As we’ve come to expect from such features, it is composed of nitty-gritty details and factoids all geeks should know.
Despite this being a longer cut, there were still scenes chopped from the final version. There’s around 8 minutes of footage here, and comes with optional commentary by Twohy. It’s all slight scene extensions, or pieces of dialogue, cut for pacing reasons. While the bulk of it proves useless, the chance to see discarded material is usually intriguing, and with a world as flashy as Chronicles, this is no different.
These reasonably small vignettes don’t amount to anything memorable, but should warrant a viewing (at least until a better copy comes out). "Virtual Guide to the Chronicles of Riddick" is a 10-minute overview of the characters, and the main plot-line. Extras of this nature usually promise boredom, but with a plot as complex as Riddick’s, I guess it makes some sense. "Visual Effects Revealed" lasts for 6 minutes, and is pretty self-explanatory. It manages to cover some decent ground, with those tech-heads discussing the most memorable shots. Short and sweet. "Worlds of Riddick" comes from Diesel himself, and is an interactive look at 8 of the films sets. We get to sample the whole 360 degree experience, in what is possibly, the best extra in this set.
Last, but not least, is the chance to play the tie-in video game Escape From Butcher Bay. Place the disc into your Xbox, and you can play a level from the all-action game. According to many of my friends, this is a great title, and worth playing. A great end to a pleasing collection of materials.
Audiences are divided on The Chronicles of Riddick (as well as the DVD Times staff), but to me, it was a highly enjoyable juggernaut of a movie. It’s not high art, but how many blockbusters are these days? Take it at face value, and you won’t be as disappointed. As for the disc, this is a strong debut on the format, with a magnificent transfer. Fans should get it. Naysayers might rent it. Either way, it provides a decent follow-up to the superior Pitch Black...