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The Chronicles of Riddick HD DVD

Yes, I know. This film was received by critics as if it was the sequel to Battlefield Earth instead of the follow-up to the cult favorite, Pitch Black. Riddick, you may recall, was once a dangerous, sociopathic villain. Here, like a gravel-voiced Captain Kirk, he arrives just in time to save the universe from the Underverse.

What's that? In Chronicles, a race of militant religious fanatics called Necromongers is hopping from planet to planet, forcing the occupants into either conversion or death. It seems that if they gobble up enough unbelievers without stopping at Go or Going to Jail, they'll get to some sort of paradise called the Underverse, which sounds suspiciously like they're ultimately on a quest for better skivvies. (Just to make sure that you don't get the idea that the filmmakers are making an analogy to, oh, I don't know, Islamofacists perhaps, the city that is the most recent victim of the Necromongers is called New Mecca.)

Of course Riddick (played, as in Pitch Black, by Vin Diesel) gets involved, for reasons that I won't go into here even if I understood them. The plot is convoluted, and the fight scenes so choppily edited that they're sometimes incoherent, except for the final mano a mano with the Necromonger's Big Cheese.

Riddick as a character is more about attitude than dialogue. This is just as well, as Diesel can't do much with his wooden lines but is at least good at attitude. The other performances are competent given the dialogue the actors are expected to speak. Only an underused Judi Dench, who could make a reading of the Congressional Record sound Shakespearean, emerges completely unscathed.

So what's the attraction? First of all, this unrated edition does add about 15 minutes of scenes to the theatrical film. Every little bit helps, unless of course it makes an already marginal film worse!. But here, it doesn't. The story makes a little more sense (though not a lot) with the added scenes.

But the major attraction here is simply style. The look of the film is unlike anything you've seen before. Yes, much of the design came out of a computer, and that's often a bit too obvious. But the various landscapes that the characters inhabit look truly alien in a way that science fiction films rarely do. The closest parallel I can think of is the opening planet sequence in the original Alien. The production designer, photographer, and special effects crew are the real stars here. Hopefully we'll see their work again in another, better sci-fi film.

That production design alone justifies this Unrated Director's Cut HD DVD release. Just as important, the transfer from film to HD video is stunning. Much of the movie is dark (though not pitch black), but every detail is sharp, crisp, and clear. And none of this comes with the tradeoff of excessive edge enhancement. This is easily one of the best looking of the early batch of DVDs.

It sounds great, too. Both Dolby Digital Plus and DTS tracks are provided. I listened mainly to the DD+, and had no complaints apart from the recording of Graeme Revell's forgettable score, which sounds merely OK. The sound effects are striking, with deep bass and highly active surrounds.

If you can get past the story and script here, there's a lot of eye- and ear-candy on display.

Video reviewed on a Yamaha DPX-1300 DLP projector, 78-inch wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player set for 1080i upconversion. Audio evaluated via the player's digital output to an Anthem D1 pre-pro, Proceed AMP5 amplifier, and Pioneer EX Series loudspeakers.

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