Bigger isn't necessarily always better. Following a successful low-budget film with a big-budget sequel isn't always the right way to go. No matter how often Hollywood is provided with examples of the lesson, it's one that doesn't seem to stick. As a case in point, look at two of this week's Blu-ray releases, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.
Pitch Black, released in 2000 and starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, and Cole Hauser, was produced for $23,000,000 (according to IMDb). It went on to gross significantly more than that which, as it often does, led the studio (in this case Universal) to ask director David Twohy about the possibility of a sequel (something he says in the Blu-ray release that he wasn't at all considering while making the low-ish budget original). Sure, the majority of the characters were killed off in the original, but one of the surviving ones, Richard Riddick, was portrayed by Diesel, whose star was clearly on the rise in Hollywood. So, Universal put the band back together and with a far higher budget ($110,000,000) released The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004. While the grosses may have been higher than for Pitch Black, the return on investment was not. Even so, the two films are now available on Blu-ray, both in “unrated director's cut” form.
The original film, Pitch Black, follows the crash landing of a spaceship on an unknown planet. Though the surviving crew members and passengers are initially worried about the ultra-dangerous convict who was aboard the ship, Riddick, it quickly becomes apparent that their true enemy is not human, but rather alien. The planet, it seems, is infested with deadly aliens with a taste for human flesh. While the survivors at first think they'll be okay as the planet has three suns and it's never night, which is the only time the animals feed, it turns out that once every 22 years there's an eclipse. Guess what? The unlucky survivors have landed just in time for that eclipse. As the world goes black, death ensues, and Riddick, who has special eyes which can see in the dark, becomes everyone's only hope.
It is, simply put, a ludicrous set of circumstances coinciding with one another. However, done in the dark with a small cast of characters it becomes a good sci-fi horror film. It never has any pretentions to being more than the B-movie that it is, and due to the low budget focuses itself on the human characters rather than the alien menace.
Without such constraints and without the attempt to remain in the sci-fi horror genre, The Chronicles of Riddick is left floundering. The film is only really a pseudo-sequel in that while it has characters from the first film it retains none of the hallmarks of that movie. Reappearing in this film, besides Riddick, are Jack (now played by Alexa Davalos instead of Rhiana Griffith) and Imam (still portrayed by Keith David). Gone are the evil aliens. In their place we get evil humanoid-types bent on ruling the universe. Gone is any examination of character. In its place we get special effects. Gone is the notion of a single world in darkness. In its place we get three incredibly different over-the-top worlds and even more special effects.
This time out, there is no doubt that Riddick is now a good guy (no matter how many times the movie tries to tell us that he might not be); he's hardly even reluctant about the role. Though he claims to be hesitant at first, he quickly finds himself enmeshed in a battle against the Necromongers (don't ask, they're looking for the Underverse which is a mirror image universe where death isn't such a big deal) fighting for Helion Prime and New Mecca, as well as a race of “elementals” who get Judi Dench to play one of their number. If the first movie was silly in its premise but not its execution, this one finds itself unintentionally uproarious on all fronts. The decent (and not better than that) action scenes only stop long enough for the speechifying required to move the shreds of a plot forward. The entire endeavor has the feeling of a film where the set pieces were created first and a plot which could incorporate the set pieces developed later.
That being said, it should also be noted that the entire thing looks and sounds spectacular in Blu-ray. The colors are outstanding, the picture sharp, and the bass rumbles magnificently. For Pitch Black, however, the audio mix is far less appealing. The original film still has excellent visuals and wonderful black levels where things are dark and yet a good amount of detail is present (thank goodness, as so much of it takes place in the dark), but the audio has issues. To hear dialogue spoken one is required to turn the sound up loud enough that any special effects prove nearly deafening.
Both features utilize Universal's “U-Control,” which allows for viewing of behind the scenes picture-in-picture tracks during the films and have both unrated and theatrical versions. There are also a number of behind-the-scenes special features, everything from documentaries on how the films were made to “chase logs” which delve into the search for Riddick at various point in the timeline. There are also cast/crew commentary tracks on both films.
The Blu-ray releases – which are available for purchase either in a two-pack or separately – have been quite clearly and purposely meant to cross-promote one another, with special features on both referring to the other film. However, this is sometimes taken a tad too far in the set, as can be seen in Twohy's introduction of Pitch Black, which features him in an editing room where The Chronicles of Riddick is being worked on. The introduction itself then, rather than talking mainly about Pitch Black, spends the majority of its time discussing The Chronicles of Riddick.
As the Alien movies proved, a single sci-fi horror film which features the majority of the characters dying can be expanded into an incredibly successful long-running franchise. Pitch Black, which is very much in the vein of Alien, opted to go a completely different way for its sequel. While it is unquestionably possible to have made a successful sequel that would not be in the mold of Aliens, Twohy and company didn't do that. They opted to simply drop a few characters from one movie into a different one and cover any issues with a high-gloss sheen. Even in high definition it doesn't work.