As pure spectacle, “The Chronicles of Riddick” is quite an achievement. But as a narrative story, it’s sporadic and unwieldy. For those in the dark (no pun intended), “Riddick” is the sequel to “Pitch Black”, a horror film in the guise of sci-fi. In that earlier incarnation, titular anti-hero Riddick (Vin Diesel) was an escape convict being transported back to prison when the ship carrying him crashed onto a planet filled with night-dwelling creatures. Luckily for the survivors, Riddick also happens to be endowed with nightvision, the product of illegal surgery performed in prison.
“The Chronicles of Riddick” takes place a few years after the events of the original, with Riddick still fleeing bounty hunters. This time Riddick has to contend with Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), a powerful warlord leading his army of Necromongers on a crusade to rid the universe of humanity so that he and his faithfuls may find paradise in something called the Underverse. Or some such. And oh yeah, Riddick is feeling guilty about the fate of Jack, one of survivors from the first movie, who has gone astray while trying to emulate her hero: Riddick.
Rightfully concluding that his movie is too much flash and not enough meat, writer/director David Twohy (who also helmed the original) uses selective (and at times awkward) narration by Riddick and Judi Dench to fill in exposition. Which leads us to “Riddick’s” biggest flaw: it’s simply too ambitious, working from a dense script that wants a grand canvas (intergalactic civil war) while utilizing a hero (Riddick) who really could care less about the fate of mankind.
To wit: Riddick spends the first act spurning the plea for assistance from Iman (Keith David), the other survivor of “Pitch Black”, while Act Two is taken up with Riddick trying to rescue Jack, now grown up and renamed Kyra (Alexa Davalos), from an underground prison built into a planet that resembles Hell up close. It’s actually Act Two, with Riddick getting reacquainted with Kyra at the prison, which provides the film with its best moments.
Returning in the role that made him a cult favorite (“Pitch Black” did poorly at the box office, but Diesel struck a cord with genre fans), Vin Diesel growls his way through the movie. And strangely enough it works. Also working fabulously is Alexa Davalos, who plays Kyra as a world-weary 20-something with a chip on her shoulder and the skills to back it up. Her scenes with Riddick at the prison, and then later as they’re fleeing the sunlight, hints at the greatness “Riddick” could have been if only the filmmakers had gone for a story of smaller scale.
Less successful is the rest of the cast, including Dench who, one suspects, was only brought in to lend Twohy’s grand ambitions some gravitas. Even less relevant is Thandie Newton (“Mission Impossible 2”) as the scheming wife of Karl Urban’s Vaako, one of Marshal’s legion of commanders. As the lead villain, Colm Feore barely makes a dent for the simple reason that he has so little screentime, and what little he’s given has him shouting commands and doing little else. His final duel with Riddick is anti-climactic, as if Twohy ran out of money and was forced to end things with a simple slugfest.
But if “Riddick’s” narrative clumsily clatters its way through two hours with little to show for it, the movie works spectacularly as an example of 2004 visual artistry. The massive planet-wide invasion in the beginning is captivating, and Twohy’s rendering of the future, with its armor-clad soldiers, makes “Riddick” the most original sci-fi to come out in some years. Also, Twohy’s vision of the future seems more influenced by the world of “Dune” rather than George Lucas’ glossy “Star Wars”. Things in “Riddick” are clunky but advance, high-tech and yet medieval.
Unfortunately there is a lot about “Riddick” that just doesn’t work. The functionality (or lack thereof) of the prison planet comes immediately to mind. Also, the transition from the Necromonger conquered planet to the prison planet is laughable in its contrivance. Couldn’t they come up with something less silly? Or just a little bit believable? As well, one of the main characters suffers a fate similar to Newt in the “Alien” franchise. Needless to say, fans of “Pitch Black” will not be pleased.
That said, “The Chronicles of Riddick” is still an enjoyable, if ultimately brainless, Summer Event film. In that respect, it’s no better or worst than the big budget adventures of Achilles in “Troy”.
David Twohy (director) / David Twohy (screenplay)
CAST: Vin Diesel …. Riddick
Colm Feore …. Lord Marshal
Thandie Newton …. Dame Vaako
Judi Dench …. Aereon
Karl Urban …. Vaako
Alexa Davalos …. Kyra
Nick Chinlund …. Toombs
Keith David …. Imam