It may come as a surprise for some people that The Chronicles of Riddick is actually a sequel. The original film, Pitch Black, was about a transport ship that crash lands on a planet where carnivorous creatures emerge at night to snack on the humans. One of the passengers happens to be a serial killer being brought to prison; his innate sense of hostility was used to defeat enough of the creatures to stay alive. I liked Pitch Black but it kind of came in under the radar. The low-budgeted film was only a moderate hit, earning about $39 million at the box office. It found a cult on video, however, which is why Universal has commissioned a big-budget sequel with a reported cost of $100 million.
Last week I saw star Vin Diesel on a talk show. He commented that the film tries to build a “mythology” around Riddick, and that’s plain to see. The story involves a group of beings known as Necromongers. They’re like a cross between religious zealots and vampires, as they take over other planets and coerce unwilling citizens to join them in whatever undead thing they have going on (the movie never makes it quite clear). The Necromongers arrive on planet Helion and begin taking over. Judi Dench plays Aereon, a so-called “Elemental” who helps organize a plan to bring in Riddick to fight the Necromongers. (Never in a million years did I expect to see Vin Diesel and Dame Judi Dench in the same film.)
Riddick agrees to help, but there’s a bounty on his head. Subsequently, he is captured by a mercenary (Nick Chinlund) and taken to planet Crematorium – an interplanetary jail, so to speak. One character describes the planet thusly: “If I owned this place and Hell, I’d rent out this place and live in Hell.” Riddick is eventually sprung from Crematorium and returns to Helion. There, he faces the evil Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), as well as a scheming Necromonger commander (Karl Urban) and his equally scheming wife Dame Vakko (Thandie Newton). This being an action movie, all hell naturally breaks loose.
The Chronicles of Riddick is an impressive film to look at. The visuals are quite good, even if the villains all inexplicably look like Eurotrash pop stars. I liked the style of the movie, which borrows elements from other sci-fi films yet somehow has a feel all its own. The color purple is used a lot here, and I think that’s interesting. Purple is very colorful but also very dark. Color is not something I would necessarily notice in a movie, but it’s used so well here that it captured my attention. So did some of the special effects and action sequences. One of my favorites involves these weird creatures that resemble a cross between a big dog and a lion. The fierce animals turn bright red when they are ready to feed on the nearest human. It’s a creepy scene.
The rest of the movie was an exercise in frustration. Diesel is right – they are trying to establish a mythology here. The problem is that they spend so much time trying to get the mythology set up that it becomes nearly impossible to follow. A lot of details are thrown at us – names of different races, planets, events – but there’s no big picture to put them into. A lot of the time I sat there scratching my head wondering what exactly was occurring and why.
Have you ever tried to watch a TV series, like “The Sopranos” or “Twin Peaks,” without starting at the beginning? It can be disorienting. You have to play catch-up, trying to figure out who everyone is, what’s already happened, and what the connections are between everything. That’s what watching The Chronicles of Riddick is like. Even for someone such as myself who saw the original, it can be a confusing experience. Writer/director David Twohy has a lot going on here, but not much is happening, if you know what I mean. I wish he’d scrapped all the mythology stuff and just told a story, as he did the first time. Pitch Black was tight and lean, with a central character who oozed menace. Riddick, in comparison, meanders aimlessly. There’s no driving force in the story and so we are left with a muddled mess that leaves us hopelessly lost.
Vin Diesel has shown an ability to project charisma onscreen; this time he’s in over his head. Riddick doesn’t seem nearly as interesting or scary this time. His menace has been stripped and he’s been given lines of dialogue clearly designed to be catchphrases. Somehow I don’t expect to be hearing a lot of people say “I’ll kill you with my teacup” this summer. Again, it goes back to the lack of a clear story. When so much time is spent obsessing over minutia, it’s hard for the character to establish any kind of presence within the film. In the original, Riddick was the central force that drove the plot. This time he’s just one of many disparate elements thrown at us simultaneously until we can barely discern one from another.
The Chronicles of Riddick sets itself up for another sequel. The implications of the last shot are intriguing, although I suspect we have heard the last of Riddick. This movie takes something that was original and pure and turns it into an overblown mess. There are a lot of parts in this picture; unfortunately, they don’t nearly add up to a whole.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Chronicles of Riddick is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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