Several years after his “Gilligan’s Island with nocturnal aliens” experience, intergalactic fugitive Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is holed up on a stark and secluded planet (guess he grew fond of such places during Pitch Black), living the quiet life, chillin’. That is, until a group of mercenaries led by the exceedingly gruff Toombs (Nick Chinlund, who should be in every movie) come knocking at his cave entrance. His sanctuary discovered, Riddick escapes the desolate world to go confront the guy who narced him out, the priest Imam (fellow Pitch Black survivor Keith David). There, Riddick also meets Aereon (the always-regal Judi Dench, a little disconcerted that she’s actually in a Vin Diesel movie), a wispy “Elemental” who gives Bond his mission objectives. During the briefing Riddick learns that, as the last of the Furyans, he’s part of a prophecy to stop a horde of space invaders who threaten the universe (the whole thing).
Colm Feore is the dreaded Lord Marshal, an intergalactic tyrant who sucks souls (as did his last film, Paycheck). He leads a massive force of religious zealots called Necromongers who worship the “Underverse” and casually conquer planets, a real “join us or die” bunch of armor-clad clowns. At his side is Commander Vaako (Rohan rider Karl Urban, who I didn’t recognize until halfway through the movie), a soldier faced with the dichotomy of remaining loyal or killing his superior to ascend in rank, and Vaako’s conniving wife (gorgeous clothes rack Thandie Newton, who goes through more wardrobe changes than a Christina Aguilera tour, but is nowhere near as substantial).
These Necromongers also become aware of Riddick’s supposed destiny, though they seem far more concerned with it than he is. Instead he tracks down an old companion in a new form, the warrior babe Kyra (delicious Alexa Davalos, the superconducting burglar from Angel). The adult version of boyish Jack from Pitch Black, Kyra has followed in her idol’s footsteps and become a hardened, hardbodied rogue… and convicted felon. After Riddick busts her out of the joint, the proverbial reluctant hero uses his strangely intermittent superhuman abilities to cause all sorts of commotion among the Necromongers, much as prognosticated.
Before this, I was a little concerned about Vin Diesel for a while there. The guy can definitely act (seek out his short film Multi-Facial for evidence), but the man who personified the memorable antihero from Pitch Black was nowhere to be found in strictly payday projects like The Fast and the Furious and XXX, in which he was merely a prop, a rippling sweat-slicked torso with attitude. But it’s obvious he has a vested interest in the character of Riddick, a role he absolutely embodies – this is his character. While his nonchalantly self-serving demeanor feels a little muted (he’s not quite the “another kind of evil” that Aereon perceives), Riddick is still an icy killer who’s predominantly driven by egocentricity. Played again with aloof charisma and sarcastic growls, there’s never a doubt Diesel’s Riddick is a convincing part of that particular universe he inhabits, and in his mind, he’s at the center of it.
Odd that a videogame (subtitled “Escape from Butcher Bay”) was in simultaneous development with the movie, as director David Twohy’s Chronicles often feels like one, with many of the bombastic conversations serving as expositional “cut-scenes” before the action levels load. Fortunately the graphics and gameplay are fantastic, with resplendent costumes, outstanding bizarro-baroque production design and face-filled architecture (from the guy who worked on Stargate, unsurprisingly), wildly varying interactive environments, cool cascading spaceships, brutal bone-crunching combat (pushing the PG-13) and a harrowing, sphincter-puckering race against flash-frying.
The inevitable comparisons to Pitch Black are relatively pointless, as they’re two completely different movies — the first is an insular survival story that barely introduces concepts and characters that carry over to Chronicles. Alas, the extensive scope of the sequel is also its greatest weakness, and it never truly feels like it reaches its epic ambitions (apparently as much as an hour of footage is on the cutting room floor). Twohy’s megabudget planet-hopping action-filled sci-fi monstrosity smacks Dune around and tosses the flakes that shake loose at the screen, but only some of them really stick. All that grandiloquent spouting of the “Underverse” and whatnot starts to seem a little silly and remote (genre films that take themselves too seriously become Underworld or the Matrix sequels, and nobody needs that), though I still found Chronicles far more appealing than the Star Wars prequels.
The movie does have loads of energy and plenty of detailed FX and visual ka-zow (which it should, considering I’ve heard the “unofficial” budget is north of $200 million), and Riddick’s interactions with Toombs and Kyra just pop – which is good, since these three are the most engaging characters the film offers. The hokey naming conventions (e.g., a really hot planet called Crematoria), broad nonsensical mythology, pretentious speechifying and cartoon grit insinuate an overall cheesy pulp tone, and by the time the credits rolled (after a conclusion I’m still ambivalent about), I’d decided that Chronicles of Riddick is essentially a really, really expensive variation of the 1980 Flash Gordon flick (Riddick! Aaa-aahhhh! He’ll save every one of us!). Which is okay with me.
7.5 out of 10