Gritty, space oriented Science Fiction almost seems dead. What’s the last great science-fiction epic you can remember? Stargate? Was that even an epic? Now Fantasy has taken center stage, leaving movies about spaceships and guys with laser pistols playing second fiddle to crotchety old wizards with big floppy hats. The Chronicles of Riddick is a great attempt to resurrect that landscape of starships and hand-held blasters, delivered all in a blockbuster action package.
Universal is taking a big risk here. After all, they’re betting a huge chunk of coveted summer cash on a sequel to a movie that while good, comparatively few people saw. Even then, what little Pitch Black fan base there is might not transition over. Part of what I loved so much about Pitch Black was how small scale it was. It wasn’t a huge, galaxy spanning movie but a confined tale that suggested a much larger world outside without showing it. It finds all the right ways to impress without going over the top with lavish effects, focusing on characters and transitioning into big action only at the right, tension filled moments. Riddick is quite the opposite: A big summer mega-movie with a massive budget and tons of action. Where Pitch Black is a lower budget, taut piece of Sci-Fi; everything about Chronicles of Riddick is bigger than big. It’s a sequel to Pitch Black, but only in the loosest sense as it picks up the tale of that film’s dark anti-hero five years down the road.
The only real connections to Pitch Black besides the title character of Riddick (Vin Diesel), are the other two survivors, the priest Imam (Keith David) and a girl named Jack (now renamed Kyra and played by the beautiful but strangely undamaged Alexa Davalos). It’s they that bring Riddick out of hiding when Imam sends mercenaries to hunt him down. Imam, along with a brilliantly realized waify Elemental (Judi Dench), is looking for help against an invading horde called the Necromongers and it seems to them that the only way to fight unholy evil is with another kind of evil… Riddick. And that’s part of the brilliance of Vin Diesel’s character. Riddick isn’t just an anti-hero, he’s scary. In Pitch Black he let himself get a little too involved and ended up caring about a couple of people, but in the end he’s only looking out for himself. He’s a selfish villain without conscience, survival his only real credo, and compassion for the helpless generally beyond him.
Riddick director/writer David Twohy stays true to his bleak and sarcastic character, never letting him slip too far into the “good guy” role. If he saves innocents, it’s only because they keep up with him. If he saves a world or so, it’s not because he really cares so much about the people down on them as he does saving his own skin and that of the one or two folks in the universe he gives a shit about besides himself. So when he learns of a prophecy predicting that he, the last of a race known as “Furians,” is the only force that can stop the religious zealot horde of Necromongers from demolishing humanity, Riddick is non-plussed. Instead he sets out to find young Jack whom he discovers has ended up incarcerated on the worst of prison planets; a place Riddick feels pretty comfortable.
It’s there that Chronicles of Riddick really shines, with Diesel mixing it up amongst low-lifes and scum bags. The movie soars when Riddick is living as lone wolf badass: Kicking ass, taking names, and hoofing it across bizarre and dangerous alien landscapes eager to end his life. However, the Necromongers (busily devouring worlds and perverting the human race) have heard he may be trouble, and so send Commander Vaako (Karl Urban) to hunt him down. Twohy is smart enough to give us reasons to care about the nasties Riddick fights. It gives his battles weight, unlike the light, knife him in the gut for fun, fight movies we’re often saddled with. Minor bad guys and major players alike are given a memorable face. Vaako is developed as a Macbeth like figure, pushed by his wife (Thandie Newton) towards ambition. Urban shines in the bizarre character, conflicted by the hypocritical Necromonger religion which demands absolute loyalty to his Lord Marshal while also demanding he listen to his wife’s pleas for murderous advancement. I’m still not convinced that Thandie Newton can act, but she looks stunning in Riddick’s alternatingly tight and incredibly revealing outfits and thus satisfies her character’s requirements. Urban capably handles the real heavy lifting for the pair, saying it all with his memorable Road Warrior styled hair.
The Lord Marshal (Colm Feore) himself is a disturbing figure, leading the Necromongers to the eventual conversion of every human and destruction of every habitable world via a twisted and disturbing religion based on something called the “Underverse”. From that “Underverse”, the Lord Marshal draws frightening powers, which among other things gives him the ability to dispossess the human soul. Sounds a little hokey, but mixed in with Chronicles of Riddick’s uniquely baroque, “Dune” (the book not the terrible David Lynch movie) inspired setting, it not only works, but creeps the hell out of you.
Twohy is not only great at keeping his characters on track, but also particularly stellar at building worlds and making them feel real. In Chronicles of Riddick he does it with three very different planets and every one of them is tactile and alive on screen. It’s almost passé to compare anything to Lucas’ bland Star Wars prequels these days, but I think I’ll risk it. After all, there hasn’t been much else in the space sci-fi genre in recent years to compare against. It’s not like anyone is paying attention to Star Trek. When Lucas star-hops to different worlds, he differentiates each only by whatever cgi background he flashes up on the screen. By contrast, Twohy lets us get down in the dirt and feel the dust blowing in our faces as Riddick traipses across the galaxy. His world’s have a kind of dirty authenticity to them that’s only accentuated by Riddick’s tendency to brutally interact with the ground. That palpability stands up even when the environments themselves lean towards the outlandish and surreal. Chronicles of Riddick does all the things Star Wars used to do, back when we were still able to believe in a dusty planet called Tatooine.
Pitch Black was Vin Diesel’s first breakout role and he’s obviously right at home slipping back into Riddick. Part of why Twohy’s worlds feel so authentic is because Vin Diesel seems to believe in them every bit as much as we do. He has invested himself in a stunning way in this universe. No doubt for much of it he’s standing in front of blue screens or set mockups, yet you get the sense that Vin sees himself running across a barren ice planet, not standing next to a Key Grip on Stage 9. Granted, he’s an actor and that’s sort of his job, but so often actors just don’t seem to “get” science-fiction and few seem as buried in their more outlandish science fiction roles as Diesel does in the Riddick movieverse. Playing Riddick is where he belongs. Twohy seems to know how to use him like no one else while Diesel seems to get what Twohy is going for in a way that maybe no one else could. It’s a perfect pairing, and one that’s likely only to get better if the two continue on with Riddick’s adventures.
Best of all, The Chronicles of Riddick is geared toward adults. It narrowly avoids being rated R only because Twohy and his crew are so adept at treading the PG-13 line. He stuffs his movie with brutal and eye popping violence, but dodges the higher rating by minimizing the amount of blood caused by what would in other movies be scenes red with gore. The result is that he’s freer to make Riddick’s hits harder, the fights more creative, the moves more ambitious and exciting, without raising the ire of Universal executives no doubt breathing down his neck for the more family friendly 13.
But this movie is by no means family friendly. It delivers on the promise of gritty, adult sci-fi that so many movie trailers often offer but fail to deliver when they end up packing their movies with convenient kiddie action figures. I love the things they’ve come up with to make Riddick do, Chronicles never settles for letting him languish in the conventional. Apparently it is possible to make interesting and exciting sci-fi fight sequences without resorting to ripping off The Matrix. My only minor quibble is that Twohy settles too often for the extreme close-up. More than once I found myself shouting internally for him to pull his camera back so I could see what the heck was going on. It’s a common tactic and not one that ruins his action scenes, but merely leaves room for some of them to have been better.
All of Chronicles effects and set pieces are simply first rate. The ships are a real treat and left me desperately wishing for more fleet battle action. There’s a ton of detail in even the simplest effects shot, with Twohy and his crew winding various themes through all their set designs and props. I love the way they keep finding new and interesting ways to work faces into all the Necromonger environments. Riddick is never happy just showing an establishing shot of parked Necromonger ships. There’s always something happening, whether it be the ships rotating and changing to reveal faces, or bizarre craft detaching and morphing as they race away on missions of doom. Wonderful detail is everywhere in the sets, in the costumes, and in the characters. Judi Dench’s Elemental Aereon is a wickedly cool little trick, fading in and out and floating about like the wind. Done wrong, she could have ended up looking like some sort of hologram, but Riddick’s effects team does a superior job of making her look wispy without turning her into some bizarre ghost.
This is the kind of big summer film you don’t have to feel guilty about loving. David Twohy distinguishes himself as a cagey filmmaker with style and panache, and an intelligence that translates over into big budget monstrosities as well as it did in his much smaller film. Despite being a sequel, Riddick is the one of the most unique, original, and exciting movie experiences of the year. A lot of people had grown tired of Vin Diesel, but this is the movie that’ll convince you to start liking him again. It’s a special flick that’s good enough to warrant more and in fact probably would have been even better had they been allowed to make it an hour or so longer. It’s a rare treat that manages to deliver brainpower, charisma, and fun all in one package. The Chronicles of Riddick proudly pronounces the sci-fi drought to be over, if only people get out and support it.