Riddick has a middle initial. Honest to God, Vin Diesel’s amoral killing machine with glow-in-the-dark eyes and impeccable delts is named Richard B. Riddick. Does it stand for Broderick? Billy Bob? Beatrice? Boy, I’m a Terrible Character to Anchor a Movie Franchise? I couldn’t possibly give it away.
That B is not the only part of writer/director David Twohy’s world you just won’t understand after seeing a B-picture called The Chronicles of Riddick, the big-budget sequel to a tight little sci-fi thriller called Pitch Black, which was barely seen in theaters four years ago but developed a cult afterlife. It was an outstanding horror film, but that’s really all it was. Riddick saved a few of his fellow passengers from the scary aliens, flew a spaceship out of there—and nobody gave a second thought to his future.
Except Twohy, who has written The Fugitive and a handful of well-meaning but ponderously boring movies. Toting a $100 million budget increase from Pitch Black, he’s out to create a universe filled with colorless planets, scheming races of aliens and the sound of constant explosions in the background everywhere you go (seriously, they barely stop). Twohy has some incredibly grand vision of evil and redemption, and he’s telling it with his own pseudo-Lucas nomenclature and what must have been a phalanx of depressed set decorators and CGI artists.
It’s tempting to adore the fact that such a distinctive, ostensibly brainy auteur is getting the chance to realize his vision—until you actually see The Chronicles of Riddick, which manages to combine several of the laziest features of the art house and the big studio. In addition to being more baroque than a goth teenager with no allowance, it’s a terribly confusing movie, filled with fast-talking discussions the audience can’t follow because it doesn’t know the invented words being used. Most of the talky-talky parts are followed by stuff blowing up, or Riddick purÃ©eing somebody, or Judi Dench beaming in from nowhere to recite some chewy lines and beam back out. The film develops a clunky rhythm, mixing its forms of frustration like a bad high-school girlfriend.
Dame Judi is some sort of spirit who helps recruit Riddick to fight for a downtrodden planet against a religious army of sorts called the Necromongers, led by Colm Feore. Dressed in dark robes, they’re converting this universe to a gray, monotonous faith that worships death, punishing those who resist with death. There’s a this-is-what-happens-when-Mormons-don’t-get-their-sugar joke in here somewhere, but it’s a depressing setup that can go nowhere good. It’s more fun to talk about the undeniable anarchic fun of Riddick.
Played with gravelly voice and an appropriate disinterest by Diesel, Riddick is still innately evil, fighting only because he’s mad his race was wiped out by the Necromongers. He is still Twohy’s best idea, and there’s a scene of outstanding black comedy in which Riddick kills a guy with only a metal cup. But Twohy is unwilling to stick with Riddick; he’s too busy trying to be the long-lost Wachowski brother, and the evil-space-commando aspect of his main character only emerges as a byproduct when it should be the main focus.
I think Twohy just had way too much money. His visuals are uniformly drab (even Thandie Newton’s molten hotness is quenched) and seemingly unambitious, but he still invents all sorts of superfluous ways to spend his bankroll, from animated wolves to monolithic statues. As set piece after CGI set piece rolls out during the final two thirds of The Chronicles of Riddick, some are quite entertaining—but we’re simply worn down by the emotionless crush of an overweight action movie. Twohy wanted to build a world, but he forgot to build a way to get there.
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, **, Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, Colm Feore, Rated PG-13