David Twohy's "Pitch Black" was a marvelous little indie surprise; a horror sci-fi flick with a nifty premise, loads of attitude, and an electrifying performance by the (then) little-known actor, Vin Diesel. What made Pitch Black such a hoot was it's simplicity, and the way Twohy not only got around his budgetary restrictions- he embraced them. This character of Riddick- a mercurial criminal mastermind with surgically enhanced night vision and the build and temperment of a pitbull- became hugely popular after Diesel's turn in the ludicrously popular "The Fast and the Furious". The newly-minted superstar now had enough clout and box-office appeal to write his own ticket in Hollywood, and "The Chronicles of Riddick", a mega-budget quasi-sequel to Pitch Black, as well as the extreme spy thriller "XXX" seemed destined to solidify Diesel as an action movie demigogue. Yet, as Riddick inched closer to release, Diesel's star began to lose some of it's lustre, with films like "Knockaround Guys" and "A Man Apart" dying at the box-office, and "XXX" failing to live up to expectations. When Riddick finally arrived in theaters, critics dismissed it as a vanity project of disasterous proportions, with many calling it Diesel's "Battlefield Earth".
Which sadly, in a way, it is. However, if anyone should bear this albatross around his neck, it's writer/director David Twohy, who can't seem to decide whether he wants to make the next sci-fi action franchise or a fisticuffs version of "Gravity's Rainbow".
The Chronicles of Riddick opens with a confusing little voiceover (by Judi Dench) that tells us of an encroaching menace known as the Necromunga - a group of religeous zealots lead by Lord Marshal (Feore), and bent on killing all members of the human race in order to clear the slate for a re-birth of sorts in an alternate "verse"; the UNDERverse. You see, for the inhabitants of the underverse to survive, the human inhabitants of all other verses must perish. However, all of those who give thier lives willingly will experience "True Life" in the underverse. When Imam (Keith David reprising his role from Pitch Black) learms that the Necromunga are coming to his world, he places a bounty on the head of Riddick (Diesel) in hopes that he can be captured and brought to his world to help. Riddick finds Imam himself, but it's too late, as Lord Marshal and his troops overtake Imam's world, and discovers that Riddick is one of the last survivors of the only race that can stand in the way of Necromungan onslaught.
Are you confused yet? Good.
You see, The Chronicles of Riddick is, perhaps, one of the most cryptic sci-fi films I have ever watched. It's not that we don't understand what's happening- on the contrary, the plot is relatively simple stuff; it's just that the script is so rife with "Riddick-verse" gobbledy-gook and goofy lore that it's damned near impossible to figure out why it's happening. And when Twohy's script isn't bogged down with uber-serious talk of underverses and ancient warring factions, it's making feeble stabs at humour with terse tough-guy one-liners and the occasional nugget of the "I'm too old for this shit" variety that make everything else seem that much more dull and inspipid.
On the other hand, The Chronicles of Riddick looks so damned good! This is eye-candy to the extreme, with special effects that easily rival anything coming out of Camp Lucas, and a really neat, quasi-retro look that calls to mind a more polished "Flash Gordon" or "Dune". Actually, Riddick is very much like David Lynch's strange adaptation of Dune, save for the fact that Dune is based on a hugely popular series of novels, whereas Riddick's massively complex world seems to reside soley in the head of David Twohy. On the DVD's commentary track, Twohy guides us through things, explaining bits that shouldn't need explanation, and offering up all sorts of extra backstory and insight into the Riddick-verse. It's a fascinating place, and, one would assume, would make for a great series of novels. However, when crammed into a two-hour film, it's at once infuriatingly complex and maddeningly simple-minded. On one hand, Riddick wants to be the next action/sci-fi popcorn franchise, but, on the other hand, it throws us an L.Ron Hubbard haymaker, with a universe that's far too deep for matinee folk, yet far too corny for serious sci-fi afficionados.
In the end, the movie seems to be made for one audience; the one in David Twohy's head. And, in this "unrated" director's cut, nearly fifteen minutes of Twohy's original vision are reinstated, adding a touch of R-rated profanity, a few more spots of blood, and even more expository dialogue.
The DVD from Universal features a fantastic widescreen anamorphic transfer, as well as loads of goodies including behind-the-scenes documentaries, interactive "tours" of Riddick's world, deleted scenes, and a lot more. Owners of an X-Box can even toss the DVD in and play a couple of levels from the really cool "Escape from Butcher's Bay" video game (which is, sadly, much better than the film).
While not a total failure, The Chronicles of Riddick lacks the mild-mannered charm of it's predecessor, substituting half-baked mythology and dialogue for the leaner-meaner Pitch Black's razor sharp attitude. Still, it's worth a look if only to see some of the best visual effects work this side of the Skywalker ranch.