After the excitement and freshness of 2000’s Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick was something of a critical and commercial disappointment.
The film definitely has flaws, but Vin Diesel’s title character adds some much-needed spice to the mix. Let’s look back at an underwhelming sequel that ultimately led to a redemptive third outing for Riddick.
The biggest problem with The Chronicles of Riddick emerges within its first moments. Like so many films before it, the movie opens with expository narration, as Dame Judi Dench sets up the fairly convoluted plot to follow.
While Pitch Black opened with Vin Diesel’s voiceover, that was far less grandiose, and established the characters and their situation from within the action. It helped to ease us into a story which basically hits the ground running.
Here, it’s all far less interesting.
The story runs thusly: an army of Necromongers are on the warpath, invading worlds and either converting or killing any humans they find. There’s mention of an UnderVerse, a maniacal Lord Marshal, the obligatory struggle of good versus evil … it’s all very operatic and (sadly) cliched. Rather than plunging us into the plot and letting dialogue and action reveal the backstory (as it does anyway), we get this.
Now, if this were the start of any standard sci-fi or fantasy fare, it might not be such a weird choice. Countless films open in such a way: The Lord of the Rings, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Transformers, Armageddon, and Highlander all spring to mind; even the Star Wars movies and Blade Runner employ the same technique in a different format. However, it just doesn’t fit in here. It feels like we’ve jumped from a low-key, original little sci-fi horror movie to a piece of throwaway fantasy fare.
The Movie that Could Have Been
As with many other creative teams working on a tight budget, David Twohy, Diesel, and everyone behind the scenes of Pitch Black flourished: there was a lot of creative direction, quality production design, and a focus on character dynamics within a rag-tag group. Pitch Black isn’t the best film of its kind, certainly, but it established an original visual style and introduced us to a compelling far-future setting in which humans had left Earth behind to colonise other worlds.
Vin Diesel is no stranger to franchises. He’s perhaps best known as Dominic Toretto in the Fast and Furious series, though he also has an ongoing role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. On top of that, Mr Diesel is currently in cinemas once again with his second outing as Xander Cage in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Still, let’s not forget what could be his most important franchise yet – the one he helped to spawn with his breakthrough turn as Richard B. Riddick. [Click to read more…]
The brief glimpses we get of this universe in Pitch Black are beautifully done: mention of other worlds, Riddick’s prison-career, and more all helped to flesh the setting out in a subtle way, allowing us to imagine what lay beyond the planet our heroes were stranded on.
A Pitch Black sequel could have taken Riddick almost anywhere. He could have returned to prison for a taut, claustrophobic insight into a brutal futuristic hellhole. He could have gone on a quest for revenge across a couple of colonies, looking to settle an old score. Whatever the plot, the film could have introduced more strong characters just trying to survive, gone a little deeper into Riddick’s philosophies and past, and explored plenty of cool, run-down, gritty environments.
Instead, Twohy and Diesel took The Chronicles of Riddick into a weird area that feels a little bit Farscape, a little bit Star Wars, and pretty much any story revolving around the classic Chosen One’s journey. Part of the problem is the budget: rather than having to focus on character, tight storytelling, and atmosphere as with Pitch Black, the filmmakers were free to go as big as they wanted. This also meant a lower age-rating, too, diluting Riddick’s advanced flair for killing somewhat.
The result is a fairly bland, cliched film that feels entirely disjointed from Pitch Black. The Necromongers are as unappealing and weak as their name: dressed in bizarre uniforms and speaking in somewhat ‘high’ language, they seem to have wandered in from another franchise entirely. You can say the same about Judi Dench’s Aereon, a ghost-like Elemental. It’s like scripts for two completely different films were spliced together: one, a dynastic power-struggle amongst a sprawling army set on dominating the universe; the other, a down-and-dirty story of survival amongst criminals.
This latter aspect is far more effective than the former, and shows what The Chronicles of Riddick should have been. When we see Riddick speaking with the mighty Keith David (reprising his role as Imam), it’s a nice nod to the first film. However, the characters here aren’t having conversations about their pasts and philosophies like they did in Pitch Black – now they’re talking about armies and invasion and apocalyptic shenanigans. It just doesn’t gel.
These callbacks continue when Riddick’s captured by Toombs, a sleazy bounty hunter, and taken to a chaotic subterranean prison on Crematoria, a dangerous world of extreme weather-conditions. Jack, the young girl who idolized Riddick so much in Pitch Black, is an inmate – and she’s done some serious growing-up in the past five years.
Now a tough, athletic convict herself, Jack (or Kyra, as she’s now known) feels betrayed by Riddick, and there are some great moments between the two. We see Riddick as a paternal mentor, a man who was trusted but had to make a tough choice for Kyra’s own good.
It’s in these prison-set scenes, and the escape attempt that quickly follows, where The Chronicles of Riddick is at its best. The character’s in his element, surrounded by fellow cons yet always the strongest, smartest man in the room; we see him fighting, we see him surviving – it’s as close to Pitch Black’s best bits as we can get. It’s also no surprise that the Necromongers are nowhere to be seen here, and the film quickly takes a nosedive when Riddick confronts them in the finale.
It’s a real shame The Chronicles of Riddick ended up the way it did. The character and the universe established in Pitch Black could have led to a series of self-contained movies based around Riddick himself, following his attempts to survive on one tough world after another. Sadly, the character’s second outing was a huge misfire, and nine long years passed before we got to see him again (in a live-action adventure, at least).
Don’t get me wrong: The Chronicles of Riddick’s not a disaster. Riddick’s attempts to escape Crematoria whilst staying one step ahead of the lethal sunrise, is pretty exciting, and makes for an original action sequence. There’s some impressive production design too, though nothing particularly memorable.
Twohy’s visuals aren’t quite up to the raw dynamism of Pitch Black’s, either, with some dodgy editing that ages the film terribly. Fight scenes are also not as visceral or satisfying as they should be, with too much wire-work and not enough bite. Some moments look terrific, especially on the surface of Crematoria, but as with the script itself, it’s hard to find much of the same quality from Pitch Black here.
In terms of performances, Vin Diesel delivers more of what you expect as Riddick. He’s tough, uncompromising, and coolly charismatic; he gets to do more with the character here, and he genuinely makes sticking with the film worthwhile. The rest of the cast, especially Karl Urban, Thandie Newton, and Colm Feore are fine, but they’re hampered by the not-very-interesting Necromongers material. Alexa Davalos (star of The Man in the High Castle) stands out as Jack/Kyra, and holds her own alongside Diesel.
Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne from Batman Begins, and son of Coronation Street legend William Roache) also turns in a solid performance. With his short, bleached hair and intense stare, there’s an echo of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Baty (Blade Runner), especially when he has a moment of revelatory truth later in the film. It’s nowhere near as powerful or moving, of course, but it makes me wonder if there was an intention to echo one of sci-fi cinema’s greatest scenes here.
By the end of the film, Riddick has defeated the Lord Marshal Zhylaw and proven himself worthy of being the Necromongers’ leader. We see him sitting on a throne, with the entire army on their knees before him … it’s a fairly interesting ending, but far from satisfying. Had the film been half an hour shorter, it may have felt like less of a slog, but as it is, there’s just too many cliched tropes and not enough of the gritty sci-fi elements we saw in Pitch Black . Everything we learn about Riddick being the last Furyan and the prophesied murderer of the Lord Marshal Zhylaw all feels like stuff we’ve seen and heard in countless other places.
The Chronicles of Riddick was essentially a disappointment at the box office, but performed well on DVD, which helped to make a third movie possible (though that took time, perseverance, and some selfless financial-management from Vin Diesel to hit screens). While The Chronicles of Riddick has a loyal fan-base, it’s only really worth watching for the title character himself – had this been a film with any other hero in the lead, as it could have been, there would be even less to recommend it.
Still, Twohy and Diesel seemed to learn from this, which led to a much, much better sequel truer to both the character and Pitch Black . But we’ll get to that soon enough…
Featured Images: courtesy of Universal Pictures