By Rob Blackwelder
Writer-director David Twohy creates an uncommonly vivid and comprehensive science-fiction universe in "The Chronicles of Riddick," complete with genuinely otherworldly planets and detailed cultural mythologies. But he spends so much time and energy on such minutiae that the film fails to live up to the promise of it all. His manifold details serve a standard action-star-against-an-army plot with substandard catch-phrase dialogue.
The title character and reluctant hero -- a ruthlessly efficient, prison-buffed mass-murderer with night-vision eyes played by thunder-voiced, chrome-domed Vin Diesel -- was first seen in Twohy's "Pitch Black," a seat-gripping, even more vivid and otherworldly alien-swarm horror flick from 2000 that helped launch the actor's tough-guy career.
Riddick saved a few crash-landed space-transport passengers from being eaten alive by spectacular CGI monsters in that movie, but when "Chronicles" picks up five years later, bounty hunters are still hot on the trail of the coldblooded escapee. The biggest reward isn't being offered for his capture, however. One of the "Pitch Black's" survivors (Keith David) is seeking Riddick's vicious muscle to help save his homeworld from an unstoppable evil.
The nasty Necromongers are not an alien race, but powerful intergalactic Crusaders for a religion of the undead, going from star system to star system either converting or killing the populations of every planet they crush under their titanic, Baroque-inspired battleships. The only people they've ever feared were the Furyans, a now-exterminated warrior race of which Riddick may be the only survivor -- and that's bad news for the Necro army, lead by the brutal, half-phantom Lord Marshal (Colm Feore, "Chicago").
From the complexity of the Necromongers' dogma, I'd be willing to bet Twohy has their whole history and belief system mapped out on a computer somewhere, and the same goes for the backstories of the Furyans, of Helion Prime (the planet invaded in the movie) and of the Elementals (enlightened, ethereal diplomats personified by Judi Dench in wispy white robes).
But little good it does the movie. While the director focuses on inventing folklore or conjuring up a ferocious, scaly-dino guard dogs for a cavernous mine-shaft penal complex on a world with 700-degree daytime surface temperatures, his actors are stuck awaiting action sequences in a paint-by-numbers plot and chewing on lines like these:
"I didn't come here to play who's the better killer," growls Riddick to Kyra (Alexa Davalos) the sexy, deadly tomboy our anti-hero did come to rescue from the notorious prison planet (where apparently a girl can still get top-shelf skin conditioners and shampoo).
"To bad," she replies. "That's my favorite game."
When the action does come, it comes with such fast and furious editing that the F/X-tacular space battles and extensively choreographed fight scenes are nearly impossible to follow -- even when Riddick is taking on only one armor-clad Necromonger instead of the more common half-dozen or so.
And when the movie slows down enough to contemplate what's going on, it's in even more trouble, since Diesel's performance consists mostly of glowering and repeatedly tearing off, for dramatic effect, the goggles that protect his silvery, light-sensitive peepers. Whether its dark enough for him to see or bright enough that he'd be blinded seems irrelevant to Twohy, who gave the actor much more character to work with in a much smaller role in "Pitch Black."
But just as in "Pitch Black" (which was good in spite of its problems), for all his attention to awesome production design and civilization building, the writer-director doesn't even attempt to bridge his story's gaping implausibilities.
Here's what I've learned from blockbuster movies so far this summer:
1) If the temperature suddenly drops to 150 degrees below zero outside (as in "The Day After Tomorrow"), you'll be just fine as long as you're behind a closed door.
2) If the temperature suddenly rises to 700 degrees outside (as in "The Chronicles of Riddick"), all you need to survive is a little shade and a little water.
3) If you're not near a door or a shady place, just run until you find them. Instant-freeze storm fronts and body-crisping, ground-melting alien sunrises apparently don't move very fast.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th June 2004
Box Office USA: $57.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $115.8M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Radar Pictures Inc., One Race Productions, Primal Foe Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 115
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel as Richard B. Riddick, Christina Cox as Eve Logan, Colm Feore as Lord Marshal, Karl Urban as Vaako, Judi Dench as Aereon, Alexa Davalos as Kyra, Nick Chinlund as Toombs, Keith David as Abu "Imam" al-Walid, Thandie Newton as Dame Vaako, Linus Roache as Purifier, Yorick van Wageningen as The Guv, Mark Gibbon as Irgun, Roger R. Cross as Toal, Terry Chen as Merc Pilot, Nigel Vonas as Merc
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