A befuddled attempt to give Vin Diesel his own franchise series - now that he's ditched giving the XXX thing another whirl - The Chronicles of Riddick stomps onto screens with an attitude that's somehow both obtuse and far too simplistic. This sequel of sorts to writer/director David Twohy's Pitch Black takes one of that film's sole survivors, the titular shaven-headed and silver-eyed criminal (Vin Diesel), and drops him into the middle of a byzantine interstellar conflict that's about as easy to parse out as one of Frank Herbert's Dune novels.
At the start of the film, Riddick is being chased on a remote, frozen planet by some bounty hunters, whom he promptly dispatches and steals their ship to ride back to the planet of Helios Prime, where their employer was from. Once there, he finds out the bounty was put on him by one of Pitch Black's other survivors, Imam (Keith David, resplendent in flowing robes and a sharp goatee). Apparently, Imam and Aereon (Judi Dench), an ambassador from a ghost-like race called the Elementals, think that Riddick, being a member of the Furion race, will be able to help the galaxy fight off an onslaught of planet-destroying religious fanatics called Necromongers. The Necromongers are on a galactic jihad to bring about something called "the Underverse" and will convert or kill anybody in their path. But, before any of this can really be figured out, the Necromongers' gigantic armada crashes down on Helios Prime and things get really complicated. There's about ten minutes' worth of action that takes place later in a prison which, even now, after much contemplation, still makes absolutely no sense.
In Pitch Black, Twohy had a small budget, no stars, and a simple, crackerjack plot that ably twisted a Twilight Zone-like scenario through a futuristic horror film (as he later did in the underrated Below). With Riddick, he was apparently given as much money as he wanted and the result is like Lucas on steroids. The engaging if silly storyline remains opaque due to this schizophrenic film having balanced it all on one factor: Vin Diesel. Acting like a hybrid of Mad Max-Mel Gibson and Schwarzenegger from Conan the Barbarian (the last scene of which is blatantly referenced in Riddick's climax), Vin Diesel is all grunts, baleful stares and hard-boiled one-liners. This worked when he lurked in the shadows of Pitch Black, but standing front and center in almost every scene, it gets old and leaves the movie stranded between concepts, being neither completely a Neanderthal actioner nor grand space opera. Meanwhile, off in the wings are some otherwise fine actors, like Colm Feore and Thandie Newton - playing Necromongers who look like what you'd get if Star Trek's Borg had a medieval fetish and worked out all day - doing what they can with dialogue like, "Keep what you kill. It is the Necromonger way."
Let it not be said that Twohy didn't blow it all, though. In a time when a $200 million "spectacle" like Troy can look as cheap as a made-for-cable film, it's nice to see a film like Riddick in which every single shot is stuffed to the gills with baroque costumes, strange devices, monstrous animals, and spaceships that seem plucked from some nightmare. One sequence on a prison planet called Crematoria manages to twist the Pitch Black premise neatly around: Instead of the dark being deadly, this time the characters have to run to stay ahead of the boiling, lava-like sunlight. It's all a sign of how talented Twohy is, let's just hope that next time, he breaks free of the lumbering Vin Diesel and shows us how nimble a filmmaker he can be.
This movie was brought to you by the color blue.