2000’s Pitch Black was a tightly-focused horror movie set in a science fictional universe. Much like the Alien franchise before it, Pitch Black’s sequel sought to take the seed of the original idea—namely Vin Diesel being a murderous badass—and expand upon it. Only things went horribly, terribly, and hilariously awry. Suffering from the worst kind of sequel-itis, The Chronicles of Riddick broadens the scope of the original movie so hugely the only thing it has in common with its predecessor is Vin Diesel’s goggles.
And yet… there’s still something pretty over-the-top great about an SF/fantasy universe as conceived by unabashed nerd Vin Diesel and director David Twohy. Vin Diesel (you really have to type out his full name every time) is just so earnest when talking about Riddick and his journey, it’s hard not to fall in love with what the movie was trying for. Maybe after putting on goggles—possibly the beer kind—of your own.
The Chronicles of Riddick is no Buckaroo Banzai or Fifth Element. It’s too modern and studio-driven and not quite unique enough in its awfulness to be beloved of cult film fans. But there’s an enduring charm to it. Someone must find it compelling enough to syndicate on Spike TV every few months. So let’s examine the whole of Riddick and put it in a little context before instinctively turning up our noses at it.
3 Things About Vin Diesel You May or May Not Know:
- In a 2005 celebrity Star Wars sound-bite piece in SCIFI Channel magazine, Vin Diesel was asked if he’d be a Jedi or a Sith. He replied “I’d be Chaotic Neutral.” Now say that out loud in your best Vin Diesel voice. Are you smiling yet?
- By now everyone knows Vin Diesel loves D&D, but did you know his character in XXX had Diesel’s old D&D character’s name, Melkor, tattooed across his stomach? Melkor is a half-Drow witch hunter with double specialization. The name itself is from Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Melkor is also the title of a possibly forthcoming videogame that Diesel describes as “Zelda 64 on steroids.”
- Vin Diesel owns the video game studio dedicated to making video games starring Vin Diesel.
Bonus Vin Diesel fact that starts off like a Chuck Norris meme: Well firstly, that meme was originally about Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel wanted Dame Judi Dench to play galactic ambassador Aereon in this movie so bad he… had flowers delivered to her dressing room every night while she was doing a show in London’s West End. He wasn’t allowed backstage.
See? Earnest. Vin Diesel’s dogged determination to make the best possible Riddick movie for his fans is what got an Academy Award winning cast. It also got a third movie made, despite the fact that Chronicles bombed at the box office. Vin Diesel only agreed to once again lend his star power to the flailing Fast & Furious franchise if he could also make Riddick. Vin Diesel has a huuuuge fan base that studios take note of because they’re so loyal and vocal on social media. Vin Diesel himself posts on his infamous Facebook page, sharing the first on-set pictures from Riddick and hinting at Marvel news amid all of the inspirational fanart. He’s hyper-aware of what his fans want because he talks to them, even if it’s only a few sentences per day.
But maybe Vin Diesel is too close to his subject matter. Riddick as a character was perfectly fine the way he was in Pitch Black. Back when he was just Richard B. Riddick, who as a newborn was abandoned in the trashcan behind an interstellar liquor store and educated in the penal system. The sequel retconned the convict in the worst way possible by trying to turn an antihero into the last of a heretofore unmentioned race of badasses prophesized to destroy the Big Bad. It makes him pretty much like any other bland hero in a zillion tired fantasy movies.
The race Riddick belongs to is called Furyan. Oh, that’s why he’s so pleasant! It’s the classic terrible worldbuilding thing where a member of an alien race embodies all of the cultural stereotypes about his people, instead of being an individual. Like all Klingons love war, or all Luxans are bad at lovemaking. Lazy, lazy. The worst was rewriting Riddick’s most distinguishing feature, his shinejobbed eyes. No more are they the result of a black market surgery in a windowless prison and a tool of his escape artistry. They’re because he’s an Alpha-Furyan and he repressed his memories. And it goes on:
- The prison planet Crematoria is really fucking hot.
- Dench’s character is an Elemental. Oh boy. She’s named Aeron and she can “glide very well,” for she’s made mostly of air.
- The Necromongers want everyone dead.
If only they came up with a similarly obvious name for the dimension the Necromongers want to convert everyone to, because the Underverse and the rules surrounding it are completely incomprehensible. It’s some sort of dark star-havin’ paradise beyond death where “life is welcome.” Eh?
Are the Necromongers dead? Not really? But some, like the Lord Marshall, are more dead than others. Maybe? The point is, the Necromongers were never mentioned in the first movie or the stylish Peter Chung anime short that bridges Pitch Black and Chronicles. Or the video game prequels. Again with the shitty worldbuilding—how did the Necromongers rise out of the ether as a movement to overtake the entire galaxy? It’s never explained either.
And let’s look at Necromonger society. For a space armada that can wipe out a planet in a night, they sure have a lot of analog human slavery. Why use catatonic sexy lady prisoners in gossamer dresses as telephones when, you know, telephones already exist?
Why are there only three visible women in Necromonger’s ruling class? Why does marriage exist in a meritocracy (“You keep what you kill”) where the concept of love is seen as a supreme weakness and reproduction isn’t sexual? There is no point to Thandie Newton’s Dame Vaako because her only role in this movie is to whisper Lady Macbeth-isms while wearing hot dresses. We never learn her first name but we know she puts on eyeliner with a hot soldering gun because EVIL BITCH.
You could really, really hate her character if she didn’t deliver some of the most hilariously overwrought dialogue like, “Now! Kill the beast while he’s woooounded,” or, “Flawless.” And she inspires what may be the best worst line ever uttered in an action movie:
“It’s been a long time since I smelled beautiful,” says Riddick, sniffing Dame Vaako’s hair.
But almost all is forgiven with this storyline because Karl Urban has a beauteous space-mullet. Space. Mullet.
The Chronicles of Riddick is a hotter-than-Crematoria mess, yet it’s certainly an entertaining one for group viewings with lots of popcorn and drinks and ad-libbing. Helion Prime is rendered in vivid colors and the bombastic Graeme Revell score is one of his best. Some of the FX work more than others, as was true of the first movie, and there are genuine great moments. See: death by tea cup.
The only part of Chronicles of Riddick that felt true to the character was the subplot involving the resue of Jack, the little girl in Pitch Black all grown up and recast as hot actress (Alexa Davalos of Angel.) I’d point out how stupid it is that the big action sequence of the movie involves outrunning the heat, but I kinda shrugged it off because that same summer saw Jake Gyllenhaal outrunning the cold in The Day After Tomorrow. Meh. It was a fad.
Charismatic mercenary Toombs steals a good chunk of the show with his swagger and his band of merry men and women out for a big score. Riddick is most at home in a prison fighting other criminals and exchanging quips with other lowlifes just trying to scrape by. I think Twohy and Vin Diesel realize this, too, because the upcoming sequel has only a few minutes of Necromongers and substantially more bounty hunters. It also has an R-rating and a much smaller budget reigning it in.
There are some movies so offensive in their ability to insult the intelligence of an audience, so overt in their desire to do nothing more than cash in on a quick buck, they just become white noise. There’s Uwe Boll, fer Chrissakes. How many times have you sat through a crappy genre movie where venerable actors like Sam Neill, Harrison Ford, or Sir Ben Kingsley sleepwalk through their roles? Those are the movies that really deserve some ire, because they have no heart behind them. The Chronicles of Riddick is far from a good movie, but Vin Diesel’s love for his character, his protectiveness towards the franchise, rings authentic. So when I’m flipping though channels on a late night and come across The Chronicles of Riddick, I’ll continue to put the remote down and enjoy the sight of one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars proudly showing the world his true, geeky colors.
Riddick hits theaters everywhere September 6.