The Chronicles of Riddick
Director : David Twohy
Screenplay : David Twohy
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Vin Diesel (Riddick), Colm Feore (Lord Marshal), Thandie Newton (Dame Vaako), Judi Dench (Aereon), Karl Urban (Vaako), Alexa Davalos (Kyra), Linus Roache (Purifier), Yorick van Wageningen (The Guv), Nick Chinlund (Toombs), Keith David (Imam), Mark Gibbon (Irgun), Roger R. Cross (Toal)
Four years ago, when Vin Diesel starred as Riddick, a convicted murderer with the uncanny ability to see in the dark, in David Twohy’s cleverly derivative sci-fi horrorshow Pitch Black, he was pretty much unknown. He had had a bit part of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and a bigger part in the much less seen Boiler Room (2000), but otherwise he was a new face.
Not long after, he landed an iconic role in The Fast and the Furious (2001), and suddenly he was being branded the new action star of the new millennium. He pulled down a big, fat payday for the silly, but fun action thriller XXX (2002), but it didn’t quite meet box office expectations. He turned down a role in the Fast and the Furious sequel because they wouldn’t pay him enough, but that didn’t turn out to matter much because the movie did just fine without him. Suddenly, Diesel wasn’t looking so hot anymore, and for a while he slipped off the radar.
Now he’s back in The Chronicles of Riddick, returning to the role that first got him noticed. It is a sequel to Pitch Black only insofar as it includes some of the same characters; otherwise, it’s an entirely different beast. Returning writer/director David Twohy is up to something different than your standard Hollywood sequel; rather than trying to cash in by regurgitating a familiar premise, he’s out to create a whole new mythology.
The Chronicles of Riddick is science fiction, but you get the feeling that what Twohy really wants to be making is a medieval fantasy film. In fact, the whole film can be viewed as a metaphor for the Crusades, in which Christian warriors charged across all of medieval Europe either converting or slaughtering the heathens. That is exactly what is being done by the Necromongers—their name literally suggesting that that they deal in death. Charging across the universe in massive spaceships, they attack every planet in their wake, laying waste to all civilization unless they convert to the Necromonger religion, thus swelling their armored ranks with even more warriors.
The leader of the Necromongers is the mysterious Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), who has apparently seen the promised land, which is referred to as “the Underverse,” and has returned with supernatural powers. Twohy either pays homage to or cribs shamelessly from Shakespeare with his Macbeth subplot involving Lord Marshal’s right-hand man, Vaako (Karl Urban), who is constantly being goaded by his Lady Macbeth of a wife (Thandie Newton) to take over.
Even with this inner intrigue, the Necromongers seem unstoppable … that is, of course, until they cross paths with Riddick. In reimagining the character, Twohy exploits every ounce of Diesel’s baritone vocals, bulging muscles, and “I’m smarter than I look” glare to essentially turn him into a new Conan. Riddick is not characterized so much as a criminal as he is simply a barbarian, a man for whom violence is his primary language not because he’s “evil” or has “gone bad,” but simply because that’s the way he is. He’s his own force of nature.
This is underscored by the revelation that Riddick is a Furion, apparently the last of his kind. The Furions were a people (a race … a species … it isn’t quite clear) who successfully resisted the colonizing power of the Necromongers some time in the past. Thus, Riddick is recruited by Aereon (Judi Dench), an ambassador of the otherworldly Elementals, who are only fleetingly material, to fight the Necromongers. But, like Conan, Riddick is a loner who isn’t much interested in helping others, although he eventually finds himself pulled into the good fight, even if it’s on his terms.
The Chronicles of Riddick, as the title suggests, has vast ambitions and a sprawling narrative that ends on a cliffhanger. Twohy wants Riddick to become a great mythological figure of conflicting goodness and badness, but the character just doesn’t have enough weight to sustain all that baggage. We like Riddick because he’s confident and he knows what he wants. He’s absolutely sure of his own physical and mental supremacy, and watching him take out adversaries is pleasurable only insofar as it fills our expectations, which are always heightened by the fact that Riddick tells his foe that he’s going down ahead of time. The conflicting layer of “evil” that is supposed to complicate his action-hero status is muddy at best. Twohy doesn’t seem to have quite enough gumption to make him really bad. Rather, Riddick is just another loner who eventually acquiesces to his role in saving the world, no different from any reluctant Western hero, Han Solo, or even Humphrey’s Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca (1942).
Although his ambition for great meaning doesn’t quite gel, Twohy does put together some good action setpieces, including a race across a desert landscape while the sun, which scorches everything in its path, slowly rises. Production designer Holger Gross (Windtalkers) gives the film a gritty, medieval look, which is enhanced by the costume designs by Michael Dennison and Ellen Mirojnick, which look like they were imported from a King Arthur movie. The Necromongers march forth in massive suits of armor, and Lord Marshal wears a helmet that has faces on all sides that are oddly reminiscent of the creepy child-faced helmet worn by Mordred in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). The film also evinces an almost perverse obsession with bladed weapons of all kinds, suggesting that violence, even in the deep distant future, is still something to be engaged in close proximity.
The Chronicles of Riddick isn’t likely to make Vin Diesel into the massive action star he was so close to being a few years ago. It’s too convoluted and long, which makes his character’s one-dimensionality that much more apparent. The manner in which Twohy ends the film, though, suggests that there are even bigger and bolder things to come in the inevitable third installment, although Riddick will likely still be tossing off gruff one-liners while dispatching anyone who gets in his way. Some things will never change.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Universal Pictures