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Non-Review Review: The Chronicles of Riddick

There’s a good movie to be found somewhere inside The Chronicles of Riddick,I’m just not quite sure where. At the very least, you have to admire David Twohy’s ambition, staging a lofty large-scale science-fantasy with old-fashioned production design that we haven’t seen in years. Unfortunately, it’s a very tough type of subgenre to get right, and Twohy doesn’t necessarily come close. I can’t help but feel that Riddick himself is at the core of the problems with the would-be science-fiction epic, which gives any idea of just how deeply rooted those flaws must be.

Vin and gone...

I should confess that I am quite fond of Pitch Black, the movie that spawned this sequel. I really enjoyed the relatively hokey low-key B-movie vibe that the film gave off, as well as the way that it respected the limitations imposed upon it. Vin Diesel is most effective as a silent and stoic badass, and the budget never seemed to be stretched beyond the funds allocated. In contrast, the follow-up has no shortage of ambition, but it loses a lot of the appeal of the original film.

It seemed like Twohy wanted to expand the series from cheesy B-movie creature feature to full-blown space opera, which is quite an adjustment to make – not just for the film itself, but for the protagonist. I’ll confess that I’m not especially fond of Vin Diesel, but I think the actor works best when invited to underplay his roles. However, placing Riddick at the core of a film like this means that he must immediately become overstated and dynamic, as opposed to more considered and cautious.

They've been to hel(met) and back...

The script is woeful. There’s a knack to writing exposition and dialogue for a film set in such a vastly different kind of world, and it’s immediately clear that Twohy doesn’t have that innate skill. Diesel isn’t a great actor, but even Dame Judi Dench struggles with her portentous opening monologue. Diesel himself gets some especially cringe-worthy lines that aren’t helped by his style of delivery. “Lesson learned,” he observes at one point, delivering the line like a badass one-liner. “No such word as friend.”

In order to drive a plot like this, Riddick needs to be more proactive, he needs to engage more. Part of the character’s badass appeal in the first film was the way that the character was only interested in himself. After all, those sorts of cool characters are seldom defined by a proactive desire to make the world a better place, reaching it as an epiphany (if at all). Think of how, for example, Han Solo had to be goaded into joining the Rebellion in A New Hope after he was hired as a mercenary.

Diesel crawled away with his career intact...

With no more earnest characters to support him, Riddick has to serve as the audience stand-in, and the focus point of the plot. As a result, he has a lot more dialogue, and a lot more of it is mundane. The script compensates by giving him terrible one-liners and awful jokes, but it doesn’t work. He simply doesn’t fit as a lead character in a story like this, without fundamentally reworking his characterisation. The movie attempts an awkward half-way approach to this, trying to keep Riddick as a stoic bad-ass, but also giving him far too much exposure and still asking him to carry out plot functions best reserved for other characters.

There’s also an issue with how Twohy structures and reveals information about his fictional universe. It’s important for the director and writer to be completely aware of the finest details of their worlds, but there’s no need to burden the audience with an excess of information. When it comes to science-fiction world-building, it’s crucial to balance conveying the relevant information with driving the plot forward and keeping the audience engaged. The best science-fiction teases possibilities and suggests a fully-formed world to be expanded upon outside the plot, but Twohy instead feels the need to impart ever single detail of his science-fiction epic.

All fired up...

Opening with an awkward monologue from Judi Dench, it always feels like Twohy is trying too hard to convince us that he has thought in great depth about how a universe like this might function. He doesn’t seem to trust the movie itself to demonstrate that he has constructed a solid and consistant mythology, and so takes every opportunity to convince us that he has. It weighs down the plot and creates too much drag, with info-dumps and exposition preventing the audience from ever really getting into the flow of the narrative, or engaging with the characters.

It’s a shame, because there is a lot to admire in the movie, even if Twohy doesn’t excel in tying it all together to create a satisfying movie-going experience. There might be just a touch too much neon pink and purple, pushing the production design into the realm of high camp, but it generally looks great. It’s rare to see this sort of lavish design on a film, and a lot of his sets feel tangible in a way that CGI just can’t replicate. At its best, the film has the look of a fully-colourised thirties science-fiction serial, a spiritual descendent of the classic Flash Gordon strips.

From beyond the stars...

There are several impressive sequences, with some genuinely imaginative application of science-fiction logic with action movie aesthetics. For example, the entire Cremetoria sequence works quite well. Never mind the physics in question, the idea of a planet that melts as it rotates its face towards the sun is a nice idea, and Twohy uses it for a brilliantly silly action sequence as our heroes try to outrun the dawn. Don’t think too much about the science of it, it’s just good pulpy action – the sort of shot in the arm that the movie could have used far more frequently.

Similarly, the design of the “converts” are brilliantly unsettling, a blend of science-fiction and gothic styles, calling to mind some of the darker aspects of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos, the superb combination of the human with the distinctly un-human. In fact, the entire idea of the Underverse is quite a clever concept, and one that probably could have been used to greater effect. I think that if the horror element of the Necromongers had been played up a bit more, they’d make for more fascinating bad guys.

Will he Rid(dick) the universe of this latest threat?

The cast is also, with the exception of Diesel, relatively strong. Judi Dench isn’t necessarily well-used, but she provides the best exposition of the cast. Thandie Newton is great as a conspiring princess. Colm Feore is, as usual, much better than the role he winds up playing, as the man who returned from the Underverse with an entirely new philosophy on life (and death). None of the actors have the best material to work with, but they do all give it a go, and I respect that.

The Chronicles of Riddick is a mess. It’s a disappointment, but it isn’t completely without merit. Unfortunately, the highlights are speckled throughout the film so far from one another that they can’t elevate the tone. It’s a shame, because there are some nice ingredients here, even if the resulting dish isn’t especially tasty.

2 Responses

  1. I like “Chronicles” a lot more than you do. I end up watching it again ad again, every time it’s on TV. I enjoyed “Pitch Black”, but not as much as I like the sequel. It just pulls me in and, while I accept that it has he flaws you point out, I just don’t see them when I watch this. For me, it’s a science fiction classic.

    • I think I appreciate it, more than I enjoy it, which is an interesting position. It was obviously a labour of love and a lot of effort and time went into it. But, then again it would be a very boring world if we all agreed. I think Casino is Scorsese’s best film, and prefer Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction, so I can appreciate unconventional movie opinions!

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