I recently saw 2000’s Pitch Black, in which we were first acquainted with prison escapee- and murderer- Richard B. Riddick, a tough customer played by Vin Diesel. The movie was visually striking, shot with rich shades of blue, copper and gold, and Riddick was a cool anti-hero, but not a memorable one. I thought this was a movie begging for a prequel, where we would learn more about what kind of world this guy came from.
But a sequel was much more likely, and we find Riddick five years later (from a storyline standpoint) in “The Chronicles of Riddick”. Our title character finds himself on another remote planet, where he’s being chased by bounty hunters. He dispatches them, takes their spacecraft and is headed to the planet Helion Prime, where he wants to confront the pious Imam (Keith David), one of two people who survived alongside him in the first film, about how it is anybody was able to trace him. But major trouble is looming in the form of the Necromongers, a cult-like, crusading mega-army intent on converting or killing all of human life, led by Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).
Riddick is thrown into the thick of things after he escapes from their “mind regression” room, only to be captured again by bounty hunters and taken to Crematoria, a planet with quick and deadly variations of temperature. Meanwhile, a Necromonger commander, Lord Vaako (Karl Urban) and his sultry wife (Thandie Newton) plot to overthrow Marshal, sensing his fear of Riddick is a weakness that cannot be accepted. We later learn the source of that fear through the words of the Oracle-like Aereon (Judi Dench), and the stage is set for a tale of obsession, blind faith and betrayal.
Science-fiction and action fans will love these Chronicles, which benefit from the same director and screenwriter as “Pitch Black”, David Twohy, with characters by Jim and Ken Wheat. Riddick is given much more to say and do, the story is solid (including the ending) and there are marvels of production design like the Necromongers’ combination statues-launching pad and Marshall’s three-faced helmet. I also liked the frightening beasts looking like a cross between hyenas and panthers in the Crematoria jail.
Vin Diesel’s performance reminded me of Kurt Russell in both “Escape from New York” and Soldier, and in a movie such as this one that’s a good thing. Riddick has a slow, deadpan delivery that hides unpredictability (after all, as Aereon puts it, he is a lone outlaw), and Diesel is the perfect choice to convey that. And Alexa Davalos does a fine job as tough chick Kyra, whose past with Riddick is given due attention.
There is a strong element of faith in the film. The Necromongers are searching for the mythical Underverse, their ‘promised land”, and Vaako’s motivation for his intentions is to “protect the faith”. But like Aguirre in The Wrath of God or Ahab in “Moby Dick”, you come to suspect the leader’s obsessive and delusional state is more real than any supposed spiritual El Dorado. Look for the scene where the Purifier, played with great subtlety by Linus Roache, finds his own way of redemption.
There’s no deep wisdom to be gained from “Chronicles” (don’t join a cult?), but you have to like a movie with the deliciously cheesy line “Convert now…or fall forever”. This is a film done with passion and attention to detail, for example the way past history with Imam and Kyra is integrated into the storyline, and gorgeous to look at. It is a fine continuation of the Riddick universe, with the bonus touch of an ending that leaves you hungry for more instead of raising questions.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay