Universal // 2004 // 135 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // November 16th, 2004
All the power in the universe can't change destiny.
Richard B. Riddick, the creepy-eyed anti-hero of Pitch Black, returns, only to find himself the reluctant pawn in a battle which will determine the fate of the human race. So, does this epic sci-fi sequel stand or fall?
A quick word before we begin. It's almost impossible to discuss this film without a rather detailed explanation of its plot. I've tried not to ruin too many surprises, but if you're worried about possible spoilers, you want to skip this section.
The Necromongers, a religious cult comprised of death-worshipping fascists, are storming the galaxy, conquering every planet in their path. Led by their Grand Marshal (Colm Feore, Face/Off), the Necromongers are on a crusade to the Underverse, an alternate plane of existence they believe to be their promised land. The Elementals, neutral beings who monitor the natural order of the universe, have until now played no part in the struggle against these invaders, but it is becoming apparent the Necromongers mean to conquer them as well. Aereon (Judy Dench, The Shipping News), an air Elemental, travels to the nearby planet Helion Prime in an effort to muster help for her people; Aereon knows of a prophecy foretelling of the Grand Marshal's death at the hands of a Furyan, a race of warriors who have gone into hiding in an effort to escape the Necromongers' onslaught. Imam (Keith David, Armageddon), a citizen of Helion Prime, tells Aereon he knows where a Furyan might be found, as he encountered one a few years earlier. A reward is offered for the capture of this Furyan, the man the galaxy knows as Riddick (Vin Diesel, xXx); the bounty hunter Toombs (Nick Chinlund, Below) hunts down Riddick, but is unable to capture him. Riddick, upon learning of the price on his head, steals a spaceship and travels to Helion Prime, where he confronts Imam. Imam explains why he so desperately needs Riddick's help; Riddick wants nothing more than to be left alone, but he is drawn into the conflict when the Necromonger armada attacks. The invading force captures Riddick, and he is soon revealed to be the one male Furyan the Marshal had failed to kill years earlier in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. The Marshal orders Riddick killed, but he manages to escape, only to be picked up by Toombs; the bounty hunter takes his quarry to the penal colony on Crematoria, a planet whose surface resembles a volcanic wasteland. Riddick is reunited with Kyra (Alexa Davalos, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself), the young woman who masqueraded as a boy in Pitch Black. They escape from the prison, only to encounter a Necromonger search party led by Vaako (Karl Urban, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), a member of the Lord Marshal's inner circle; Vaako and his wife, the Dame Vaako (Thandie Newton, Mission: Impossible II), are secretly plotting to overthrow the Lord Marshal so he can assume power. Vaako returns to Helion Prime with Kyra as his captive, leaving Riddick behind with the Purifier (Linus Roache, Hart's War), the Lord Marshal's right hand man. The Purifier, who is also a Furyan, is conflicted over his role in the Necromongers' conquest, and allows Riddick to return to Helion Prime. Riddick steals aboard the Lord Marshal's command ship and finally confronts the man he is destined to kill.
Okay, as you might be able gather from that synopsis, The Chronicles of Riddick is plot-heavy. In fact, this is the film's central flaw. There's so much going on it becomes unwieldy, and writer-director David Twohy has bitten off more than he can chew; his ambitions here outweigh his skills. Several different scripts were written during the project's development, and the finished product feels like two wildly different stories blended together; it's as if Twohy took two scripts, tore out half the pages from each, threw those pages away, and then combined what he had left.
The film's disjointed nature is evidenced by the manner in which Twohy's script moves rather clumsily from point to point. For example, Riddick is dropped into the middle of an intergalactic struggle, only to be quickly shuttled away to his reunion with Kyra, allowing Twohy to develop the machinations between Vaako and his wife (a plotline with no real payoff or rationale). What we end up with is a string of scenes in which Riddick is captured, plot points are divulged (with too much exposition), and then Riddick escapes, only to be captured again; this wouldn't have been necessary in a tighter, more focused film. Up until this point, Twohy's directorial efforts have been relatively small in scale. Take a look at The Arrival, Below, or, for that matter, Pitch Black itself; those films have employed very few locations, small casts, and modest budgets. He's attempted to expand his craft with Riddick, but it's too much too soon; he hasn't honed his skills enough to handle something on so broad a canvas. (I know, I know, Peter Jackson had never handled anything massive before he tackled The Lord of the Rings, but every film in Jackson's career up until that point had been a stepping stone, allowing him to make a natural progression.) I'm not bemoaning Twohy's ambitions (ambition being something we see to little of in modern mega-budget filmmaking), but I don't think it was a wise choice at this point in his career (think of David Lynch and Dune). I think it would have made more sense to take the two story threads -- Riddick's return to civilization/reunion with Kyra, and the threat of the Neromongers -- and tell them as separate tales.
The fact that Riddick himself doesn't quite fit into the Necromonger story is another flaw; much of the success of Pitch Black (as modest a success as it might have been, both as entertainment and commerce) can be attributed to seeing a character like Riddick dropped into a standard sci-fi monster movie. He's still a bit of a square peg in a round hole here, which I'm sure is at least somewhat intentional, but it proves to be somewhat detrimental this time around. (Part of me wonders if maybe Twohy had an idea for a totally unrelated story involving the Necromongers and Elementals but then decided to shoehorn Riddick into the plot.) A story of this scale really needs a more mythic character at its center, and while the film attempts to portray Riddick as mythic right off the bat, the character hasn't attained that status. There's very little attempt here to build on the mystique of the Riddick character established in the first film, or further expand the boundaries of his persona. (There are attempts to explore Riddick's latent powers as a Furyan; these scenes involve visions of an attractive woman speaking portentously about his past, but these are easily the film's weakest moments.) The climax of this film is intended to be monumental and tragic, but at this point the Riddick character (not to the mention the story) hasn't been developed enough to achieve Twohy's aims. We also don't know enough about Kyra or time she's spent with Riddick to care about her fate or the impact she has on him. (If nothing else though, the film's climax allows Diesel a chance to finally play Conan, or at the very least Conan's son, as it doesn't appear that long-rumored project will ever hit the screen.)
If anything, the Necromonger chapter should really have been the end of Riddick's saga; this type of story requires more build-up than it receives. We never really get a sense of who the Necromongers or Elementals are. The sides in the conflict have been drawn by the time the film opens; there's no real attempt to explore the origins of the conflict. There are some potentially compelling ideas on the fringes of the story, but they're given short shrift, which is a shame considering Twohy's real interest in the film seems to exist in these fringe elements. Why he wouldn't save these ideas until he could fully develop them is a mystery, unless of course he thought he'd never again be given the chance to explore them. (This film in a way reminds me of Alien 3; watching that film it became obvious David Fincher was really interested in the quirky aspects of the plot, not the monster on the loose. With Riddick, though, I think the director himself, not studio interference, must shoulder most of the burden for the ultimate failure of the film.)
Okay, enough about the story. Let's get to the film's other problem -- the acting. The acting on the whole isn't bad, but there are some rough patches. Diesel can be a good actor (he's good in Pitch Black and Saving Private Ryan), and there are times here when he's effective, but there are also times he wants to remind us he's a star (or sort of a star). At times he undermines the action by trying to be too cool (guess being a producer on the film went to his shiny head). There's a moment in Pitch Black when he uses one flick of a finger to let Jack know she needs to duck out of the way of an oncoming obstruction; that's him making the character look cool, not making himself look cool. Here he does a little too much of the latter. Thandie Newton's nice to look at (and I really enjoyed seeing her in the dress she wears in the final scenes), but she hams it up quite a bit here; it's starting to look as if she'll never again come close to achieving what she pulled off in Flirting. I guess it goes without saying, but Judi Dench outshines just about everyone, even if she is given far too little screen time; same goes for Keith David (reprising his Pitch Black role), who exits the film entirely too early.
There are a few good aspects to the film, though, and here they are...
Visually, The Chronicles of Riddick is something to behold. The entire film was shot on soundstages, and the sets are incredible. Production designer Holger Gross (Stargate) has performed a staggering job, from the interiors of starships to the surfaces of the various planets. The visual effects, aside from a small number of iffy shots, are pretty sweet, too. The Necromongers disguise their armada as a comet, and there are some great shots of the fleet dispersing as it orbits Helion Prime; they also have a habit of impaling each planet they conquer with a towering statue, and the sight of this massive construct impacting on Helion Prime's surface is quite impressive. Universal forked out a hefty chunk of change for this film, and every penny is up on the screen.
The studio has also performed a superb job on the audio/video side of this release, on-par with their efforts on Pitch Black. The transfer is absolutely flawless. The film's color palette runs the gamut, and the work of cinematographer Hugh Johnson (G.I. Jane) is beautifully represented. There's perfect color saturation, incredibly deep blacks, and not a hint edge enhancement or artifacting to be found. The sound is equally impressive, with a wide soundstage, excellent fidelity, kick-in-the-guts bass, and abundant use of the surrounds. The Dolby 5.1 track is extremely active in the first act, quiets down by design in the film's midsection, and then thunders back for the climax.
A rather extensive extras package is also included. First off is a commentary by David Twohy, Karl Urban, and Alexa Davalos. There are quite a few dry spots during the track, but the participants do provide some interesting information, including some welcome back-story, giving a sense of what Twohy hoped to accomplish. The director also indicates how this version differs from the theatrical cut; this release contains fifteen minutes of new footage, with the inclusion of the mystical Furyan female being the biggest addition. Also included in a screen-specific text commentary; it includes a wealth of information regarding the races and locales seen in the film, which helps bolster the argument for giving each story its own film. (I ran the audio and text commentaries simultaneously, and was bombarded with useful information.) There's also an interactive guide to the film's sets, an interactive log of the bounty hunter's pursuit of Riddick (which helps establish the film's opening scenes), a very brief featurette on the creation of the sets and visual effects, a game demo, and a handful of deleted scenes.
It's a nice package overall, and I don't think Universal will find the need to mail out replacement discs for this title. Having to call their customer service department every six months got old after a while.
The Chronicles of Riddick is ambitious to a fault, and the fault lies with David Twohy. He's to be commended for at least trying something new, but he needs to learn to reign himself in until he's actually ready for the big leagues. This is an outstanding disc technically -- demo quality, in fact -- and the extras are quite extensive, although they admittedly supply information the film should have covered. Bottom line is -- it comes up a little short. You might want to consider renting it, as it will really give your home theater gear a workout, but I wouldn't advise a blind purchase.
Kinda, sorta guilty. David Twohy is hereby ordered to find a harmonious balance between his reach and his grasp. He pulls it all together someday and he might really have something. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes with Optional David Twohy Commentary
* "Riddick's Worlds" Interactive Set Tours
* Virtual Guide to The Chronicles of Riddick
* "Toombs' Chase Log"
* "Riddick Insider Facts on Demand" Scene Specific Text Commentary
* Playable Level of "The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay" Game
* Commentary by Writer-Director David Twohy, and Actors Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos
* "Visual Effects Revealed" Featurette
* DVD-ROM Content
* Official Site