AGAINST THE GRAIN: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Is Riddick’s follow-up to Pitch Black as bad as they all say? 

If we ever manage to colonise distant worlds, let’s hope they are more hospitable than the planets encountered in The Chronicles of Riddick, director David Twohy’s sequel/follow-up to sleeper hit Pitch Black; a self-indulgent space opera that stumbles along the way, but in its best scenes, hits a cinematic sweet-spot of adolescent nirvana that is hard to dislike (by me, anyway). Released to mixed opinions and disappointing box office, it has slowly earned cult appeal thanks to an improved “Director’s Cut” and a never-ending run on British television (seriously, I can’t watch ITV2 without seeing it). With a third film now in release, it seems like the ideal time to revisit this unfairly maligned epic.

There are several reasons for why Chronicles floundered with cinema-goers, although its plot usually takes the most hits. Taking Pitch Black’s most successful element – Vin Diesel’s murderous convict Richard B. Riddick – Twohy and the action star decided to create a whole mythology around the character, with a plethora of different solar systems to explore. The news of the project intrigued me. After all, the character was an instantly memorable creation; an anti-hero that gave Snake Plissken a run for his money. The possibilities for expanding the story and his universe were endless. What we eventually got, however, is a plot that was a little too busy for its own good. Its a narrative with many convoluted strands, and although critics were wrong to call it “incoherent,” there’s no denying the script needed another draft or two.

While I can pick many faults in Twohy’s storytelling, I walked out of the cinema satisfied. The Chronicles of Riddick is an underrated bit of sci-fi silliness that makes up for its laboured narrative with gorgeous visuals, kinetic action, and Diesel’s committed performance.

A million miles from Pitch Black’s simplistic premise, Riddick‘s scope is certainly expansive. Five years after he escaped a world of shadow-dwelling creatures, Riddick is fleeing from planet to planet with bounty hunters on his tail. A life of peace, it seems, is all this killer needs. His retirement is naturally short-lived. Sought-out by resourceful “merc” Toombs (a snarling Nick Chinlund), he seeks out those responsible for the bounty, leading him to the planet Helion Prime. There, he encounters an “Elemental,” Aereon (Judi Dench), and old friend Imam (Keith David), who Riddick saved in the previous film. They hope the former con can defeat a threat to all life in the universe, an army known as the Necromongers who are travelling through the solar system destroying everything in their path. If you don’t join them, they kill you. Led by the sinister Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), they’re on a quest to find the mysterious “Underverse” and only Riddick can stop them.

No time is wasted in build-up, since The Chronicles of Riddick moves a-mile-a-minute. Those unfamiliar with the character will face a head-scratching dilemma, since his background is never recapped (the likeable anime Dark Fury did a decent job of bridging these films). Even those who loved the previous picture will need several viewings to fully grasp the glorious absurdity of Chronicles. The whole mythos behind the Necromongers is never fully developed, and the reasoning behind Riddick’s destiny is just as sketchy (apparently, he’s the last in a long line of “Furyans,” a powerful race of humans). These unnecessary details make Twohy’s film more than a little pretentious for a blockbuster, but if you’re willing to endure the corny plotting, there is plenty here to enjoy.

The glue that holds Chronicles together is the visual finesse that litters every shot, stopping it from becoming a mere retread of superior films. In most respects, Pitch Black didn’t boast anything new, stealing from the Alien franchise and various other classics with deep affection. Making it all work was Twohy who gave the film a masterly sweep and stunning vistas. This film is a production designer’s wet dream, with plenty of opportunities for “money shots” throughout. One such sequence is when the Necromongers first arrive on Helion Prime; their ships blasting the resistance out of the skies and literally crash-landing. Marked in silhouette, Riddick races across rooftops as explosions roar around him. Twohy manages to ratchet up a great deal of excitement with his over-the-top approach, and the editing matches his exuberance.

Indeed, most of the action is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chaos that really hits you in the face with its speed. Such editing tricks are an acquired taste (most people complained about the frenetic pace), but here it appealed to me. A film like Riddick warrants a different approach and the action follows accordingly. Twohy is certainly trying to test himself, and by proxy, the skills of cinematographer Hugh Johnson. Like Pitch Black, there’s a fascinating approach to colour here. Depending on which world Riddick inhabits, there’s a different palette signalling the change in environment. No matter how confusing events might be, at least the director gives us pretty images to savour. People may argue that its style over substance, but it’s clear that thought went into every second of screen-time.

To me, the only truly disappointing aspect of Riddick is the principle villains. The Necromonger’s main goal is pretty irksome but their depiction is often ridiculous. Feore is solid in evil roles – anyone who caught his sadistic turn in the little-seen Highwaymen will know that – but he seems restricted here. It also doesn’t help that the Necro costume design is fairly laughable. Much more interesting are Thandie Newton and Karl Urban, who add some intrigue to the Necromonger ranks. They spark off each other well in scenes that drip with sexual tension (some of which are more explicit in the longer cut). But the main focus remains Diesel’s unstoppable menace, and thankfully, the Necromonger’s take a back-seat for the film’s thrilling centre-piece.

Captured by Toombs, Riddick is carted off to the Crematoria system, a prison located 24 kilometres beneath the surface. Venture outside and the heat will burn you to a crisp. Naturally, Riddick launches an escape, but not without inmate “Jack” (Alexa Davalos). She was the girl who Riddick saved in Pitch Black, and has since grown into a homicidal mercenary just like her idol. The entire middle-portion is the film at its best. Much more exciting than the main story arc, the Crematoria sequences are brilliant. Attempting to escape the planet before the Necros arrive, Riddick and his cohorts must race across the surface attempting to outrun the deadly sunlight. Large holes in logic aside, the scenes are enormous fun. It’s sort of a shame that this prison break wasn’t the basis for the entire film, like the wonderful tie-in video game Escape From Butcher Bay.

So what of Diesel? He delivers the best performance in the film. He was born to play the character, and his charismatic presence makes up for many of the screenplay’s faults. This is the same criminal we saw killing monsters in Pitch Black – Diesel slips back into those futuristic Ray Bans with ease, and clearly has a great deal of affection for the role. The actor also isn’t afraid to show a dark side to his character. We’re never sure when Riddick will strike, and who he’ll kill to stay out of handcuffs. His unpredictably makes him one of the best sci-fi icons of the noughties. He’s played by a man who once wrote a foreword for a book on Dungeons & Dragons, and that goes some way to explaining Chronicle‘s outré charms.

You could say The Chronicles of Riddick is a huge guilty pleasure. While some of the ingredients fail to work, I have to congratulate Twohy and his star for trying. Its the kind of sequel that takes story over repetition, and the choice to further the character’s universe is more intriguing than dumping him on another planet with bloodthirsty creatures. Its a film you’ll either love or hate, but it remains a fascinating “failure.” Pitch Black is sill the clear winner, but almost a decade later, Chronicles has become a guilty pleasure full of memorable moments and ambition.

Useless Trivia

  • Australian actress Rhiana Griffith auditioned to reprise her role of “Jack” from Pitch Black, but lost out to Davalos. She did, however, voice the character in Dark Fury, which is set shortly after the first film.
  • Vin Diesel wanted Judi Dench to play Aereon, and went to great lengths to get her. A long-time fan of Dench, he had her dressing room filled with bouquets of flowers, and also advised her that they could not begin casting the movie until she agreed to accept the role. Amusingly, in her autobiography And Furthermore, Dench says that she never really understood what was going on in the movie, but she enjoyed the experience of making it, and thought “the sets were great.”
  • Toomb’s line regarding Crematoria, “If I owned this place and Hell, I’d rent this place out and live in Hell,” is paraphrased from an infamous quote General Phil Sheridan made during post-Civil War Reconstruction, in which he said “If I owned Hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
  • The Purifier’s post-9/11 line, “I’ve done unbelievable things in the name of a faith that was never my own,” was not originally in the script. It was improvised by actor Linus Roache and Twohy kept it in the film.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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