Maybe it’s the geek association, but there’s something that puts sci-fi clunkers in a class of their own. “The Chronicles of Riddick” may not quite gain entry to the hallowed pantheon of interstellar cheese of a “Battlefield Earth,” but it’s not far behind. While “Pitch Black” had the virtue of being moody and unpretentious, this bloated, over-plotted sequel is a barely comprehensible barrage of rote clashes on grim planets between wooden characters led by human boulder Vin Diesel. Cult following of the 2000 release may provide a brisk opening weekend, but Universal should brace for a warp-speed dive soon after.
Writer-director David Twohy infused the derivative, “Alien”-influenced story of “Pitch Black” with a creepy atmosphere and a fun ’50s B-grade feel. While that film grossed a modest $39 million at the domestic box office, it climbed steadily in stature as a video/DVD release. Given that less was more first time around in the story of a motley crew stranded on a steamy planet swarming with monstrous predators, Twohy’s decision to switch from simplicity to bombastic overkill in a lumbering tale of sectarian domination seems especially wrongheaded.
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While it has none of the bizarre personality, the convoluted new entry bears a passing resemblance to David Lynch’s “Dune” in its overstuffed narrative and emotional vacuum. There’s also a vague kinship in its conclusion to the warrior savior of the Frank Herbert classic, rather optimistically opening the door to another sequel.
Looking like he’s been to John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth” hairdresser, Diesel returns in feral mode as Riddick, the escaped convict from the planet Furyo. After shaking off a band of mercenaries led by Toombs (Nick Chinlund), he commandeers their ship and travels to Helion Prime. Riddick pauses on arrival to shear off his long, matted mane and restore his gleaming dome before investigating the bounty apparently put on his head by holy man Imam (Keith David), whom he saved from death in “Pitch Black.”
But Imam needs surly Riddick’s help again to escape the planet’s imminent invasion by the armor-clad Necromongers, a half-dead army ravaging the universe to force all they encounter to embrace a single, evil faith.
Leading the Necro marauders is the deadly Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), who sends his commander Vaako (Karl Urban) to kill Riddick. The Lord Marshal is unaware that scheming Dame Vaako (Thandie Newton) is pushing her husband to eliminate him and seize power.
Riddick, who meanwhile has been taken to the hellish planet Crematoria, survives some stiffly CGI-rendered reptilian dogs, then re-encounters the resentful young woman previously known as Jack but now for no good reason called Kyra (Alexa Davalos), whom he saved in “Pitch Black.”
Almost invariably in overblown sci-fi epics, there’s a classically trained Brit on hand to grimace inwardly while wading through ludicrous dialogue and reaching for the check. This time, it’s poor Dame Judi Dench, wafting about like a windy hologram as an air-elemental being able to read the future. She sets the Lord Marshal on edge by revealing the Necro chief will die at the hand of a Furyan.
While “Pitch Black” was a sci-fi horror movie, “Riddick” is straight-up action fare, with Diesel’s antihero surrounded by an unlikable gallery of characters. With his cool, urban deadpan jarringly at odds with the arcane scenario, Diesel makes Sylvester Stallone seem expressive.
Looking spectacular in her metallic Versace-goes-galactic wardrobe, Newton slinks around glaring through slitted eyes like the high priestess of bitch, while Davalos just gets to thrash about angrily. New Zealander Urban creates perhaps the only semi-intriguing character.
The suspense engendered in the previous pic by leaving the monsters unseen for a long stretch, and the visceral shocks of some of the killings are traded here for almost unrelenting but oddly monotonous action, propelled by Graeme Revell’s robust, militaristic score. Twohy barely pauses to explore the characters’ relationships, which is probably just as well given punchy dialogue like, “If I owned this place and hell, I’d rent this place out and live in hell.”
Fight scenes are cut so fast there’s little excitement in watching them, especially the climactic face-off, during which the Lord Marshal’s shape-shifting form reduces much of the physical conflict to a blur.
The widescreen visuals and Holger Gross’ imposing production design and vast sets have a muscular quality that underlines Universal’s substantial investment in “Riddick.” But despite the film’s impressive scale, it’s the narrative hollowness that’s ultimately reflected in a look which has the flattened, artificial dimensionality of a videogame.
Universal this month is releasing “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay” from its games division, and “The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury,” a direct-to-DVD feature from animator Peter Chung. That this movie can be expected to deliver an expanded fan base to either of these tie-ins is, in a word, Riddickulous.