When we first met Riddick (Vin Diesel), the stone cold anti-hero of the eponymously named The Chronicles Of Riddick, he was part of a group of space travelers trying to escape from the hostile natives of a barren planet they had crashed on in the science-fiction thriller Pitch Black (1999). A surprise success, the modestly budgeted picture helped to launch Diesel’s career as no nonsense action hero. Now Diesel returns to the role of Riddick in a follow up made at five times the original’s budget, but which also proves that bigger isn’t necessarily better.
A half-decade after the events of the first film finds Riddick on the run from mercenaries who are out to capture him for the bounty on his head. Turning the table on the bounty hunters, Riddick learns that he is being sought by Imam (Keith David), one of his fellow survivors from the previous film. Imam is one of a group of people who feel that Riddick is the one destined to stop the Technomongers, a race of religious warriors marching unchecked across the galaxy towards a legendary place called the Underverse, and their leader the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore). Riddick wants no part of Imam’s plans but before he can leave, the Technomongers arrive and begin their invasion, leaving Riddick with the question to fight whether to fight the invaders or leave the planet to its fate.
The action set pieces are suitably spectacular for a summer blockbuster, ranging in scale from planetary invasions to Riddick and the Lord Marshal’s climactic hand-to-hand combat. As is the case in most of these spectaculars, the computer-generated imagery threatens to overshadow the characters, though they never get totally lost in the strum und dang. The characters themselves, however, seem less lively then the explosions and spaceships crashing around them. Most of the performances are delivered in such stridently serious tones that the acting overpowers the material much like a hammy performance of Shakespeare. One of the few exceptions is Thandie Newton who is positively wooden as the Lady Macbeth-like scheming wife of one the Lord Marshal’s generals. Dame Judi Dench seems wasted, and probably a bit confused by her role as the one character whom supplies what little exposition there is in the film. Still the film ends on a note that leaves this viewer intrigued as to what direction the franchise may take.
The expansion of Riddick’s universe by director David Twohy is both fascinating and frustrating, suffering from too much detail and not many explanations. Helion Prime is distinctly inspired by the Byzantium Empire, a cultural influence not often scene in science-fiction films. But questions remain. Who are the Elementals and what is the nature of the race’s relationship with the Technomongers? What exactly is this Underverse that the Technomongers are so obsessed with getting to? What is Riddick’s hinted at connection to all of this? There have been reports that Twohy had cut anywhere between 15 to 50 minutes of footage, including much of Riddick’s personal backstory, to keep the film under two hours. While this footage will undoubtedly show up in a future DVD release, its absence makes the movie as it stands now a less than fulfilling movie going experience.