So, Pitch Black came and went in theaters to a very mild reaction, but it blew up on DVD enough so that Universal decided to get David Twohy over a hundred million dollars to make a follow up to his $23 million budgeted thriller. Faced with the kind of money that went to making an individual entry in The Lord of the Rings film, he and Vin Diesel had little idea of how to use that kind of money. They came up with a trilogy of movies, smartly moving beyond the small film idea of the first, but they had no idea to actually build the first of this trilogy. I think a good script doctor could have rearranged the major elements of the screenplay to create a single, cohesive experience, but as the final film stands today, this is two stories squished very uncomfortably against each other.
I usually don’t start with a comment on cinematography, but The Chronicles of Riddick may be the worst looking big budget film I’ve seen. They built huge sets, and they wanted to make sure that audiences saw every detail, lighting the large spaces in such a way that it all looks incredibly flat. It often feels like the sort of lighting you get on television movies, knowing that the film is going to be seen on the small screen exclusively so they need to get as much detail as possible onto the film. That never looks good on television productions, but it looks terrible on a big budget action spectacle. The sets are nice, but they’re filmed in an inherently uncinematic way that it just looks flat.
Anyway, Riddick is still on the run five years after the events of Pitch Black, and a new bounty on his head (alive) brings him to the planet Helion Prime. He wants to know who put the bounty on his head and how he can get it off. The imam he saved from the planet was the only one who knew where he was going, and the imam told the Elemental (Judi Dench, filtering in and out of view with any breeze in a neat idea with no explanation or exploration) who put the price on him. She knows of a threat to the planet, in fact the entire universe, manifested in the Necromongers, a race of warriors on a crusade for the Underverse, converting or killing everyone in their way. They consume worlds and move on, and Helion Prime is next. The Elemental asserts that the only way to fight this evil is with another form of evil, Riddick.
Here’s one major issue with this movie: Riddick isn’t interesting. What helped the first film in a limited way was that Fry was going through something interesting, but Riddick is just this sort of bad ass character with no real weaknesses or desires. There’s another issue where Riddick is supposed to be a type of evil, but Diesel and Twohy want him to be a good guy, the anti-hero. It could have been addressed with a more clear cut narrative with a sense of proper structure, but any growth within the character over the course of the film ends up feeling random.
Anyway, the Necromongers attack, wiping out an entire planet’s defenses in a single night, and begin the process of converting or killing everyone left. In an unclear series of events, Riddick ends up at a large meeting between civic leaders (I guess) and the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers. Riddick is there because the big, hulking soldier that killed the imam is there (though Riddick literally just appears in the scene without ever walking in, I think something got cut here), and he wants to kill him for revenge. Easily dispatching one of the Lord Marshall’s best soldiers, Riddick is introduced to the Necromonger code (“You keep what you kill”) and taken into their main ship where his mind is probed by the quasi-dead.
I want to take a moment to talk about the Necromonger design. Aside from the fact that everything is filmed really flatly, I kind of love the look of the Necromongers. The main capital ships are spears that fall to the planet. The small fighter ships evoke the blind creatures from Pitch Black, allowing for a nice repeat of Riddick’s point of view shot of the flying antagonists that are about to attack. The actual aesthetic is heavy on mummified corpses and skulls. This stuff looks cool. I just wish it had been filmed cinematically.
In a series of unbelievable events, Riddick escapes and gets immediately captured by the mercs who had been chasing him at the beginning of the film, and he’s off to Crematoria, or the second movie within this movie. A think an intelligent script doctor would have moved Crematoria from the second act to the first, introducing the adult version of Jack, the girl disguised as a boy in Pitch Black now a murderous convict like Riddick, early and even telling the story from her point of view. Kyra, as she’s known now, feels that Riddick lied to her about the life. This gets a massive short shrift in the film, undeveloped and just laying around, but this is the makings of a main character in embryonic form. Forced to reface the idol of her youth and confront the reality of the life she led in his stead, she has to make choices about her future. None of that gets explored, of course. She’s introduced too late and Riddick is too much of the focus for Kyra to get the kind of attention she needs.
And this Crematoria sequence represents the massive frustration of the movie in microcosm. There’s really cool stuff here. The planet might make zero sense whatsoever (700 degrees in daylight, 300 below at night, and the people can run around the surface without suits fine at night, whatever), but the prison itself is a neat idea. The escape to the runway kilometers away in a race over the surface against the prison guards under the ground is fun and propulsive. It makes no sense, but it’s energetically told and fun with a propulsive soundtrack that helps it all flow. It’s just kind of stupid and has almost nothing to do with the overall movie’s story which, you may remember, involves a race of Necromongers who are crusading across the galaxy. Crematoria doesn’t fit in the second act of this story. It would fit in the first act as a way to get us into the story. An escape from a closed part of the galaxy to discover that the larger galaxy is dealing with a larger threat. Seriously, this movie needed a script doctor.
The movie’s finale ends up falling flat because it relies entirely on Riddick’s emotional attachment to Kyra, which was introduced late and never developed in any meaningful sense (seriously, introduce all of this in the first act, gosh darn it). The ending does end up pretty cool with a neat action scene as Riddick faces off against the Lord Marshall’s weird powerset and Riddick suddenly ends up where he never expected. This is a great ending to a movie that doesn’t deserve it, potentially opening up Riddick’s tale to bigger things, but as you probably know this movie was not the box office success everyone wanted. Those bigger adventures were never to come to pass.
This is one of those frustrating movies where all of the major problems are not only at the script level, but they’re so obviously at the script level and so obvious that they should have been addressed before a single pre-production sketch ever got commissioned. Universal, excited at the idea of a new franchise to make money on, really needed to get David Twohy in a room with a script doctor to review the basic structure of the film. Without that, this movie is out of order and pretty much incoherent from every major narrative element you can imagine. There’s stuff to enjoy here and there, sometimes extending to entire sequences, but it just cannot come together into a single film. This revealed that there was potential in a franchise around the character of Richard B. Riddick, but also that it was in the wrong hands to realize it.