The Chronicles of Riddick

"You should have taken the money, Toombs."

Pitch Black was a serviceable genre flick, an Alien clone that delivered what it promised and built a small fan base in the process. The Chronicles of Riddick, its purported sequel, is an entirely different animal: a virtuoso exercise in world creation, a plot-heavy epic that’s like a breath of fresh air in a time when movie stars and high concepts pass for science-fiction. Vast, wildly ambitious and occasionally murky, David Twohy’s film is an open challenge to those who go in expecting mind-numbing, brainless action. Oh, there’s action — fights, and chases, and escapes, many of them quite improbable — but it has a function, a place in the big picture. Twohy’s greatest accomplishment here is crafting that big picture.

Some sci-fi is content with a single, self-contained story, and many of the genre’s finest films do not attempt or require expansion beyond the confines of their plots. What Twohy does here is different and much more difficult: he creates the beginnings of a mythology, a world that will seem to live independently of the films that document it. When successful, this approach can amass a rabid fan following and countless sequels and spin-offs — see Star Trek and Star Wars for the best examples.

Whether or not Riddick‘s box-office performance will justify another venture into its world remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: what we are seeing here has the potential to become one of the great sci-fi sagas. There are holes, yes — holes that the critics have predictably taken as their cue to pounce — but they seem less like errors than omissions: this universe seems so vast that to explain everything would take untold numbers of movies. I, for one, am willing to sit through them.

The now-titular escaped convict from Pitch Black is back and this time he’s not just running from marauding creepy-crawlies. A friend from the first adventure (Keith David) and a member of the enigmatic race of Elementals (Judi Dench) enlist him in a war of worlds — a quest to stop an army of fanatics called the Necromongers who are sweeping across the universe, assimilating every civilization they encounter, on their way to the Underverse, which is established only as some sort of Necromonger utopia. Their leader, the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore) is the only one to have seen the Underverse, and entering it has left him with some impressive and rather disturbing powers.

Riddick is nothing if not a reluctant hero, and his journey takes him on a detour to the prison planet Crematoria, a hellhole that has a tendency to get incredibly hot in the daytime and ridiculously cold at night. This leads to several instances of outrunning the weather, which is usually a ridiculous cliche (see The Day After Tomorrow) and an easy way to set up a chase scene with special effects. But as always, Twohy anchors it in plot and makes it a pivotal test for its characters and their relationships; this isn’t idle action. The director’s unconventional approach to Big Scenes is cemented during the film’s longest and most elaborate fight scene: where most filmmakers would pump up the volume and ambush us with bright colors and sound effects, Twohy cuts the sound, shoots mostly from above, and creates a beautiful sort of audio-visual dissonance instead of simply throwing stuff at the screen for the sake of “excitement.”

Despite the $120 million budget, The Chronicles of Riddick does not have a polished look. The special effects are probably flawed — they’re never quite crystal clear and usually look somewhat out of place — but surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the distinctly otherworldly feel that the lack of gloss brought to the film. This isn’t our universe in 500 years, it’s another place entirely, and we’re never allowed to forget that.

The ending is stirring, ambiguous and perfect. After a climax in which computer graphics and effects were used to accomplish something instead of simply blowing stuff up, the story cuts off on a note that made me think of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book series (you’ll see what I mean, or maybe you won’t). I could not think of a more perfect place to end a film or begin a sequel, though any follow-up might seem anti-climactic.

Reading some reviews for The Chronicles of Riddick confirms my long-held opinion that whenever someone tries to actually do something significant within action movie parameters, critics will inevitably label the complex convoluted and the ambitious incoherent. I cannot conceive of a greater disservice to the science-fiction genre than the critical drumming this movie has taken. For shame.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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