In 1998, a small, relatively low-budget Australian sci-fi horror directed by a relative unknown and starring a cast of B-list (if not C-list) actors brought to our attention a very interesting new character. Part Hannibal Lector, part John Rambo, he was an extremely dangerous individual who had to be chained up to ensure the safety of those around him. His name was Riddick, and he was a serial killer and an escaped convict who had been incarcerated at a maximum security penile facility, Butcher Bay, where he had had his eyes surgically enhanced so that he could see in the dark.
Pitch Black was the film that picked up with him post-Butcher Bay, after he had been tracked and caught by a bounty hunter and put in cryo-stasis, awaiting a return to prison. The ship they hitched a lift with encountered a meteor storm and crashed on a planet with three suns and constant daylight where, once every few years, there would be a lasting eclipse that would allow some night-dwelling creatures to come out to feed (although I'm not entirely sure what those creatures did the rest of the time). In these pitch black conditions, Riddick was at an advantage because he was the only one who could see these creatures. The rest of the crew relied on his help, which was not always forthcoming, and it was not always clear whether or not he was a good guy. In fact, he was probably only worthy of hero status because he was not as evil as the creatures that roamed the planet.
Only three people made it off the planet, a holy man, a young girl and, of course, Riddick. The animated short, Dark Fury, picked up where Pitch Black left off, with the three of them stranded in a ship that gets picked up by a rich trophy collector and a bunch of mercenaries. Although the two films can be watched without the animated interlude, it does show us Riddick once again saving the lives of his colleagues and, more importantly, introduce one new character - Toombs - another mercenary who is on the trail of Riddick. Toombs tracks him to an ice planet, which is where The Chronicles of Riddick picks up the story.
Riddick wants not only to stop the mercenary from catching him, but also identify the person who put the bounty on his head and, upon doing so, he finds himself in a moral quandary as to what to do next. It turns out that his old friend, the Holy Man, is involved and that Riddick himself could be a key player in stopping a new force that has started taking over whole planets (kind of a cross between Hitler and The Borg). Inevitably this leads to his reunion with the girl, Jack, now grown up and self-named Kyra, living like an animal in a deep, underground, maximum security facility - and still trying to follow in the footsteps of her idol. They both have to face the new forces, who are led by the Lord Marshal - an armour-clad despotic half-dead warrior who is leading the invasion. The team includes his first-in-command, Vakko, an ambitious successor whose desire to accelerate his passage to the throne is fuelled by a devious wife who could teach Lady Macbeth a thing or two. Amidst this barrage of semi-developed characters and overlapping plots, we find out more about Riddick's origin and his importance in the grand scheme of things, leading up to a final confrontation that will prove fatal for several key players.
Chronicles is a much broader affair than either Pitch Black, or its sister animated short Dark Fury, turning Riddick into more than just a psychotic convict with fancy eyes. Now he's the saviour of the universe, and that is a big problem with the new film. Gone are the small scale thrills and dark tone of the original, where nobody knew whose side Riddick was on, nor whether he would ever go out of his way to help anybody. Now he's an out and out hero. Moreover, he's the only one who can do it - kind of a John Rambo of the future. They start with Pitch Black, the equivalent of Rambo: First Blood - where he's just a guy with a knife - and pretty soon after the box office receipts start coming in they're send him out to fight the whole Russian Army single-handedly in the second sequel. That's what happened here. Riddick isn't supposed to be infallible, indefeasible, or invulnerable - he's just pretty tough, pretty street-wise and very unpredictable. He's a dark, brooding entity, with more than a bit of a psychotic streak running through him. Chronicles paints him as something of a super-man, with ancestral powers coursing through his veins, and pitches him as the hero fighting to save humanity.
On some levels it works quite well. The effects are absolutely stunning (even more-so on the big screen) and the CGI involvement is almost completely seamless. The grand epic battles between the warships of opposing forces are depicted on an almost Star Wars level. In addition, Twohy still has a keen eye for creating new and colourful planets - from the ice-world, UV Planet 6, that Riddick starts on, to Helion Prime, a colonised planet where the main action takes place, to the prison-planet of Crematorium where the sunrise scorches the earth and forces all life forms to hide underground. But the action has changed somewhat in a bid to keep up with the expansion of the rest of the Riddick universe. In a similar way to The Bourne Supremacy's inter-cut hand-held camera shots for fight scenes where all you saw were elbows and fists, Riddick speeds and shakes some of the action up to such an extent that it is very difficult to follow, let alone enjoy. That said, this aspect was considerably easier on your eyes when regarded on the smaller rather than larger screen. Still, it's a shame that fighting in films has had to develop into combat at inhuman speeds - making it look flashy but totally unrealistic. Nobody could perform the moves at the speed that Riddick maintains: and his 'new' character seems completely at odds with the brawler-with-technique combatant we were introduced to in the first film.
Riddick's not the only character that has changed. The young girl Jack has now grown up into the delectable Alexa Davalos (fans might recognise her as electric-girl from the Buffy spin-off TV series, Angel). Originally the girl who portrayed Jack in the first movie, Rhiana Griffith, was in training in order to reprise her role here, but for one reason or another, Twohy picked Alexa instead - and I can't fault his choice in the matter - it's just a shame that he does not follow through with the potential in her character. Jack, now called Kyra, is pitched as a female variant on Riddick herself, and the chemistry between the two actors is enough to more than suggest at something other than a relationship based on fidelity between the two. But none of that really gets explored.
As for the new characters, well, there are quite a few. I'm going to start with the bad guys. These evil guys want to take over the universe and they're really bad, they're just not as bad as the names that they have been given. They themselves are called the Necromongers. Ok, I can live with that, but they also have a common faith in the so-called 'Underverse'. Hmmm, things are getting a little odd now. Then we find out that their prophets are called the 'Quasi-dead.' That's a bad name for prophets. And the lieutenants include such wondrous beings as 'Scales' and 'The Purifier'. Was Twohy obsessed with Hellraiser at the time of coming up with this malarkey? They are led by Paycheck's Colm Feore, playing the Lord Marshal, also a half-dead (though what percentage that is in comparison to quasi-dead I don't know) who is able to rip your soul right out of your chest using cool blue CGI powers. He's pretty important really, although his armour looks really, really bad on him (he looks about as mobile as Robocop) but he's not as important as the character of Vakko, his first in command. Played in pale and slimy lizard-fashion by Bourne Supremacy's bad guy Karl Urban, Vakko has designs of his own for the throne, spurred on by his downright Lady Macbeth partner, Dame Vakko. Mission Impossible 2's Thandie Newton is simply perfect as the beautiful backstabbing seductress - with the best dresses in the movie - manipulating her husband as if he were a doll.
Then you have the mercenaries, led by Toombs. Grizzly Nick Chinlund, from Tears of the Sun, also voiced the same character of Toombs in the animation Dark Fury. His team - or rather his three useless teams - are fairly inconsequential, bar one girl - Christina Cox, who plays Logan, and bears a striking resemblance in both looks and attire (two guns included) to Lara Croft herself, but I'll come back to her later in reference to the Director's Cut. Sitting on the sideline, there's also Bond's very own M - Dame Judi Dench, looking distinctly out of place as some kind of ethereal oracle called Aereon. So, Chronicles of Riddick is a mixed bag. Critically slated, it still faired well at the big screen, and heavily hints towards a follow-up in the future. But those that loved the way Twohy flawlessly manipulated his low budget in Pitch Black to its fullest potential, will be disappointed at this affair, completely devoid of Black's menace and this time promising a great deal more than it delivers. Still, for Vin Diesel action-man fans, who actually liked XXX, this is great fun. Apart from a few fast-cut action sequences, the fights are predominantly good and the body-count is remarkably high.
As for the Director's Cut, is it a better film? The answer is quite simply, yes, but it still does not either correct the flaws nor does it make the film any more satisfactory for fans of the original. Some minor spoilers follow...
There are two main stories that are augmented: Riddick's ancestry and Dame Vaako's Lady Macbeth machinations. Yes, we do get some more action, and violence, and more coarse language - the fights, predominantly the ones on Crematoria, are extended - but these additions are not nearly as significant as what has been done to those two storylines. Riddick is a Furian and, at one point in the Director's Cut, after a vision where he sees another Furian, the warrior woman Shirah (played by Kristin Lehman, who reprised the same role continued from the Riddick: Butcher Bay video game), he appears to wield the strength and power of all of his ancestors who were killed at the hands of the Lord Marshal. This is clearly quite a crucial plot-point, but I can see why they cut it - after all, it displays Riddick with this amazing ability and yet it never gets developed and we never hear it mentioned again. As for the Lady Macbeth story, the Vaakos spend more time plotting and planning the demise of their Lord, and Thandie Newton even gets to be slapped around and pretend to enjoy it in the name of 'foreplay'. I can see why they took that out. Other than that, there are a few more minor additions including an earlier introduction to Kyra, locked up like an animal, and an extra scene with our favourite Lara Croft lookalike, the mercenary Logan, where she appears to be rather strangely sniffing Riddick while he pretends to be asleep. Weird.
In general, most of these are nice extra bits that make the story more complete and, hopefully, will fully blossom in a further sequel. But they do not really make the film any more manageable for disappointed fans of the original. I am personally quite looking forward to more Riddick (I think that several sequels were penned...) where they create a better-rounded universe for the world's biggest badass-turned-superhero. That said, after the Matrix sequels, I am equally prepared for disappointment.
Our Review Ethos