BY HEIDI MACDONALD
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK is well under 2 hours long, but it seems to be about five hours long. But in a good way.
Writer-director David Twohy
seems determined to squeeze in everything: religion, morality, multi-culturalism, loyalty, greed and, yes, love. It's has elements of Star Wars space opera, Tolkienish fantasy, Matrix-type cries for individuality, and in the middle, a prison break film suddenly erupts. It encapsulates the two best scenes from VAN HELSING
and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW
and they're just part of the show. In short, this is everything plus Vin Diesel playing the kitchen sink.
It's proof that you can have a chaotic, action filled CGI science fiction film that doesn't stink, and is in fact, highly entertaining and even touches fleetingly on the intangible sense of wonder that infuses the very best fantasy.RIDDICK
stars Diesel, the great ambi-racial hope for action movies in the title role, an amoral criminal we first saw in the Aliens-esque PITCH BLACK
. Riddick has a few things going for him: he's the last of the Furions, which enables him to have tremendous endurance and strength; he has glowing gunmetal eyes which enable him to see in the dark; and he has gigantic biceps, which enable him to look good in a black wife beater.
When first we meet Riddick, he's being pursued across a planet of ice by Toombs (Nick Chinlund), a scurvy bounty hunter visually obviously modeled on the comic book version of Wolverine. Riddick manages to dispatch the entire team of four bounty hunters, proving what an unstoppable force he is.
We previously learned in a voice over by Judi Dench
(playing Aereon, an elemental spirit whose the Gandalf of the movie), that evildoers known as the Necromongers are going around the universe destroying planets. They're led by a chap known as Lord Marshall (Colm Feore
) who has been to an afterworld called the Underverse, leaving him half-dead and half-living and ready for his new role prophet of a new religion. Planets the Necromongers conquer are asked to either convert or be destroyed.
Riddick returns to planet Helion seeking to put an end to the bounty on his head, where he meets up with Imam (Keith David
) from PITCH BLACK
, now living happily with an adorable wife and daughter if you guess that they will soon be endangered, you've been to the movies before. Aereon arrives just in time to reveal that the only thing that the Lord Marshall fears is a Furion, as it has been prophesized that one will defeat him. So will the amoral criminal Riddick turn good to save Imam's doe-eyed little girl and the whole planet? Or will he stay a bad guy?THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK
completely passed my 10 minute test. That is, 10 minutes in I had no idea what was going to happen next. Oh sure, I knew Riddick would conquer the Necromongers in the end, but how he would get there wasn't clear at all.
But I was wrong about everything.
To continue with the plot would take as long as watching the movie there's wayyyy too much of it. Riddick ends up on Crematoria, a prison planet where the surface temperature shoots up to 700 degrees during the day and 200 below at night. In the bowels of the planet, he discovers a character from PITCH BLACK
who will serve to become his moral focus or perhaps amoral focus would be more accurate. There's also a race across the surface of the planet to avoid being fried that's the polar (heh heh) opposite of the cold-running scene in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 100 times better done.
I'm sure that a lot of people are going to think RIDDICK is dumb, but in its own fevered way, it isn't. There are set ups and pay offs. A tossed off bit of philosophy in an early scene is the lynchpin of the ambiguous ending; characters disappear and then reappear later on with an almost novelistic flow. Twohy rarely makes the expected decision when is the last time you saw MacBeth break out in a sci-fi action film, as with the subplot of Mr. and Mrs. Vaako (Karl Urban
and Thandie Newton
.) Urban is a brutal lieutenant to the Lord Marshall sent after Riddick. Newton is his brutally ambitious wife who keeps busy scheming behind the scenes. If this entire plot isn't really played out completely satisfactorily (in a movie this jammed, a lot of things just don't work smoothly) it's still a fresh twist.
RIDDICK has something that's been lacking from almost every other movie I've seen this summer: imagination. And it never runs out. The special effects and set designs, while paying homage to the great futurist Syd Mead, are outstanding. Unimagined vistas almost clog the screen giant stone heads rising above a planet; alien trackers who wear scuba masks to hide their hideously disfigured faces; a map made of tiny planets floating in a sea of clouds; a lethal dawn that explodes in a deceptively beautiful spiral of clouds. The worlds are full of detail brooding statues, soaring arches. Twohy shoots things in unexpected ways an extreme low angle of Diesel with space ships whizzing above him, or instance that oddly, give the world of the movie a sense of spatial reality that makes the more outlandish goings on believable. In another shot, Diesel is being taken on a sled through a tunnel, and watches pylons whiz past above him, a banal detail that we've all experienced crossing a bridge or driving through the Lincoln Tunnel that serves to both make the world tangible and set up the next bit of action.
The movie is full of little touches like that. Which isn't to say that everything works or makes total sense. Riddick's own moral ambiguity seems to have been left in another cut of the movie. Sure he's a killing machine, but he just happens to be killing on the side of the "good" guys in the whole film. Some characters have "doomed" written on their forehead the minute they appear on screen. Just WHO had that bounty on Riddick, now and why? Why are people swearing by the name of "Jesus" in this corner of the Universe? And Twohy has the annoying habit of lapsing into those unintelligible high speed fight scenes.
Let me be perfectly clear: RIDDICK is just the kind of SF movie that I happen to adore: a bunch of no-name extras are cast as grungy yet somehow intriguing characters and proceed to blow each other up between moments of black humor and noble struggle. Twohy's cast is a ragtag bunch, from an Oscar winner (Dench) to people who just have great cheekbones. Somehow he gives them all a tiny bit of humanity or character that makes their fates so much more interesting. There's no great acting here, but there's a ton of great screen presences.
Diesel has already crafted a formidable movie persona, and with his gravel voice and terrific physical presence and agility, he's convincing as the almost (almost) undefeatable Riddick. While no one who wasn't trained at the Royal Shakespeare Academy could make the switch between sarcastic tough guy dialog and mystical savior dialog entirely smooth, Diesel doesn't make it unduly painful. Nonetheless, he's best when he just running which is does for most of the movie or looking unearthly with his gowing, opaque eyes. Newton is sinuous and deadly, and far more dangerous than any of the guys on screen. Karl Urban has the world's worst hairdo, but acquits himself well as a lethal fellow who had break a man's spine with his bare hands but can't keep his wife under control; I predict a great future career for Urban as the next Jason Isaacs
. Feore resists scenery chewing as the chief villain, another sign of the way the movie plays against expectations, and former model Alexa Davalos
is feisty and lovely as Kyra, a girl from Riddick's past.
Twohy puts himself on the short list of directors who understand both wonder and corny SF clichιs here. Now that Robert Rodriguez
can't direct A PRINCESS OF MARS
, Twohy could do the job -- but he'll be busy with two planned RIDDICK sequels if this does well. RIDDICK
is everything VAN HELSING
wanted to be: non stop action that actually entertains. There's only one swinging on a rope trick in RIDDICK, but it's the perfect swinging on a rope trick: a hero who is insanely brave risking everything for the one thing in life he cares about. The result matters. You can ask no more from an action movie.