All Back of the Bus
The return of Riddick (Vin Diesel) begins with lots of noise. David Twohy’s The Chronicles of Riddick introduces our hero in mid big fat action drama. He’s out running around in some icy-snow-parchy wilderness, bearded and gnarly, just bounding over crevasses and minding his own business. Then comes trouble, a bounty hunter named, aptly, Toombs (Nick Chinlund). Also known as a “merc” in this not very imaginative future, he comes speeding up in a hover-ship, taking ferociously inaccurate shots at his prey. When at last he captures Riddick, briefly, Toombs taunts him by noting that, for all his big-talking bravado, now he’s chained up and on his way to prison, that is, “all back of the bus and shit.”
Riddick kicks Toombs’ ass, of course. This because Toombs is a snivelly creepazoid looking to get paid and Riddick is muscular and taut (his traps are frightening all on their own), and mad all the time. He also has motivation, namely, his girl-boy admirer Jack, now grown up into a girl straight-up, calling herself Kyra, and played by conventionally sexy-tressed Alexa Davalos instead of gutsy, bald, and enigmatic Rhiana Griffith from Pitch Black. Jack-now-Kyra has conveniently disappeared in order to send Riddick in what seems weary pursuit. This after Riddick gets relevant, if somewhat spastic, direction from Imam (Keith David), on screen just long enough to entrust Riddick with care of his wife and adorable daughter and to divulge the whereabouts of Jack-now-Kyra. At which point, he’s duly murdered by one of the film’s nefarious meanies and scary dressers, the nicely named Necromongers.
The head Necromonger, Lord Marshall (Colm Feore) claims his place because he’s been to a place called Underverse and back, a journey that, not unlike going to prison for Riddick, has invested him with special powers. In the Lord Marshall’s case, these powers consist of whooshing across the screen as if he’s in a time warp, and sucking digitally-effected souls out of victims as if he’s a Dementor out of Harry Potter 3. All this whooshing is not even slightly hampered by the fact that he wears what appears heavy and decidedly unstylish armor (a helmet and shoulder pads made of grimacing masks, so he’s always got at least four or five faces to turn on his enemies). It also doesn’t much bother Riddick, who declares on meeting this egotistical bad boy, “I bow to no one.” No kidding.
Riddick, in addition to being our hero and Jack-now-Kyra’s designated rescuer, is also the Lord Marshall’s designated foe, and not only because the LM is a weasel in need of a serious takedown. It turns out that Riddick is also fated like Moses to save the universe from the Lord Marshall’s evildoers. This 411 is delivered by an Elemental (wispy, white-clothed, airlike entity) named Aereon (Dame Judi Dench), who keeps reappearing as if to cheer on Riddick, but also trapped by the Lord Marshall and for some unknown reason compelled to reckon odds for him (at least as long as she delivers good news). According to Aereon, this is the lot of all Elementals, to “calculate,” which makes them sound rather like a race of Dick Cheneys. Her word on Riddick is that he’s a last surviving Furion, the race ordained to kill the Lord Marshall, even for all his efforts to have every Furion infant killed (the Moses reference) as well as his Darth Vadery menace.
Amped up with a bigger budget than Riddick’s first outing, the sequel endeavors to recall what was best about Pitch Black, the outrageous and intelligent on-the-cheap effects, approximating the usual moral assignments to light and dark, but complicating them in the form of Riddick himself, the “evil” with his eyes shined, so that he sees differently than everyone else. His screwed up vision drives the original film, but Chronicles is messier and less compelling, a rush of ambiguous effects and chopped up fight scenes, impressionistic morasses of bodies in pain, fear, and fury. As Riddick this time must rush across a planet’s surface to avoid the light (a daylight surging with hundreds of head-exploding, skin-frying degrees), he not only inverts the structure of the first film’s light-and-dark, he also survives to endure an increasingly grisly fate. He can’t get a right thing going here.
At the same time, because The Chronicles of Riddick is—unlike the elegant Pitch Black, crammed with plotty nonsense—the Lord Marshall is also up against imminent betrayal, by snaky Dame Vaako (Thandie Newton, who changes gowns nearly every scene). A drama queen in the vacuous sense and ambitious in a vaguely ominous sense, Dame Vaako plays Lady Macbeth to her Necromonger partner, also the Lord Marshall’s Number One, for a minute anyway, Vaako (Karl Urban, also known as Eomer). Terminally un-bright, Vaako’s predictably eager to please his lady, which usually means hustling to be at her beck and call, and waiting for her to decide on the proper timing to betray his boss. In other words, he’s a plot device, not much else going on in his helmeted Necro-head.
That said, Riddick’s sundry conflicts with Toombs, the Vaakos, and the Lord Marshall don’t so much make up a plot as they provide opportunities for the seriously pumped-up Vin Diesel to run, kick, and smack-down. Where Pitch Black thematized racism and the horrors of the prison system, this film is more focused on religious institutions and imperatives. The Necromongers, believe it or not, don’t just run around the universe decimating planets and taking over populations in a crude, mechanical, Borgish sense. Rather, following an initial and mightily aggressive street-sweep, they select a few victims to bring back to “the ship for mind regression,” something like reprogramming, but with outlandish special effects. Likely, this makes the cosmos marauding easier, as no one asks questions like “Why?” or “How?” Instead, Necromongers do what they do because that’s what they do—anonymous, tiresome, careless. They are true believers.
As the Necromongers perform their perfunctory parts, so too the mercenaries and the victims. In between all of these somehow, Chronicles proposes the conventional bad guys, the prisoners like Riddick and Jack-now-Kyra, get to embody all the self-righteousness and earned rage. They’re abused, they’re well trained, they’re obnoxious. And they’re resentful of one another, to boot. That Chronicles never delineates a coherent cultural framework for all their agitation only makes them seem more adrift.