Monday, August 29, 2011

The Trappings Of A Science Fiction Epic, Why Not The Success? The Chronicles Of Riddick

The Good: Decent plot, Characters, Effects, Some acting
The Bad: Feels long (So I suspect a pacing problem)
The Basics: Riddick returns in The Chronicles Of Riddick, hunting for a young woman who is hunting him while trying to avoid the invading Necromongers and the forces of destiny.

It was only recently that I caught the opening to The Chronicles Of Riddick on television and I was told to turn it off and watch Pitch Black first. Having done that (read my review here!) I sat down to watch the only copy of The Chronicles Of Riddick that I could find (which was not the Director's Cut). My first note is that the version I saw the beginning of must have been the Director's Cut because there was dialogue early in the movie that was missing from the version I saw. The bottomline (for those who want to cut through everything else) is that I enjoyed The Chronicles Of Riddick enough that I look forward to seeing the full Director's Cut sometime soon.

Five years after escaping the dangers presented in the nighttime of the eclipse, Riddick finds himself hunted in his isolation with a bounty on his head. Stealing a ship, he heads to Helion Prime to find Imam and have the bounty removed from his head. There he meets with Aereon, an Elemental, who informs Riddick that he is the hope of the galaxy as a scourge is headed in their direction and his form of evil may be what's needed to fight the coming evil. Moments later, Helion Prime is overrun by the Necromongers.

The Necromongers are essentially a cult run by the Lord Marshal who converts entire planets by either brutally ripping out their souls or using a machine to somehow alter the citizens. The Necromongers are obsessed with finding the Underverse (which seems like a universe of the dead) and their conversion process identifies Riddick as a threat. Riddick finds himself on the run and soon finding the one person in the galaxy he still cares about.

The Chronicles Of Riddick, since I first saw the bits of it I saw, made me question what makes a science fiction epic. I can't understand why The Chronicles Of Riddick is not considered a classic and why it was not more successful. I find only three real problems with The Chronicles Of Riddick.

The first problem is that it felt long. A lot happens in the movie, but it felt long, even though I was engaged by it. The second problem is the unnecessary running. At the beginning of the movie, Riddick is literally running around Helion Prime and there's no real good reason for it. We know he can run; he starts the movie running. Why does he need to run constantly? The final problem is that the lead is Vin Diesel, who is not the powerhouse of quality acting. And that is not truly a problem; Riddick is a heavy, so Vin Diesel is perfectly cast. Objecting to Vin Diesel as Riddick as a reason for denying The Chronicles Of Riddick a legitimate place in the echelons of science fiction epics is like condemning The Princess Bride for casting Andre the Giant for the role of the giant there.

So, what does The Chronicles Of Riddick do right? The first and foremost thing the film does well is create a distinct sense of place. The universe is a dark and miserable place and the smarter races of the universe use whatever they need to in order to win, in short, they will fight evil with evil. Some of the more subtle concepts go unexplained. So, for example, when the Necromongers invade Helion Prime, the survivors are given the chance to convert or die forever. The citizens surrender and Riddick resists. Riddick's resistance does not inspire anyone to get off their knees. Humanity is broken.

The visual effects are impressive with a real sense of architecture and culture behind the buildings, ships and planets in The Chronicles Of Riddick. I like that, it's easy to tell what the beliefs of the groups are and who and where the characters are. This movie creates a universe that is easily as distinct as other respected science fiction movies, like Star Wars. In fact, the universe is already better and more consistently defined than the universe in the Alien movies.

What keeps the movie rooted and interesting are the characters. Riddick is a convicted murderer who has in no way reformed, but his skills serve the greater good in The Chronicles Of Riddick and he makes for a compelling anti-hero. The morally ambiguous place created in this conflict allows the viewer to accept Kyra, a character who emulates Riddick so much that she has essentially become a murderer like Riddick while hunting for him. Kyra is tough, angry and skilled, making her an appropriate companion for Riddick - she is too like him to be a foil.

The villains are intriguing and while they are characterized as something different, they seem very human. The Necromongers are subject to infighting, as the Lord Marshal is hunted by his chief warrior, Vaako. Vaako is less an indoctrinated cult member and more a MacBeth with Dame Vaako as his Lady MacBeth whispering conspiracy in his ears. One of the most compelling of the villain's ranks is the Purifier whose allegiance is questionable and who possesses an integrity that is respectable, after a fashion.

The Chronicles Of Riddick is a very simple movie in terms of plot. Riddick is on the run, learns that Kyra has been hunting him and he tries to find her while avoiding the Necromongers, who also begin hunting him. This takes Riddick from Helion Prime to a fiery prison planet and back. The visual effects and battles are fairly impressive and fun to watch. The running gets tired, but it's necessary for the plot.

Generally, the acting is good. Colm Feore is wonderful and menacing as the Lord Marshal, Thandie Newton is brilliantly calculating as Dame Vaako. Judi Dench is wonderfully cast as Aereon, with her simple, quiet dignity. And Alexa Davalos is more than just a pretty face as Kyra. Davalos is tough and reminiscent of other strong women of science fiction, like Ripley and Buffy.

Some might suggest that The Chronicles Of Riddick suffers from Alien 3 Syndrome. Alien 3 (reviewed here!) was strangely disregarded and disliked by a lot of the fans because it mortgaged the hope present at the end of Aliens. The Chronicles Of Riddick does not quickly make Pitch Black a futile endeavor and I would suggest that the five years in between the events of the two movies justifies the first film, regardless of what happens to any of the characters in The Chronicles Of Riddick.

In all, The Chronicles Of Riddick is a solid adventure in a distinct universe that is well constructed and enjoyable to visit. It's worth the time of anyone who enjoys good science fiction and/or adventures. It is definitely underrated.

For other distinct science fiction epic films, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Dark City
Green Lantern
The Matrix


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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