David Twohy has been one of the more interesting cult filmmakers of recent years. The surprisingly fun alien invasion flick "The Arrival" managed to do the impossible - make Charlie Sheen a decent leading man. 2002's "Below" was a nicely creepy haunted submarine film which relied more on atmosphere than flashy effects. Then of course there's 2000's "Pitch Black" - a film that's essentially an "Alien" clone but as clones go, it was a stylish one. From its opening crash sequence to the washed out palette to the lead anti-hero character of Riddick, it had strong atmosphere. pacing and action.
So now comes "The Chronicles of Riddick", the first in what Universal is hoping to be a new trilogy of sci-fi epic films that will give them a franchise they so desperately want. 'Chronicles' treats "Pitch Black" like "Lord of the Rings" treats "The Hobbit" - a whole new story although there's some crossover characters and references to the past adventure. The tone however is radically different - no R-rated "Alien" clone this time, rather a PG-13 "Star Wars"/"Dune" style space opera of complex but muddled mythology and gore-less action hero antics.
The thing about sci-fi is that many people mistake it for a genre which it isn't exactly. Science Fiction, like period pieces or animation, determines the setting of a story - the tone of it however can be anything like an emotional drama, political thriller, action epic, slapstick comedy, murder mystery, horror suspense, and so on. The best sci-fi out there manages to use its setting to its advantage to beef up an already strong idea for a story. That's why the best 'sci-fi' out there are the likes of the family drama/civil rebellion action of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, the jungle assassin thriller "Predator", the political action- dramas of the "Star Trek"/"Babylon 5" universe, the elaborate techno-twisting tales of "Doctor Who", the conspiracy-fuelled investigative drama of "The X-Files" or the stalker horror or war movie antics of the first two "Alien" movies. These are strong character-driven complexly plotted dramas who just happen to use space, planets and/or aliens as part of their setting.
Bad sci-fi on the other hand becomes so caught up in exploring all the minute details of the mythology that it forgets that strong characters and clever stories are far more important than the look of the alien creatures or worlds the film is filled with - that's how we get mediocre crap like the first two "Star Wars" prequels. 'Chronicles' sadly falls into this trap as well - Twohy has created an elaborate back story and cultural history to this universe but sadly that comes at the cost of a compelling main story.
'Chronicles' is more a sci-fi "Conan" than a new "Star Wars", and consequently it makes one big mistake in changing our lead into a standard action movie hero, thus destroying the original template of the character. Riddick was such a great character in "Pitch Black" because he was the archetype of the anti-hero, someone forced to become heroic due only to circumstance and personal interest. He was a guy who was only out for number one, and if you got in his way at all he'd sooner slit your throat than argue with you. In 'Chronicles' he's become the standard grunting Schwarzenegger type role - minus the quips.
The opening 30 minutes is an utter mess - a jumbled mish-mash of exposition galore with everyone being thrown into a situation with little to no explanation. There's a bunch of characters ranging from the gruff bounty hunter Toombs (who at least adds some comic relief), a woefully miscast Dench as a mist-like 'Elemental' being, Keith David reprising his 'Pitch' holy man role, etc. Admittedly these characters do move the story slightly along, the same can't be said for the bad guys. The usually fine Feore is somewhat flat oddly enough, hardly the menacing leader of a galactic jihad. Karl Urban and Thandie Newtwon struggle with both their hairdos and limp material which seems like a bad interpretation of Macbeth, and in the end neither adds anything at all to the main story.
Thus a lot of your enjoyment of this movie will ride on how much you like Diesel. Personally I think he's alright provided he's given the right material but so far 'Pitch' and "The Fast & The Furious" remains the only films that have truly played to his strengths. 'Riddick' in itself displays examples of what to do and what not to do with the actor. After the opening jumble, the film verges off on a tangent for about 40 minutes where an imprisoned Riddick and a grown up Jack (the lithe Davalos) try to escape an underground prison on a planet with a 700 degree sunrise. This middle act is by far the film's saving grace - reducing the scope from a galactic soap opera to a gritty prison drama/chase with sci-fi trappings. Riddick himself finally returns to his 'Pitch' roots with less word usage and fiercer actions.
Yet despite some fun scenes (including a 'killer dogs attack'), the biggest credibility stretchers and unintentional jokes of the movie are here as well. We can buy the setup of the prison and the planet, but the way that Riddick is able to not get roasted in a 700 degree firestorm by staying 'in the shade' is something even those who could put up with that "Van Helsing" twaddle are going to laugh at. To see him swinging around in the light with just some steam rising off his body as the only after effect provokes a laugh - something which feels odd in a movie that seems so desperate to take everything and everyone in it seriously.
The last half hour is a passable wrap-up with an open end for a sequel and a decent mano-e-mano fight. The production design overall is impressive with the Baroque-inspired Necromonger ships and some truly elaborate sets of beauty. Twohy has no doubt created an elaborate universe here and has paid attention to every detail so production values are pretty high. That's countered though by some absolutely horrendous cinematography which is so close-up that much of the fight scenes become pointless as you don't get any perspective. The score, the editing and the pace are all off as well whilst the script spends too much time on background and not enough on character or story. Effects are fine with one or two clever uses but nothing special. Overall it's Twohy's weakest film yet and as sci-fi goes, it deserves to be jettisoned.