Upon its release in 2004, Vin Diesel’s The Chronicles Of Riddick was critically maligned and bombed at the box office – here’s why it didn’t deserve it.
Spoilers for The Chronicles Of Riddick lie ahead.
Sci-fi/horror Pitch Black introduced the violent criminal and abrasive anti-hero known as Richard B. Riddick, played by Vin Diesel. Directed by The Arrival‘s David Twohy, it told an Alien-like story, pitting Riddick and a group of civilians against a dangerous alien threat after they crash land on a seemingly abandoned planet. The film became a sleeper hit, grossing over $53 million worldwide on its $23 million budget.
The sequel, titled The Chronicles Of Riddick, would have no such luck. Fuelled by the lead character’s cult following and the success of another Diesel vehicle, The Fast And The Furious, David Twohy would once again be asked to write and direct, this time with a considerably larger budget of around $120 million – a budget the film would fail to make back at the box office. It was also critically panned. It was described as a decent mindless action film, but a poor sequel to Pitch Black.
It’s certainly very different to its predecessor, but that’s one of the standout qualities of the film – its ambition.
Five years on from the events of Pitch Black, Riddick is in hiding on an unnamed ice planet, evading bounty hunters led by Toombes (Nick Chinlund). After stealing their ship and reuniting with Imam (Keith David), one of his fellow passengers from the first film, he learns he may be Furyan, a near-extinct race of ancient warriors. As it turns out, Riddick may be the only one who can defeat the Necromongers, an evil cult that worships a half-dead leader, the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), and that seeks to convert, or kill, the entire universe.
Are there a lot of ideas there? Possibly too many? Undoubtedly. But they’re also interesting ideas that give the film all of the hallmarks of a proper sci-fi epic. Dare I describe this as Vin Diesel’s Dune?
The Chronicles Of Riddick expands on the lead character’s origins, and the universe he resides in. It assembles a mixture of grand production design, a good combination of A and B list actors, and sets up a grandiose epic storyline fit for a franchise. All the while it’s self aware enough not to take itself too seriously and leans into the cheesy, and consequentially memorable, dialogue.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the movie is Nick Chinlund as bounty hunter Toombes. It’d been seven years since Nicolas Cage told him to put the bunny back in the box in Con Air, but the actor certainly hadn’t lost his touch when it comes to playing villains. Toombes is a sleazy, nasty piece of work, and Chinlund has some of the wildest lines to deliver. It’s almost enough to make you cringe when he tells his colleagues to “throw on a fresh pair of panties, let’s get this right”, when they’re hunting Riddick. I think that’s partly down to how much the actor gives himself over to being completely gross for the role. Chinlund seems to know exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and sets his expressions and performance to 110% as a result. He’s creepy, but he’s also unforgettable.
Chinlund may be leaning into the film’s B-Movie aspects, but The Chronicles Of Riddick is overall finely balanced between the over-dramatic and the serious. Karl Urban, fresh off of The Lord Of The Rings, gives a smoldering performance as Commander Vaako, and Thandiwe Newton goes full Lady Macbeth as his ruthless megalomaniac wife, Dame Vaako. She doesn’t even have a first name, but with her extravagant hairstyles, skin-tight iridescent gowns, and eyeliner that literally burns as you apply it, she probably doesn’t need one. Keith David adds some much needed gravitas in the role of Imam, and contributes a good amount of emotional intensity to the narrative through (spoilers) his death. Even Dame Judi Dench is in this film; you can’t say it’s not sporting an excellent cast.
Somehow we’ve got this far into discussing The Chronicles Of Riddick without mentioning much of the man himself. Diesel is brilliant in this. It’s a role that doesn’t require him to be the best actor in the world, it just requires him to speak in a gruff tone and deliver badass lines. “I’ll kill you with my teacup”, Riddick calmly states to a prison guard on the fiery planet of Crematoria, before swiftly following through on his promise.
Don’t be fooled by the one-liners and inventive action sequences though (as amusing as they are), there’s a surprising amount of emotional weight to this story, and a lot for Riddick to learn. Part of the complaint about this instalment may be that Riddick has gone a bit soft, but no one can prevent themselves from forming emotional attachments forever. The inclusion of Jack (now going by Kyra) from Pitch Black leads to Riddick dealing with her issues with abandonment. The fact that he left her to get on with her life has a tangible negative impact that he shoulders the blame for.
The Chronicles Of Riddick reveals that our anti-hero has historically heroic lineage, and deals with how he changes as a response to knowing that. His transition to more of a heroic figure makes more sense when you compare Riddick to the Necromongers, who are written and visually coded as being obviously and irredeemably evil. The production design, especially where the Nercromongers are concerned, is far from subtle. But then again, not many sci-fi or fantasy films are when it comes to the appearance of their villains.
But that’s not to say that Riddick is a clear-cut hero by the end of the film. He’s loved for his complexity, and the ending definitely leans into that. After Kyra’s death at the hands of the Lord Marshal and Riddick’s fatal retaliation, the Necromongers kneel before him and accept him as their new leader. Riddick as the leader of an evil cult? Sign me up. Had this plot thread been followed in 2013’s threequel, there would have been plenty of opportunity to explore the morally grey areas of the character, not to mention the chance to take him on another grand adventure. Sadly, it was not be, with the studio deciding to more closely replicate Pitch Black in the disappointing Riddick.
The Chronicles Of Riddick is an ambitious sci-fi adventure on an epic scale, that also knows how to have a sense of humour. With the 2016 announcement that Universal is developing a fourth Riddick film, which Diesel confirmed would be again written and directed by Twohy, there’s another opportunity to continue the world-building of Chronicles. In 2019, Diesel reported that the script was completed for Riddick 4: Furya, which implies that it could see the character return to his legendary home world.
We’ll just have to wait and see what kind of story it tells.
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