The film studios’ relationship with sequels is complex. Movies built on previously successful properties are likely to make money, and studios like money. Okay, so it isn’t really that complex. The reasons we watch sequels is a little more complicated. Sometimes one movie isn’t enough to finish the complete story, such as with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, or STAR WARS movies. Sometimes we love the characters and want to see them in new adventures, such as THE FAST & FURIOUS, or STAR WARS (see, complicated). Sometimes we want to revisit stories years later to see how things have progressed, like with Linklater’s BEFORE series, or BASIC INSTINCT 2 (seriously, they made a BASIC INSTINCT 2, look it up). And sometimes we just want more of the same (again, STAR WARS). Unfortunately, most sequels end up catering to the last category. Don’t get me wrong, I love plenty of more-of-the-same sequels, ones with just enough tweaks and twists and personality to stand out. Horror sequels are almost all more-of-the-same, and they fill my shelves. The sequels that I really admire, though, are the ones that take big chances. They use the preceding movie as a stepping off point to explore the story from a completely new angle. I love the ALIEN series because each movie is so different in tone from the previous one (I’m not including the ALIEN VS PREDATOR movies, as these are not films but crimes against humanity). RAID 2 is like night and day compared to RAID, but both are incredible movies. Taking huge leaps can sometimes lead to disaster, such as with HIGHLANDER 2 (the immortals are now aliens! On hoverboards!). Other times it can lead to interesting, expansive, slightly less disastrous projects. For instance, 2004’s THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK.
Alright, try to stay with me. In the far future, escaped convict and knife enthusiast Richard “Ricky” Riddick (Vin Diesel) is drawn out of his retirement on a desolate frozen planet and straight into an intergalactic struggle. The elemental wind witch, Aereon (Judi Dench. Really), has a plan (?) to stop the Necromongers, an army of death obsessed fanatics who like blowing up planets. Riddick is the key. Before she can explain how that is supposed to work, the Necros, lead by the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), takes Aereon prisoner. Riddick escapes the Necros but is taken prisoner by a team of mercenaries and hauled off to a triple max prison on Crematoria, a planet that is on fire during the day (reasonably comfortable at night). There Riddick meets back up with Jack (Alexa Davalos), the kid who he saved in the previous movie. She’s all grown up and going by the name Kyra, because now that she isn't pretending to be a boy anymore, Jack is kind of a stupid name. Figuring out how to escape is not their biggest problem, though. Lord Marshal has sent his top man, Vaako (Karl Urban), to find and kill Riddick before an ancient prophesy can come to pass.
I haven’t seen anything of this ridiculous scale since David Lynch's DUNE. It makes STAR WARS seem grounded and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY seem subtle. The craziest thing, though, is that this is a sequel to 2000’s PITCH BLACK, which is about as small scale and intimate as this kind of sci-fi can get. In that movie, a small group of space travelers crash on a planet teeming with subterranean light sensitive monsters on the one day in 22 years when there will be a total eclipse. The original title was SHIT TIMING, but PITCH BLACK looked better on a marquee. It was a film with limited and basic sets, a straight forward story, and was very character driven. I would categorize it as more horror than sci-fi, like ALIEN. Riddick wasn’t even the main character, though he was the most interesting. It certainly wasn’t clear if he was going to survive to the end of the film (SPOILER: he did).
The trailer for THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK really threw me for a loop. The jump from small scale to elaborate spectacle was jarring, to say the least. Even the title was weird. It is more of a series title than a single movie. Wasn’t the first movie also part of the chronicles? Was no one keeping track before now? In any event, I put off seeing it. I feared that CHRONICLES’ bombastic space circus would leave no room for the small character moments and the tension that I liked so much in PITCH BLACK. Happily, I was wrong. While all of the (relatively) realistic elements of the first movie are long gone, the character of Riddick is exactly the same. That factor is the best thing about the movie and is what makes it work. The stakes in the story are huge and far reaching. The scourge of the Necromongers threatens to destroy the entire universe (as vaguely defined as it is). The only hope is a prophesy about a lone survivor of a vanished race. Yeah, Riddick doesn’t give a fuck about any of that. He only cares about two things, staying free and smacking down anybody who pisses him off. He does feel a connection to the other survivors of the first movie, especially Kyra, but otherwise he can't be bothered. The lives he saves and the evil he overthrows is only a byproduct of everybody getting in Riddick's way. Seriously, if Lord Marshal and his crew just left him alone, Riddick would have happily let every planet but the one he was standing on get blown up.
The movie rests almost entirely on Vin Diesel’s brawny shoulders, so it’s a good thing he makes Riddick such a fun character. He’s the kind of guy who only speaks badass. Every single line means business. If highways still exist in Riddick’s time, I’m positive that at some point he’s said “It’s my way or the highway.” Diesel is great at action, so the film is filled with nice stunts, epic fights, and lots and lots of running, mostly in slow motion. His run across the surface of Crematoria, trying to keep ahead of a surging sea of fire, is particularly impressive. There is some shooting, but Riddick is a stabby/slashy kind of guy, so his fights are mostly hand to hand. Side question, does bad guy space armor ever actually protect anybody?
Alexa Davalos does a nice job of being the Riddick-in-training badass, Kyra. Her tiny frame makes it a little hard to buy that she can throw all these big dudes around, but her attitude and scowl make up for it. She is introduced beating up a bunch of prison guards from inside a locked box. The scene implies there’s some kind of dangerous animal in the box, and it turns out to be a 90 lb girl. The guards should know better than to underestimate her, but they don’t, and continuously pay the price for it (one handsy guard gets a bladed boot to the dick). Maybe you should leave that one alone, fellas. I like that even though she’s grown up all sexy, Kyra and Riddick never get romantic. That would have been weird, since he probably still thinks of her as a 12 year old named Jack.
Keith David makes the most of his scant screen time, because any amount of time with Keith David is a good time. The real stand out of the movie, simply because of her presence, is Judi Dench. Honestly, I still have no idea what the deal is with her character. She’s some kind of ghostly wind witch, but just listening to her go on about whatever-the-hell in her beautiful, dignified voice is good enough for me. All I can think about is how Diesel got Dame Judi Fucking Dench to be in this crazy space opera. I don't think she knew anymore about what was going on than I did, but it seemed like she is having fun, at least.
The Necromongers are fantastically detailed and outrageous villains. They are the mopy goth kids of the universe. Their national anthem is probably a Joy Division song. All of their architecture and technology is based around suffering and sadness. Everything has a giant frowning face on it. Their ship interiors are all cavernous and filled with spikes (they must get so many OSHA violations). They decorate with huge statues of people torturing themselves. Even something simple like a lever has a twisted body in agony carved on it. Their whole deal is that there is a wonderful paradise called “Underverse”, but you can only go there after you die, and only if you accept the Necromonger way beforehand. In their minds, they are the good guys. All the destruction and forced conversions are necessary to bring people to a glorious afterlife. Crazy space religion, where do they come up with this stuff?
Colm Feore, who seems British, but isn’t, brings a wonderfully fanatic gravitas to the Necro leader, Lord Marshal. He’s a legendary half dead, a concept that is never really explained, but means he can be in two places at once and can tear out people’s souls. He also wears a helmet with a face on every side, which I’m sure his employees find very unsettling. Can you imagine if your boss did that? It leads to a very tense work environment. That and all the spikes.
Surprisingly, there is a lot of skullduggery and court intrigue in the Necro Empire. Lord Marshal’s right hand man is Vaako, played by he-who-would-be-Dredd, Karl Urban. He is a great warrior, slightly undercut by his constant brooding and that he kind of looks like a European runway model. Vaako’s loyalty to Lord Marshal conflicts with his ambition to replace him. His wife, Mrs. Vaako (Thandie Newton, in some truly spectacular costumes), is the Lady Macbeth in this dynamic, goading and manipulating her husband into making a power grab. The end results don’t go exactly as they (or I) expected.
My favorite Necro, though, is The Purifier, played by Linus Roache. A more appropriate title would be The Emcee, because he’s really the Lord Marshal’s hype man, and he looks like he just came off an S&M version of Cabaret. He’s the most death fetishistic of the Necros. His uniform is stylishly accented with brass finger pieces and a cute bone encrusted skullcap (possibly made of real skull). At first it seems like he’s just a background character, but he has some secrets that bring Riddick’s prison escaping action movie together with the Lord Marshal’s Game of Space Thrones movie.
Director David Twohy (who also directed PITCH BLACK and the creepy haunted sub movie, BELOW) made a courageous leap with this sequel, and while there are a few shaky moments (and shaky 2004 CGI), it did right by me. The movie wasn’t a hit, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it, but it still managed to get a second sequel made, with plans for a third. I haven’t yet seen part three, just called RIDDICK, but I’m hoping Twohy totally shakes it up again. Maybe Riddick travels back to Industrial era London and battles steampunk robots. You know, something reasonable.