by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our series on notorious box office bombs continues with 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, David Twohy’s follow-up to 2000’s Pitch Black. Vin Diesel returns as the titular Riddick, a badass criminal pulled from five years of exile by bounty hunters who lead him back to Imam (Keith David), the man he saved in the first film. Imam’s planet is soon invaded by an army of death worshippers called Necromongers. Their leader (Colm Feore as Lord Marshal) believes Riddick to be the man prophesied to murder him, so he dispatches his lieutenant Vaako (Karl Urban) to hunt him down. Vaako’s ambitious wife (Thandie Newton), however, sees Riddick’s strength as an opportunity to destroy Marshal and install her husband as leader of the Necromongers. Meanwhile, Riddick reunites with Pitch Black’s Jack (Alexa Davalos), who has joined up with a group of mercenaries. Eventually, things come to a head and everyone fights. You get it. Dame Judy Dench also plays a sort of ethereal wind goddess, which rules.
This was only the second time I’d seen The Chronicles of Riddick all the way through, and although it’s got plenty to like, it remains a disappointing sequel to Pitch Black. My major problem isn’t the convoluted story or early 2000s special effects, though. It isn't that the film is bloated with lore and prophecies and death-worshipping space empires. It’s not that the Director’s Cut runs an extremely plodding 135 minutes. No, my major problem with The Chronicles of Riddick is that those things get in the way of Vin Diesel being cool. This was 2004! That’s a prime era (era) for Vin Diesel’s Inexplicable Coolness. Riddick is more passive than in Pitch Black, if I remember that film correctly, mostly buried under the worldbuilding. It’s not that a sequel shouldn’t go bigger; I respect David Twohy’s ambition. I do. But — to me, anyway — Vin Diesel must either always be the coolest element of a Vin Diesel movie, or he must believe himself to be. He should be the thing that stands out and makes the movie charismatic, both intentionally and unintentionally. There are simply too many other things going on here for him to be able to do that.
Adam: I think I might like the movie more than you do while also agreeing that it’s my least favorite of the three Riddick movies. The Chronicles of Riddick is plodding, especially in the first hour. There’s so much world-building and so many character introductions that I not only thought they lost Vin Diesel in the shuffle a bit, but they also lost me as a viewer in the story. Around the halfway point when the characters are fighting on the prison planet is when I finally felt settled into the movie and I enjoyed the remainder of the film.
I appreciate that Riddick is cool (like other Diesel cinematic creations), but also allowed to be other things in the Riddick films. It’s his most three-dimensional character of his blockbusters. Riddick can be cool, sympathetic, dangerous, playful, etc. That’s part of what makes Pitch Black and Riddick so much fun. He’s never not a bastard, even when he’s teaming up with the “good guys.” It’s just that he’s not a monster compared to literal monsters or monstrous human villains.
Rob: That’s a good point. I think it’s been so long since I've seen Pitch Black that I’ve forgotten Layered Vin. Carry on.
Adam: The Chronicles of Riddick is (as you said) more ambitious with much of the plot centered around Riddick’s heritage and the turf war among his homeland with the conquering Necromongers. I don’t find that element very interesting narratively, but I will say that visually The Chronicles of Riddick is always interesting (the production design) or beautiful (Alexa Davalos) to look at. This might be a better movie to watch in 15-minute intervals than straight through as a story. You mentioned you watched the Director’s Cut. I had rented the Theatrical Cut before we discussed which we were reviewing, so maybe that helped. The film felt like it had pacing issues but not insurmountable ones.
Rob: I agree. It’s just one of those movies that you don’t ever feel kick into gear in a narrative sense. It just goes from thing to thing. Fifteen-minute intervals might be the perfect format.
Rob: Spider-Man 2 must have been truly transcendent to watch right after a break-up. #VindicatedIAmSelfishIAmWrong #IAmRight #ISwearImRight #SwearIKnewItAllAlong
Adam: It was. I saw it 3 times that summer! Do you think the Riddick series could have caught on with mass audiences if it was more scaled back/less inside baseball? My theory is the filmmakers trusted that audiences would get involved in deep lore and world-building with this one because series like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were popular by then and rooted in their own detailed fantasy mythology. Maybe the issue was that Pitch Black was more of a horror film and The Chronicles of Riddick was for the sci-fi crowd and neither genre audience felt like it was theirs.
Rob: Yeah, it definitely feels like they were trying to Rings-ify something that didn’t want or need it. Normally, though, I love the inside baseball, world-building genre stuff when it’s done effectively. I think it’s hard to grow up on Star Wars and Harry Potter and not love totally absorbing universes that come with indexes and appendices and inspire die-hard fan commitment. I’m recalling The Atlantic’s David Sims’ (co-host of the Blank Check podcast) review of Alita: Battle Angel: “I’m defenseless before any dizzyingly silly sci-fi epic that downloads gigabytes of lore into the viewer’s brain by means of a simple hero’s-journey narrative...colorful, mega-budgeted nonsense splashed onto a grand canvas.” I love that stuff! But how often does it really catch fire with a mass audience? I feel like Game of Thrones was the last big one. More often you get big-swinging flops like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I don’t think it’s something studios can engineer, much as they try to quantify it on a spreadsheet. It just has to happen.
Rob: According to Wikipedia, this is the second chapter. Apparently, the opening of Riddick does deal with the fallout of this one. I’ll probably go back and rewatch that one after I hit up xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, a relentlessly stupid movie that I absolutely adore.
What’s up next week?
Adam: I rewatched Riddick not too long ago. That movie’s great. Now I want to revisit xXx: The Return of Xander Cage too. We’ll be back next week with another entry in our Hundos series as we revisit 2012’s The Five-Year Engagement, starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Pratt. Until next time…
Rob: These seats are reserved.