OK, let's review. Four years ago there was a little horror movie with a lot of bat-winged monsters, a planet plunged in darkness and a baldheaded muscleman with a goofy name and an amusingly deadpan manner. It was called "Pitch Black," and it was awesome. But if there's one thing that pop culture teaches us (and I'm not saying there is) it's that nothing is quite as damaging as success.
Now we get a sequel to "Pitch Black," sort of, that has almost nothing to do with the original picture. Its ingredients are many and various: a star and director who already seem like their pop moment might be receding in the rear-view mirror; a B-plus international cast; a bunch of costumes and props that look as if George Lucas commissioned them but decided they were too cheesy; expensive but not especially distinctive digital effects; some half-baked Tolkien-meets-"Matrix" mythological mumbo jumbo; Thandie Newton in a few really hot Bob Mackie-style gowns; fragments of warmed-over community-theater Shakespeare. I enjoyed it immensely, but not because it was any damn good.
The leading man of this movie -- and, of course, of "Pitch Black" -- is Vin Diesel, and what the hell happened to him, anyway? At first, Diesel's combination of tough-guy bravado and self-mocking hipster detachment felt like something fresh in the worn-out action genre. Audiences and critics alike ate him up in the blissfully stupid "The Fast and the Furious," one of those perfect summer flicks it just seemed wrong not to enjoy. After that, sadly, Diesel became a movie star, and there's nothing boring-er than that.
His self-aware shtick turned out to be a fragile and perhaps accidental thing; in the dismal "XXX," which tried to turn the mercifully brief "extreme sports" craze into a Bond-style movie franchise, he just acted like a dolt. Then came his moody, actorly turn in "A Man Apart," which nobody really wanted to see, including those who saw it. Tell the truth -- when you see that movie in the video store, your eyes glaze over. You sigh involuntarily. You move on to other things: USA originals starring Alyssa Milano in a camisole, one of the 30 movies in which M. Emmet Walsh plays a corrupt small-town sheriff, anything with Don "The Dragon" Wilson.
If Diesel's career seems to hang in the balance -- is he the new Schwarzenegger or the new Jean-Claude Van Damme? -- so does writer-director David Twohy's. Twohy had been hanging around Hollywood for a dozen years, banging out screenplays for big-money crapola like "G.I. Jane" and "Waterworld," before breaking through as a director with "Pitch Black." He capitalized on this success by making an underwhelming little thriller about a haunted World War II submarine ("Below"). It was basically "Pitch Black" underwater, and it sank without a trace, ha ha.
Now he and Diesel, with impeccable Hollywood logic, have tried to go back to their roots and cover them up at the same time. Instead of the claustrophobic, pulse-pounding nightmare of "Pitch Black," they've made the kind of overblown space opera where you're impressed by the sheer scale of the thing, and you're more or less enjoying the ride, but you're also laughing at all the wrong moments. Diesel can still command the screen; there are moments here when he prowls the overdecorated sets with his cartoon muscles and weird little shades, looking for all the world like a resentful tomcat, and your inner teenage boy will announce to you that whoa, that dude is cool.
But Diesel's not really the center of this overcrowded spectacle, or anyway not as much as he should be. After a few seconds of Vin, Twohy will stage one of his fast-edit, impossible-to-follow action scenes (I know, I know, influence of MTV and video games, blah blah blah) or some guys with drama-class accents wearing late medieval armor will show up and explain to the inhabitants of a conquered planet that they must join a wacky religious cult called the Necromongers or be killed, and the essential dumbness of the whole enterprise shines through unavoidably.
I definitely can't do that movie-critic thing of complaining about how Hollywood movies never have stories anymore; "The Chronicles of Riddick" has Mixmastered the plots of "Star Wars," "The Lord of the Rings," the biblical tale of Moses and Pharaoh, the Borg episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Macbeth" and whichever "Alien" movie it is where Sigourney Weaver is the only chick on a prison planet. This is too much story by a factor of about five, maybe, but one of the things that makes this movie essentially likable is the way it just keeps piling more stuff on the sandwich, in the manner of old grade-B science fiction.
If you don't like the plot about ex-con Riddick (Diesel) outrunning the bounty hunters who've been chasing him since he got off the "Pitch Black" planet, just stay tuned. Soon we're off to the peaceable, Islamic-seeming planet being conquered by the undead, quasi-Christian Necromonger warriors (ooh -- social commentary!), where some transparent entity played by Judi Dench has summoned Riddick and his weird electronic-blue eyes because, well, because he's a badass, I guess.
Elegant Colm Feore plays the messianic chieftain of the Necromongers, and mullet-sporting Karl Urban (Éomer from "Lord of the Rings") is his moody lieutenant with a beautiful, scheming wife (Newton). Apparently Colm had some kind of near-death experience and saw something really amazing called the "Underverse." I don't know if that's a Victoria's Secret support garment or a Polish liver sausage, but either way I don't want to see it. But before we can work out what's up with them, the bounty hunters are back and we're off to the prison planet, where the tomboy named Jack that Riddick saved in "Pitch Black" has grown up into an incarcerated hottie named Kyra (Alexa Davalos). "Jack's dead," she tells him. "She was weak." Whereas, as we all know, Kyra is a name that suggests prison-yard macho toughness.
What am I forgetting? A prison break to the planet's surface, where it's far below freezing at night and a flesh-melting 700 degrees by day. A couple of fuzzy wart hog-hyena critters, vicious to you and me but cuddly as little schnauzer puppies with Riddick. A row of humans being turned into Necromongers, strung up like suits at the cleaners with Matrix-style jacks jammed in their necks.
And then, rather than resolving any of these incoherent plotlines, "The Chronicles of Riddick" just stops dead. Twohy and Diesel (who co-produced) evidently believe that they can will this movie into becoming a multipart zillion-dollar fantasy franchise through sheer preposterousness and bogus grandeur. I don't know about that; I suspect people will show up and have a good time, but might not care enough to come back. Which is kind of the problem with Vin Diesel in general, isn't it?
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