The Chronicles of Riddick takes the B-movie mythology of Pitch Black and attempts to magnify it with dozens of new characters, planet hopping, and political intrigue on the level Frank Herbert’s Dune–with hints William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–but it ends up a little more like a backwater galaxy somewhere in the Star Trek universe. Like Star Trek, there are sweeping images of hundreds of space ships, hordes of computer-generated extras that attempt to broaden the political and social scope of the story, but the gap between the backdrop and the foreground is at bit on the wide side.
Pitch Black worked as a small scifi/monster flick that didn’t get too big for its britches, making the most of its lack of budget with intensely staged chase scenes across a dark, barren, single planetary landscape. Mysterious creatures emerge from underground as the sun sets in that movie, and they exist mainly in the shadows at first, offering more suspense than shock as the marooned group raced against the odds through the increasing darkness. Chronicles takes that smallish film and asks us to swallow the notion that it was always part of a larger, Shakespearean science fiction saga.
This “Pitch Black 2” film works best in its middle section, where Vin Diesel leads another set of prisoners and mercenaries across a sun-scorched landscape as the rising sun singes everything in its path. It is like an inverse of the first film, but this time, the characters race ahead of the rising sun, hiding in the shadows to avoid being fried to a crisp. Not one, but two sets of malicious, weapon-bearing groups stand between them and a distant hanger where they hope to find a ship to take them off the seared planet.
The film is worst in its opening, and even more in its climax, where a Dune-like, final combat sequence (minus anyone as vicious as Sting) decides the political and religious fate of the universe. It is a large bite to ask the audience to chew just before rolling the credits. Another sequel is set up in these final moments: a sequel that promises to continue the series’ trajectory toward brain-searing scifi politics (although the series has since gone in the direction of animation). The ending of this film echoes the increasingly cerebral tendencies of Frank Herbert’s series, which also worked better when it aimed for less rather than more.