Picking over the still-dripping bones of the first two "Alien" movies, the talented sci-fi director and screenwriter David N. Twohy cooked up a tasty little space-horror flick four years ago called "Pitch Black." It was the first installment of a projected series devoted to the interstellar exploits of the bulked-up, silver-eyed antihero Richard B. Riddick, an escaped prisoner who's either a vicious murderer ... or simply misunderstood. (Whatta ya think?)
In "Pitch Black," the recaptured Riddick (who can see in the dark thanks to a "surgical shine job" he got done on his eyes in prison) was being transported back to the slam on a passenger ship that wound up having to ditch on a planet that, as in the original "Alien," wasn't anywhere near as uninhabited as at first it seemed. In fact, the place was seething with what appeared to be some foul species of murderous, bat-winged serpent. These creatures hated the light, and since the planet that Riddick and his fellow castaways had crashed on had three suns, the problem seemed manageable. Until a total eclipse set in ...
"Pitch Black" was a wholehearted rip, not just of the "Alien" films, with their fiendish predators and fast-dwindling casts, but also of David Lynch's fascinating 1984 sci-fi fiasco, "Dune." (Among other things, the "Pitch Black" score, composed by Graeme Revell, intermittently echoes the "Prophecy Theme" from "Dune.") But while just about every major element in "Pitch Black" may have been borrowed from more original movies, director Twohy clapped them all together with a vision of his own: a fairly distinctive spacescape of glowing heavenly orbs and, down below, sprawling, skeletal debris. The movie was shot from restlessly inventive camera angles in deep tints of various moody hues, and it was fun: The plot was clear, the action was fast, and the neo-noir dialogue sometimes sounded as if it had been beamed in from Planet Hammett. (Riddick voice-over, as the camera scanned the hibernating spaceship passengers: "They say your brain shuts down in cryo sleep — all but the primitive side ... No wonder I'm still awake.")
Twohy's most valuable non-digital asset in "Pitch Black" was Vin Diesel, in the role of Riddick. Diesel, with his scraped pate and bulging torso, does look for all the world like a bouncer in the sort of too-far-downtown bar you hope you'll never wind up in. But in an action-movie context, he's a resourceful actor. Riddick is essentially a cipher — the character is imbued with about as much emotion as a disconsolate carrot — so Diesel couldn't really do a lot more with the role than lend it his heavy presence. But that, together with some unexpected glimmers of rough wit and personal warmth, was enough to anchor the movie.
Now Diesel is back for a reprise in "The Chronicles of Riddick," Twohy's sequel to "Pitch Black." But while he does what he does every bit as effectively as he did what he did in the previous film, this time around the story's beginning to sprawl and the fun is starting to thin.
Five years have passed, and Riddick is on the run again, pursued by bounty hunters. He winds up on a planet called Helion Prime (another echo of "Dune," one of whose featured spheres was named Giedi Prime). Helion has been overrun by a crazed and murderous warrior race called the Necromongers. (With a name like that, their behavioral options are probably limited.) The Necromongers are in the midst of conquering the universe, of course (here we appear to be entering "Star Trek" territory) and "converting" all the people they subjugate by driving spikes into their necks, so they can "learn how one pain can lessen another." Something like that.
Riddick may be bad-ass, but he is not down with these people. For one thing, they've spotted him as a "Furion" — suggesting that they know something about him that he doesn't know; always annoying — and there is apparently a prophecy that a Furion will one day kill their leader, the preening Lord Marshal. So they're not down with Riddick, either. And so, puzzled by this Furion business, Riddick throws in his lot with Helion's native populace. Lots of loud, nasty and, yes, sometimes pretty cool things happen, and Riddick finds himself carted off to prison on Planet Crematoria, no vacation destination, as you might imagine. Then ... I mean there... uh ...
You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of trying to keep track of the plot of the second "Matrix" movie, "Reloaded" — and failing, because who could honestly care enough about the plot of the second "Matrix" movie to bother keeping track of it? "The Matrix" was a great movie that stood on its own. The two sequels sucked, and I look forward to never seeing them again. "Pitch Black" was ... not a great movie, but a good one, I thought. "The Chronicles of Riddick" has some lively things in it (the guy walking off into the desert and being torn apart by a screaming fire-wind certainly held my attention), and Twohy's visual style is still pretty imaginative. But the story is growing ornate, and a little boring. (Is the Necromonger leader being referred to as "the Holy Half-Dead" mainly to elicit the zinger, "I wouldn't be surprised if someone promoted him soon to full-dead"?)
As the story flabs out into murky areas that clearly can only be clarified by another sequel, Riddick himself is losing his tight-lipped, beefy mystery. He even has pick-up lines now. (Sniffing the air around some hot babe, he murmurs, "It's been a long time since I smelled 'beautiful.' ") This doesn't bode well. I mean, what next, hot tubs? Strip clubs? Sometimes, the more this sort of ambiguously charismatic character is opened up for us, the less we care about him. What'll be the next head-spinning plot twist? Will Riddick suddenly turn out to be the king of the Necromongers or something?
Actually, don't ask.