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Vin Diesel and "The Chronicles of Riddick" harken back to Roger Corman and the golden age of the B-movie.

12:00 AM, Jun 11, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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PART Dune, part MacBeth, and part Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Chronicles of Riddick may be the most expensive B-movie ever made. Budgeted at $120 million, Riddick is director David Twohy's sequel to his 2000 effort, Pitch Black, which was budgeted at $23 million. Money, like power, often corrupts.

Pitch Black was a modest and deserving hit. A life-boat movie about a small crew of people who survive their spaceship's crash-landing and then have to endure a siege of monsters on their way to safety, Pitch Black was thrifty, clever, and filled with off-speed stuff. Vin Diesel plays an escaped convict named Riddick, who tries to kill the group off, one-by-one, while ostensibly helping them escape.

The Chronicles of Riddick picks up five years later. Riddick is still on the run from the law, but a galactic war is breaking out. Pursued by bounty hunters, he winds up on a planet called Helios, which appears to be a New Mecca for Muslims. Arriving on Helios shortly after Riddick is a race called the Necromongers, who are moving from planet to planet, conquering and then either converting or killing everyone they find. The question is, converting them to what? The Necromonger leader is a fellow named Lord Marshal (played by Colm Feore) who, we are told, is "the holy half dead" and is the only person alive (or half dead, as it were) to have visited a realm called the Underverse.

The Necromongers seem to think that the Underverse is a swell place and that being converted is a wonderful thing, yet for some reason, the poor souls they conquer are reluctant to join them. Perhaps it's the nomenclature. After all, people wouldn't honeymoon in Hawaii if it was called "Death Island." Lord Marshal's galactic conquest might go more smoothly if he hired competent workers at the Necromonger Board of Tourism.

But back to the issue of conversion. The Necromongers have some sort of religious belief, and although we don't know what it is, it seems safe to assume it might be just a little bit evil. Their pillaging and forced conversions of an explicitly Muslim society suggest the crusades, although their regimentation suggests Imperial Rome, and the gauziness of their beliefs suggests L. Ron Hubbard.

Riddick, who is the last remaining member of a warrior race called the Furyans (again with the names), is prophesied to be the death of the Lord Marshal and so, after much to-ing and fro-ing, they square off, with the fate of the universe--or maybe it's the Underverse--hanging in the balance. I couldn't tell. I promise that if you last to this point in The Chronicles of Riddick, you won't be able to either.

STILL, The Chronicles of Riddick has all the makings of a cult success. The costumes are striking and the production design of the movie shows careful thought and much imagination. From the creepy, gothic costumes and masks to the enormous statuary inside the Necromonger ships, the level of detail approaches the baroque. As a bonus, the unintelligible, half-complete mythology of the story leaves enough room for a vast garden of fan-fiction to flower.

Also in its favor is the heavy-hitting cast which includes, quite improbably, Judi Dench. In a rare poor performance, Madame Dench often looks as though she's plotting ways to mutilate her agent. It is difficult to fault her. At one point in the movie, Riddick regards an attractive woman and rumbles, "It's been a long times since I smelled beautiful."

Also along for the ride are Thandie Newton, Alexa Davalos, and Karl Urban, whom viewers will remember from his grimacing in The Lord of the Rings. Of these three, it is difficult to say who has the roughest road, but perhaps the award should go to Newton, who in one scene has to appear alluring while applying eyeliner with a burning metal rod.

Why is she using what looks like a cauterizing iron to put on makeup? It's just one of the many mysteries The Chronicles of Riddick leaves unanswered.

THIS ISN'T incompetent moviemaking. Or in any case, not just incompetent moviemaking. Twohy is setting up his sequels. The Chronicles of Riddick was intended to be the first installment of a trilogy, which, unless someone at Universal is irretrievably mortgaged to Vin Diesel, probably won't get made. Either in the theaters or on DVD, Riddick will amass a cult following, but, as they say in Burbank, a cult following doesn't cover the debt service on a $120 million tent-pole flick.

Which is a shame. The best, most intriguing part of Riddick is the ending, which does a nice job opening the door for the next installment. But fans shouldn't hold their breath waiting for it in the theaters. If they're lucky, it might get done as a mini-series on the Sci Fi Channel, where it will be every bit as good as The Chronicles of Riddick. Twohy will just be forced to do it on the cheap; which may not be a bad thing.

Jonathan V. Last is the film critic for The Daily Standard.