There must be some sort of unwritten rule that all classy British actors of a certain age have to appear in big-budget sci-fi epics. How else can you explain the presence of Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick? Having missed out on the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, Dench had no choice but to sign up for David Twohy's cut-rate copycat, playing Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore figure Aereon. The Oscar-winning Dame sharing lines with Vin Diesel? Please. That had to be mandated by the powers-that-be.
You'd think Dench might lend a little class to Chronicles, though, whatever her reasons for showing up, but while she escapes the movie relatively unscathed, overall it's a laughable blend of sci-fi and action clichés, and a whole lot of star Diesel grunting and straining. It's too bad, because writer-director Twohy made a good movie with the Riddick character in 2000's Pitch Black, a suspenseful and economical sci-fi thriller that was a complete Alien rip-off, but a pretty decent one.
Twohy wisely doesn't try to copy the Pitch Black formula, but what he comes up with to replace it is a muddled mess. Five years after narrowly escaping from a planet full of things that go bump in the night, escaped convict Riddick (Diesel) finds himself caught in the middle of an interstellar war, as an evil race called the Necromongers makes its way across the universe, destroying worlds in a quest to reach something called the Underverse, a vague concept that's never fleshed out.
Led by the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore, with a permanent sneer), the Necromongers fear only one thing: a race called the Furions, of whom Riddick is the last survivor. If Pitch Black was Twohy's Alien, then Chronicles is obviously his Star Wars, with Riddick set up as a glowering, muscle-bound Luke Skywalker. The problem is that Riddick the character and Diesel the actor can't stand up to that kind of pressure. In Pitch Black, Riddick was the strong, silent type, not even speaking for the film's first half-hour. As part of an ensemble, he worked as the volatile anti-hero, and Diesel's limited range fit him perfectly.
But everything about Chronicles has to be bigger, thanks to Diesel's status as a star and Twohy's bloated ambition to create a sci-fi trilogy. Riddick doesn't work as a three-dimensional character, the film's complex mythology is riddled with holes, and it all makes you long for the days when all Twohy wanted to do was make a decent scary movie.