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The readers here at AMCtv.com have been awfully nice to me -- thank you -- but there's one thing I've done which has created some hurt feelings: Expressing my antipathy for The Chronicles of Riddick, the expensive, messy and largely unnecessary sequel to the cheap, smart and generally laudable Pitch Black, both starring Vin Diesel and written and directed by David Twohy. Apparently there are a lot of Riddick fans out there, because everytime I dis the flick, even as an aside, I get comments and e-mails asking what I've got against Riddick, anyway.
Well, what I have against Riddick is that the film took a cool character emerging out of a nifty cult success, and basically broke it in a misguided quest to make Riddick just another summer tentpole flick. In my opinion, all Riddick is good for is as a cautionary tale of how not make a sequel, science fiction or otherwise.
Where did Riddick go wrong? For the edification of all, including those of you who might one day be in a position to make a science fiction sequel, let us count the ways.
1. The plot is ridiculously overstuffed.
Pitch Black was a little film that knew what it was about: Cargo ship filled with a rag-tag bunch of screw-ups -- and a scary, probably amoral criminal -- crash lands on a desert planet just as monsters start pouring out of the planet's bowels, and we get to see who survives. Easy, simple, and thanks to Twohy's writing, surprisingly effective.
But then comes Riddick, in which Riddick, on the run from bounty hunters, single-handedly has to take down an army comprised of baroque goth fetishists, and tries to resolve a long-simmering personality issue with an old friend, and leads a prison break and discovers -- through the graces of a helium-infused Judy Dench -- that he's some sort of vague messiah and the last of his race. Any one of these would be enough for an entire film to deal with; Twohy tries to shoehorn it all in, and makes a mess of it.
Why? My theory: Twohy got handed $100 million and change to make his film -- i.e., about four times the budget of Pitch Black -- and freaked out a little trying to justify having that much to spend. He may have also intuited that if he screwed it up, he'd never get that much money to spend ever again. That's got to mess with your head. To be fair to Twohy, it doesn't look like anyone over at Universal said to him "Hey, you've got a lot of great ideas here -- pick one." But Riddick really would have been better if it just had one story line, not five or six or 12 or whatever.
2. The universe of Riddick is not the universe of Pitch Black.
The universe of Pitch Black was this gritty, low-rent blue-collar universe which had about as much mysticism in it as Riddick had irises after his "shine job." The universe of Riddick, on the other hand, is this freakadoodle madhouse supersaturated with myth, mysticism, prophecy, ghosts and something called "the underverse," which is apparently like hell for the emo set. The only real point of connection between the universe of Pitch Black and the universe of Riddick is the main character.
When the only thing two films have in common is their main character, it suggests that the main character is a late addition to that second film; in effect, Riddick has been lifted out of his gritty universe and dropped into another over-plush universe simply because he's a badass character with a good track record at the box office. Maybe this isn't what Twohy planned, but on this end of things, it's sure what it looks like. A Pitch Black sequel would have been better with more of the elements that made Pitch Black so good.
(Before you comment: Yes, I'm aware that there are two other characters from the first film in the second. One is there strictly as a plot device to give Riddick an excuse to go somewhere, and the second character is has so little to do with her incarnation from the first film that they didn't even bother to hire the same actress. Come on.)
3. Riddick stops being human.
In Pitch Black, Riddick was a badass, but he was a badass within recognizably human boundaries -- he used his brain and his muscles to make it off that monster-filled rock he was on. One of the coolest moments in Pitch Black was when, confronted by one of the hammer-headed alien monsters, he avoided detection by sliding inside the creature's field of view, and moving from side to side when the alien moved its head. Smart. Cool.
Contrast this with the scene in Riddick in which Riddick, confronted with feral pumas made out of rock (or whatever they were) doesn't bother to run, he just stares them down with his manly manliness, because now, you see, he's just that awesome. And the rock pumas, rather than chomping down on his head, as they've done with every other human they've ever encountered (or so we're lead to believe), suddenly start acting like love-starved tabbys. You can't blame Riddick for this, but you can blame Twohy. He forgot why his character was so cool in the first place, and instead replaced him with a character too cool to pretend to be realistic.
So, what have we learned? When it comes time for you to make your sequel, remember: Keep it simple. Keep it consistent with what's come before. And keep your main character human. If David Twohy could have remembered this, he'd probably be busy premiering the third installment of the Riddick trilogy right now. He's not. His loss -- and ours.
Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man's War and the upcoming Zoe's Tale. His column appears every Thursday.