In "The Chronicles of Riddick," the sequel to the 2000 B-movie surprise hit "Pitch Black," writer/director David Twohy drops his main character into a pastiche of sci-fi film conventions that threatens to explode in an orgy of CGI silliness. But whereas that other supposed summer thrill ride, "Van Helsing," degenerated into an obnoxious mess, "Riddick" keeps you going with interesting story strands, nice set pieces and loads of nifty images. The film is a bit too lumbering to achieve greatness, but it maintains consistent levels of professionalism and creativity that make it a guilty pleasure you shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying. Vin Diesel, trying to regain his movie star footing after the critical misstep of "A Man Apart," is on firmer ground here. No one will mistake him for Olivier, but he's got the muscles, presence and attitude to insure that the character of Riddick lives on in future sequels.
In a move that should earn him some sort of medal, Twohy refuses to just rehash "Pitch Black" by planting Riddick on another planet to fight another set of aliens. A substantial increase in computer wizardry (and budget) since the original film seems to have unleashed his imagination. Because here we get a much more complicated story that spans the galaxy as it attempts to weave religion and myth. Picking up five years after the events of "Pitch Black," we find escaped convict Riddick, bounty on his head, running from mercenaries. The biggest prize is offered by Imam (Keith David) of the planet Helion Prime. Imam, a survivor of the first film, needs Riddick to help fight the Necromongers, an unstoppable alien race that can decimate an entire planet within minutes and force the survivors to join their religious and political order. (Any similarities between the Necromongers and the Borg from Star Trek are purely coincidental--at least that's what they're telling Paramount legal.)
As promised, the Necromongers destroy Imam's planet in a blast of rock-em-sock-em CGI fury that will surely have younger viewers reflexively reaching for their Playstation 2 controllers. Lord Marshall (Colm Feore), the leader of the Necromongers, then sends in waves of troops to round up survivors and present their boilerplate ultimatum: Join the Necromongers or be killed. However, there is hope: Helion Prime is also home to a mysterious and all-knowing Elemental named Aereon (played, for some reason, by Judi Dench). She believes that Riddick, as possibly the last surviving member of the Furion race, has been prophesized to defeat the Necromongers. But before Riddick can check that off his to-do list, he must first escape Crematoria, a hellish penal colony where sunrise hits 700 degrees. After much pandemonium, the film ends on an ambiguous and clever, sequel-baiting note.
With Twohy, you can take the director out of B-movies, but you can't take B-movies out of the director. The simpler his directorial approach, the better. When he throws in strobe lights and quick edits to enhance fights scenes, he's not doing the movie any favors. On the other hand, watching Riddick and his gang outrun the blazing sunrise may be ridiculous, but it's fun to watch. The film is wall-to-wall computer graphics, some surprisingly good, some surprisingly bad. But the canvas is admirably large and each digital planet, spaceship and computer screen stops just short of trying too hard. The overall look is "Dune" marries "Metropolis" and gives birth to HR Giger.
Performances are what they are. Thandie Newton does a fine Lady Macbeth as Dame Vaako, the scheming wife of a Necromonger top honcho (Karl Urban) who is fiercely loyal to Lord Marshall. The "Pitch Black" character of Jack has been turned into Kyra, a fearsome fighter in her own right, who somehow manages to wear lipstick in key moments. As Kyra, relative newcomer Alexa Davalos has the goods to hold her own. And of course, there's Judi Dench, who has no choice but to class up the joint, even if the reasons for her participation are as mysterious as her character. Everyone does their best with the uninspired dialogue, which comes in two flavors: plot advancer and sarcastic one-liner.
In the end, no one is going to mistake "The Chronicles of Riddick" for "Scenes From a Marriage." However, once it settles into its groove, the film delivers on what it promises. And in terms of summer movies, that's really all you can ask.
Note to Twohy: Riddick spends a lot of time dramatically removing his goggles. If there is another sequel, he may want to invest in some contact lenses or a nice pair of Aviators. Starring Vin Diesel, Thandie Newton, Karl Urban and Colm Feore. Directed and written by David Twohy. Produced by Scott Kroopf and Vin Diesel. A Universal release. Sci-Fi/Adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and some language. Running time: 120 min.