Bad sci-fi movies come in all shapes and sizes. From The Thunderbirds to Dune, Solarbabies to The Fifth Element, the movie industry has indicated that there is indeed a vast array of errors any given sci-fi movie can make to become just plain bad.
I finished watching The Chronicles of Riddick for the second time. It was a bad movie for a great many reasons. But why, having realized this the first time I saw the movie, did I choose this movie to watch again, and, like the first time I watched it, why did I thoroughly enjoy it?
First, let me point out a few of the ways Riddick went bad. First, let's face it: the movie is a celebration of Vin Diesel more than it is anything else. Much as Troy was written around Brad Pitt rather than the actual figure of Achilles in Homer's Iliad, Riddick was written around Vin Diesel. Without him, this movie (and less so, its predecessor, Pitch Black) would have fallen flat. Sometimes this isn't a problem--excellent movies have been made that circle around a single character, powerfully depicted by an actor with a strong presence (Indiana Jones comes to mind). However, from the plot choices made and the supporting characters chosen, it is clear that the filmmakers intended there to be more to the movie.
Second, though the movie toys with a number of themes, it ultimately fails to sound a strong note on any of them. This is largely because of the first reason: it is so focused on Riddick's grandeur that the themes and important plot moments aren't given quite enough screen time. The film explores the theme of loyalty and betrayal in several dimensions. First, we see this theme in Riddick's relationship with Kyra and separately with the Imam and his people. Second, we see it in the triple relationship between the authorities, the mercenary companies, and Riddick. Finally, we see it in complex threads in the court of the Necromongers. Another theme explored ineffectively is the nature of evil. Riddick is the quintessential anti-hero, but the film can't quite bring itself to cast him in a negative light where we question his role and heart. His own supposed evil is played against the greater darkness of the Necromongers as well as in minor ways, such as within the penal system and with the mercenary companies. Again, Riddick's character looms over these choices, making it difficult to follow these trails.
And third, the film attempts a number of narrative strategies, but succeeds in fleshing them out only intermittently. Specifically, the inclusion of Jack's character and the subplot of her suffering because of Riddick's flaws fell flat, largely because of Davalos' performance (though she wasn't helped by the writing). The element of prophecy and fulfillment comes across as ridiculous in this film and probably should have been avoided entirely. It is a workable strategy (c. f., Lord of the Rings), but it was incompatible with this genre. Also attempted and luke warm was the Purifier character, who wasn't given enough depth for his role in the story and was not ultimately needed except as a device to make Riddick's escapes fit into the plot.
In all of its over-the-top celebration of Vin Diesel, flat themes, and hit-and-miss attempts at significance, why did I enjoy this movie so much?
I think it comes down to two things. Often, muscle-bound actors playing action heroes blow the moment every time they open their mouths or interact with other characters. Not so with Vin Diesel. Riddick is such a captivating character and Vin Diesel so capable of portraying him, that you simply cannot help but smile in spite of the thin broth that is the movie as a whole. The moments of interaction with the mercenary Toombs are simply priceless ("I don't know about this new crew of yours, Toombs. Seems a little skittish." "...here you are, supposed to be some slick killer and look at you now, all back of the bus..."). Even the cheesy dialogue between him and Kyra almost rises to the challenge ("Remember that game you like to play?" "Yeah, who's the better killer." "Let's play.").
Secondly, while the movie is intermittent in hitting its targets, it does without question do so on a number of occasions. I suspect that the making of The Chronicles of Riddick was an attempt to capitalize on the unexpected success of Pitch Black, which was one of the rare new ideas in Hollywood science fiction in recent years. Noticing that Diesel's Riddick was such a memorable character, writers were given the job of creating a movie in which his legacy could be carried forward. If that was indeed the case, the filmmakers managed to achieve something beyond this rather limited goal. The universe in which the film takes place becomes a truly interesting world with a life outside of Riddick's spotlight. One could easily imagine other films being made in this same world that successfully contribute to the better science fiction genre. The Necromongers, the race of Elementals, the surprising richness of Helion Prime, all manage to push past their roles as plot devices and achieve something of their own. Vaako and his wife, the mercenaries, the Lord Marshall, and even the crew of pseudo-Russian prison wardens were excellent creations. Even some of the set-piece locations, weaponry, vehicles, and technology were intriguing, fitting well into the backdrop and provoking some of the same wonder as those seen in Star Wars. That a writer would refrain from explaining to us how the world-destroying weaponry of the Necromongers work is a restraint hardly seen in movies of this caliber.
All in all, even with its many flaws, I would prefer a movie like The Chronicles of Riddick over a yet-another-comic-book-film, warmed-over-TV-series-made-film, or revisionist-classic-made-film. Give me something new - convince me that the science fiction and fantasy genres are not yet fully explored. Remind me that wonder in these imaginative worlds is not wholly exhausted.