My favorite moment in The Chronicles of Riddick is when Judi Dench first appears. Up until then, the film has almost everything a decent, epic-sized science fiction movie requires. There's a heroic central character: Riddick, played by Vin Diesel in milky contact lenses. There's an evil foe: the Necromongers, a race of brainwashed space-goths. There are space ships, including a fleet of monoliths that ram mercilessly into the surface of planets. The movie even has hordes of enemy foot soldiers who can be eliminated simply by being flipped to the ground. But until Dench shows up, there is no respected British actor to lend the film any quirky panache the way that Alec Guinness did in Star Wars and Ian McKellen did in X-Men.
Dench gives the film its opening voice-over, but she's invisible for quite a while after that. Suddenly, in the midst of a suitably ridiculous scene, Diesel swings a knife into what appears to be empty space, and Dench's pixieish face emerges from a miasma of special effects. She has no character to speak of, and most of her performance consists of appearing in various places around the screen while intoning grave threats in her flawless voice. Clearly, as a recurring veteran of James Bond films, Dench knows how to behave in a blockbuster: She stays out of the way.
With this movie, that's a smart idea. The Chronicles of Riddick is a much bigger film than its prequel Pitch Black. That film was a strong -- if trivial -- science fiction movie, full of wonderful nonsense like alien monsters and interstellar junkies. But instead of bringing Riddick back to fight the monsters of the first film, writer/director David Twohy digs into Pitch Black's backstory. He opens up Riddick to encompass a universe in which threatening races populate under-explored planets and star systems. The struggle in Riddick is epic, involving armies and civilizations instead of individuals. It's a big leap, both in terms of production and scope, and Twohy takes the work seriously.
Unfortunately, it's hard to do that as an audience member. For each scene that works well (if you like sci-fi), there is at least one other that fails. Cliffs on a volcanic planet are made from something resembling foam insulation. Elite warriors in suits of armor bump absurdly into one another while walking. During one scene, a figure who looks like part of the film crew crouches next to a pillar. These moments don't ruin the film, but they do undermine its efforts to take itself seriously.
Diesel, though, has the right idea. His Riddick is laughably invincible, and the character's blank eyes give him little room for what emotion the actor musters. He resembles nothing so much as a computer-generated character, and acts accordingly with his voice. Always growling and deep, Diesel's voice speaks volumes about his character even when the movie is distracted with something else. It's a smart choice in a movie in which almost nothing is real or believable. As Judi Dench knows, the one thing a special effect can't do yet is talk.