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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
It’s been nine years since Vin Diesel last played Richard B. Riddick on-screen (in the critically derided The Chronicles of Riddick back in the summer of 2004). In the years since, Diesel has seen his star wane (largely because of Chronicles of Riddick) and then rise once again (three big Fast and Furious sequels in four years will do that). Diesel’s star is so bright right now that he was able to commission, along with the help of writer/director David Twohy, another Riddick film, gathering around 40 million dollars worth of investor money to produce the passion project. The end result is actually pretty decent, and while it doesn’t match the heights of the highly regarded first film in the franchise, it is at least leagues better than the second.
Taking place in the immediate aftermath of Chronicles, Riddick finds our titular hero stranded on a distant planet, one he was initially led to believe was his homeworld, the mysterious Furya. Left for dead on the desert wasteland, Riddick must adapt to the environment and find a way off of the planet before an ominous, gathering storm begins. The first half hour or so of Riddick contains very little dialogue (most of the dialogue happens either in brief flashbacks or via voice over) and is mostly a survival struggle for our main character, as he becomes acquainted with the violent, foreign flora and fauna. He befriends a space dog, hunts space snakes, and faces off against predatory, poisonous space creatures that look like a cross between a scorpion and a crab. These are the best moments in the film, and they are pretty damn glorious.
Unfortunately once the plot begins, the film somewhat devolves into a rote sci-fi/action thriller film (with obvious elements of horror). Riddick takes a backseat in the middle of the film for the incoming bounty hunters, who are made up of an assortment of tough guy clichés. I can understand what Twohy and Diesel were going for with this scenario, but sidelining the main character of the film during these long stretches was a mistake. There are still plenty of entertaining bits, mostly concerning the hunters’ continually bungling their attempts to catch Riddick, ending up with many of them falling dead due to their own foolishness. The story also kicks in here, as one of the two lone competent hunters is revealed to be the father of Johns, the man tasked with bringing Riddick back to prison all the way back in the first movie. The reveal is obvious, but Boss Johns (played by Australian actor Matthew Nable) is at least able to bring some pathos to the character.
The main problem with Riddick is the fact that its characters, outside of Riddick himself, just aren’t very compelling. It’s pretty obvious who is going to die and when, and this is a marked difference from Pitch Black, where this common horror trope was turned on its head completely by the end of that film. Katee Sackhoff, well known in sci-fi circles for her role on Battlestar Galactica, gets a lot of screen time and is a pretty decent screen present, but her character is just a jumble of clichés. The same goes for ex-WWE star Dave Batista, who makes quite the titanic screen presence given his sheer Dwayne Johnson-esque size, but he just isn’t really given much to do. Spanish actor Jordi Molla plays Santana, the film’s would-be big bad next to Riddick, but Molla’s character is spineless and weak, and the audience knows he is no match for one Richard B. Riddick. So why care about him other than waiting for him to meet his obvious death (cool as that death may be)? It’s a shame that the film has to stick to convention for the entirety of its second act.
The third act gets back to being pretty cool, as the ominous storm finally begins and Riddick and company must face off against an invasion of the aforementioned poisonous scorpion/crab creatures. The third act feels a bit rushed, however, and the emotional connection of the Johns story never quite lands appropriately. There is some pretty righteous Riddick action, however, so I’m willing to forgive the film for that. Riddick is not a big budget action spectacle, so I was also expecting parts of it feel either truncated or just outright cheap. There are a few weird edits where I’m convinced the filmmakers either didn’t have enough money or got weird feedback from either test audiences or producers. Maybe these scenes will feel more intact on some kind of director’s cut Blu Ray.
I’m really just glad, in the end, that Riddick got made, and I’m glad it kind of took so long to put it together as well. The Chronicles of Riddick was an absolute mess of a movie as well as a huge disappointment, and its failure obviously humbled its star and its writer/director. As such, Riddick feels much more like the superior Pitch Black, the film largely responsible for making Diesel a household name in the first place (and a film largely regarded as a modern cult classic). Riddick is by no means a perfect film, but Diesel is great in it (though unfortunately sidelined somewhat in the second act). It is another fun little genre film that is totally entertaining and worth watching for fans of sci-fi/action horror films.