The character of Riddick came from nowhere in the small-ish “Ten Little Indians in the Dark” tale of Pitch Black: An outstanding bit of filmmaking-on-a-budget from writer/director David Twohy, who created for us an anti-hero without any humanly redeemable qualities, yet someone we could still root for. Then came The Chronicles of Riddick, with a larger budget, more grandiose set-pieces, but, among all of the grandeur, we lost the charm of our anti-hero, and the story became muddled with an ending unbefitting of Riddick. And now, after a 10-year long sojourn of Fast and Furious movies, Vin Diesel comes back to his Furyan criminal to try and re-engage the series. And I have to say that Riddick is at least better than Chronicles, but not as tight as Pitch Black — despite its best efforts to mimic it.
Riddick actually feels like three films in one: Castaway, Fist Full of Dollars, and…Pitch Black. And they don’t necessarily fit together.
Act One is about Riddick stranded on a deserted planet. Twohy quickly distances himself from the previous movie, by having Riddick just not like the new role of leader he has been put into. He asks Karl Urban (in a role so small that he doesn’t deserve a credit) if he can resign as Chief Necromonger and go back to his home planet of Furya. But Riddick is tricked and is left for dead on a barren planet filled with CG creatures. So, for the next 30-ish minutes or so we follow Riddick as Bear Grylls in Man Vs. Wild as he fends off a series of animals hellbent on having Riddick sashimi. Along the way, he picks up a puppy version of one species and raises it to adulthood so that he doesn’t have to find a volleyball to talk to. Despite my sarcasm, Act One is probably the most intriguing. It’s slow and allows us to be with Riddick as a character, rather than Riddick as “bad-ass killer and convict”. We witness his mortality as he deals with setting broken bones, finding food, a preparing himself for battle with a creature that bars the story’s progression into Act Two.
Act Two has Riddick finding a mercenary outpost and sending a beacon with his ID on it to lure mercenaries looking for the bounty so that Riddick can nab their ship and get off this stinkin’ rock. Ends up that two teams arrive. And those teams are at odds with one another, each having different motivations to capture Riddick. It’s this tension between the teams that drive this act, while Riddick falls into a shadowy figure in the darkness, picking them off slowly, and playing with their fears. There is good and bad in Act Two. The characters are shallow sketches, but the dialog is spunky. And there are some great moments of tension as the teams begin to doubt even their own confidence. The Act Ends with Riddick meeting the leaders of the teams to negotiate the terms of him taking a ship, and warning them of the time limit of their decision — the arrival of a quickly approaching thunderstorm that brings more than just rain.
Act Three becomes a retelling of Pitch Black, only not as good. The characters have to make their way through the dark and rainy night filled with venomous bipedal leathery scorpion things so they can get energy cells in order to power the ships to leave the planet. The climax is, in my opinion, quite satisfactory with the completion of a redemption arc that started way back in the first film. That ending moment was potent enough that we didn’t even need the poorly executed epilogue which gave us nothing more that we needed to know and only provided more screen time in an already long film.
Overall, I thought the film was fun enough with a pulpy share of gratuitous gore and nudity (one time sexy, the other time…utilitarian). The meager $38M budget was definitely pushing the seams of production. Most of the set pieces felt like they were on a sound stage with digital extensions. But this setup allowed them to get more bang for the Canadian buck…err.. loony. Whenever the film attempts to go beyond this constrained setup, the visual effects don’t seem up to the task. The CG creature work is quite good, but suffers from the sting of a CG look. This isn’t because so much bad lighting or rendering — which is not the case. Rather, I think its because our brains can’t reconcile the existence of these creatures, so it falls back on “Oh, that’s CG” There is a mix of puppetry and CG with the scorpion creatures, which I think would have benefitted the other creatures, most specifically Riddick’s canine pet, “Dingo Dongo”, and even MORE specifically, when Dingo Dongo is a puppy, who at that point feels more like an extra in Bolt. Photography by Pitch Black veteran David Eggby is fine but nothing mind blowing. And as I’ve already mentioned, the story feels broken up and lacks coherence from act to act.
Overall, you could probably wait for Netflix. It’s not particularly epic enough to warrant a theater screening. But, if you are a Riddick completist, then you should probably catch it.