With Pitch Black having established Vin Diesel’s Riddick as a lethal science fiction anti-hero, director David Twohy gave the character a grand adventure of his own in The Chronicles Of Riddick. With that movie’s disappointing theatrical take severely dampening chances of an equally lavish sequel, Twohy’s come up with Riddick, a more economical side-story that aims to get back to the focused man-versus-monsters premise that made Pitch Black a sleeper hit.
The movie opens with Riddick having what he generously describes as “a legendary bad day”. Double-crossed by the Necromongers – the cult-like warrior race from the previous movie – he’s left for dead on a godforsaken desert planet full of various slithering, toothsome monsters. Feasting on alien eel meat and befriending a dog-type-thing dubbed a ‘dingo-jingo’, Riddick forges a passable existence on this lonely rock – until two factions of bounty hunters show up, both intent on capturing Riddick either dead or alive.
A cat-and-mouse pursuit ensues between Riddick – who proves himself to be every bit the deadly man hunter he was said to be in earlier films – and the bickering mercenaries, one faction led by the shrewd Boss Johns (Matthew Nable) the other headed by the incompetent, scenery-chewing Santana (Jordi Molla). But then the story shifts gear, as an incoming storm brings with it a new threat: a deadly breed of semi-aquatic, flesh-eating monsters.
This brief synopsis makes Riddick sounds like a movie patterned after the lean, entertaining Pitch Black – something also borne out by its marketing – but it isn’t. Where Pitch Black was well paced, with its simple scenario of a crash landing, survivors and a planet full of lethal flying monsters, Riddick meanders and makes odd digressions. In fact, its camp dialogue, uneven special effects and quarry-like setting make the movie feel uncannily like a monster-filled retread of John Carpenter’s ill-fated Ghosts Of Mars – one line from that 2001 movie even appears to sum up Riddick’s premise.
The story passes through three distinct phases, none of which gel into a coherent whole. The first is an almost silent survival adventure, a kind of terse Robinson Crusoe On Mars. The second’s more like a sci-fi western, where various hired gunslingers scratch about in the dust looking for their mark (oddly, Vin Diesel disappears for much of this part of the movie). Finally, the third story takes its place, which is the monsters-attack flick the trailers hinted at.
While there’s nothing wrong with unusual story structures, and certainly nothing wrong with confounding audience expectations, Riddick isn’t so much narratively daring as it is rudderless. There are entire scenes in Riddick that don’t mean anything. Characters make threats and counter-threats, make deals and forge new alliances, but no one does or says anything to really get the plot moving. And by the time a credible threat is finally established, it’s far, far too late.
There are nods and flashbacks and verbal references to the previous films, which may earn a smile of approval for returning fans, but most of them do little more than slow the sense of pace down even further – I was surprised to learn that Riddick’s running time only exceeds Pitch Black‘s by eight minutes, since the former feels much longer.
Vin Diesel’s his reliably gruff, physically imposing self as Riddick, and there’s at least the sense that he’s enjoying his latest outing. But it’s disappointing to see Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff given so little to do as a tough sniper named Dahl, and there’s a gratuitous, slightly unseemly air to the way she and other women are treated by both a leering camera and the script.
There are moments where the movie shows a flicker of life: some of the wilfully bad dialogue, for example, is quite funny (“I love your toenails. They match your nipples”, “Where did you get that theory from? A unicorn’s ass?”). There’s one strikingly violent death scene that had the audience tittering (anyone disappointed by The Chronicles Of Riddick‘s PG-13 certificate may be relieved to note that Riddick earns its R-rating), and some of the monsters look appropriately drooling and vicious – though they aren’t, it has to be said, quite as threatening as the bat-like critters Patrick Tatopoulos created for the first movie.
Otherwise, Riddick falls between two very different stools. It’s not as tense or well told as Pitch Black, and it can’t afford to be as lavish and weirdly baroque as The Chronicles Of Riddick. Instead, Riddick feels like an awkwardly constructed amalgam of both – a muddled, choppily edited B-movie that stumbles blindly towards a muted conclusion.