It will probably be one of those unsolved mysteries of the ages, like the Voynich Manuscript or the secret ingredient to Spam, how a third Riddick movie got made. The first installment in the now 13-year old franchise, 2000’s Pitch Black, is largely looked back on as being not bad, and its follow-up, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick is remembered mostly for being terrible, and featuring Judi Dench in a rare career misstep.
So who exactly was clamoring for another film starring bald space-Conan? The answer is apparently its star, Vin Diesel. The new installment, simply titled Riddick, feels like a vanity piece and a weak attempt to capture whatever made Pitch Black as not bad as it was, mostly by retreading it like a lost hiker walking in circles.
Riddick opens with the titular hero stranded on an unnamed desert planet after being betrayed by the Necromongers, the militaristic space-cult he became the leader of in Chronicles. Apparently, while leading the Necromongers, which seems to involve sitting on a throne in ludicrous clothing, drinking, and having sex with beds full of women, Riddick “got soft” and his duplicitous, Starscream-esque second-in-command took the opportunity to get him out of the picture.
One of the few interesting or at least competent things about Riddick is how straightforward and neatly it’s structured. The first act should be subtitled “How Riddick Got His Groove Back,” since it’s made up entirely of Riddick wandering the planet, getting his killer instinct back and playing with his pet CGI alien dog. Act two sees two crews of self-consciously rough-and-tumble mercenaries land on the planet to try and bring Riddick in, which ends up with Riddick going all First Blood and picking them off one by one, while we learn what little there is to learn about their personalities and relationships. Act three sees the two groups team up when the movie loses all pretense of being a new film and becomes a 40-minute repeat of Pitch Black.
The structure works well, giving each aspect of the story sufficient breathing room. Each act has a very clear purpose and goals, and fit together nicely. Structually, Riddick is perfectly sound and sturdy, like a humble but steadfast log cabin. It’s just a shame the architect didn’t put anything interesting inside.
The first, Riddick-centric act feels like pure vanity, with Vin Diesel’s hulking space barbarian fighting monsters, performing impromptu and unnecessarily gory first aid to prove what an unflappable badass he is, and generally Riddick-ing it up. There’s no real story, just 30 minutes of fan-service for whatever Riddick fans may be left. Act two’s focus on the bounty hunters serves mostly to highlight how most of them are walking cliches with as much depth and nuance as the average Call of Duty character. The only ones audience members are likely to remember are Santana, the psychotic bounty hunter played by Jordi Mollà, and Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl, the archetypal Strong Female Character. Only in her case, the “character” part is limited to punching Santana, almost getting raped, and asserting time and again that she’s not into guys, although the film implies that she was just looking for the right big, bald sociopath to turn her straight, making Riddick‘s gender and sexual politics questionable, to put it mildly.
By the time the third act begins, Riddick drops all pretense of being a new film whatsoever and becomes the Pitch Black remake that never was, only shorter without any of the interesting characters or memorable visuals that made the original interesting. Riddick is so intent on recapturing the Pitch Black magic that, once you start spotting the similarities, it never stops. Remember the scene with Riddick chained up while the other characters debate if they should let him out to help fight the horde of space monsters? Riddick has that scene. The bit where Riddick uses afterburners to scorch the faces off a few baddies? Riddick does it again, but with a flying motorbike. One character is even the father of a Pitch Black character, and spends a good amount of his screen time questioning Riddick about what happened to his son. Riddick seems desperate to remind the audience of Pitch Black, and as a result, barely has an identity of its own.
To make matters even worse, the visuals are draped in artifice, with heaps of CGI, fake backgrounds, image manipulation, and weird camera angles. This is most likely a ploy to distract how cheap the film otherwise looks. Apparently, in whatever far-off future Riddick takes place in, people are still using the same firearms we are today, just with a few more bits and bobs welded on. And for all the CGI and visual trickery, the impression that we’re just seeing a few actors on a small sound-stage is never quite shaken. The environments feel cramped and limited, giving the film a small and claustrophobic feel.
Riddick opens with a characteristically wooden monologue from its leading man, which ends with the line “This ain’t nothin’ new,” and it’s rare to see a film summarize itself to succinctly. Devotees of the Riddick character and Pitch Black will probably find many things to love in Riddick, with its character worship and endless callbacks. But for anyone searching for a decent, original sci-fi/action movie, this is indeed nothin’ new.