When Pitch Black hit theaters back in 2000, audiences were charmed by the modestly budgeted sci-fi film’s original setting, creative plot and inventive set pieces, many of which involved the unusually nasty and novel creatures that inhabited the planet the film took place on. More than anything, however, we were introduced to a budding new star — a then-unknown Vin Diesel, whose portrayal of the antihero with “eyeshine,” Richard B. Riddick, was a breath of fresh air in the genre. Sporting a shaved head, brooding and speaking in a gravelly baritone, Diesel’s presence was a fantastic contrast in an action era still ruled by the likes of Arnold Schwartzenegger, Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson and Wesley Snipes. Having only just been offered a ticket to the big show in Hollywood (by Steven Spielberg, as it turns out, who was so impressed with Diesel’s independent short film Multi-Facial that he gave him a small role in Saving Private Ryan), Diesel most certainly made the best of it, using the notoriety he gained in the film to acquire roles in two other franchises (xXx and the Fast and Furious films), as well as found his film production company (One Race Films) and a video game company (Tigon Studios) that has produced several games featuring the star (including two based in the Riddick universe).
The sequel to Pitch Black, entitled The Chronicles of Riddick, expanded the Riddick world. Released in 2004 with the support of a straight-to-video animated short (The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury), the film finds Riddick — an ex-convict, mercenary and soldier from the planet Furya — hiding out on a tundra planet. Called back into action by one of the two people he managed get away with in Pitch Black, he gets sucked into a convoluted and flimsy plot built on cardboard foundations. By the end of the film, he has acquired the title of “Lord Marshall” of a terrifying group called the Necromongers, whose former leader Riddick killed in battle.
Got all that? Great, because it barely means anything anymore. Riddick opens with our titular hero under a pile of rocks. In a cheesily voiced-over series of flashbacks, we learn that our favorite Furyan became restless destroying stuff and bedding multiple women every night, and when Necro Commander Vaako, his second in command (Karl Urban, who had a prominent role in Chronicles but appears here seemingly to earn an easy paycheck and not much else), informs him they’ve found Furya, he goes looking, only to be left for dead on a planet he creatively refers to as, “not Furya.”
The pacing in this movie is dreadful. The writing is clunky. It also suffers from one of the worst cinematic afflictions in existence — it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be soon enough. The first quarter of the film has the feel of Cast Away meets Enemy Mine, but starring Vin Diesel as Tom Hanks/Dennis Quaid and a CGI alien dog as Louis Gossett Jr./Wilson. When he spies a destructive storm on the horizon, he realizes it will awaken the hostile indigenous life there (giant scorpion-type things which Riddick encounters early on in the film). You may wonder, while watching, how he knows the storm will awaken them and cause them to attack him. No explanation is ever truly given. He’s Riddick. Deal with it.
Finding a vacant bounty hunter base, he activates its distress beacon and soon two ships — containing crews with considerably opposing intentions — arrive. Riddick’s goal is to commandeer one of the two ships and get off of the planet before the storm hits. One of the two captains has personal ties to the Furyan which come to light during the course of the movie.
Though not a particularly good movie, The Chronicles of Riddick at least managed to propel the plot forward in the Riddick saga, introducing new elements and expanding the stage. The lukewarm reception it garnered evidently neutered writer/director David Twohy and star/producer Diesel’s creative ambitions for the franchise’s third installment, because it essentially is a remake of the first film with a bit more gore and a gratuitous nipple (thank you, Katee Sackoff). By the film’s end, very little has been accomplished to justify the story even being told.
Aside from Riddick, who has had two feature films, two animated shorts (Riddick was accompanied by the internet-released Riddick – Blindsided) and two (absolutely phenomenal) video games to fully realize his character, every person in this movie is barely two-dimensional, often doing or saying things merely because they cause things to happen on screen. Though Bokeem Woodbine, Dave Bautista and Matt Nable all mean mug believably, none of them are going to be opening up any eyes with their performances. Sackoff fares slightly better as the lesbian-who-might-be-bi, Dahl, though anyone who knows of her superb work in Battlestar Galactica will most likely agree she deserves more at this point. The worst of the bunch is, without a doubt, Jordi Molla’s Santana, who is so dreadfully over the top it’s distracting. When he’s not hurling lewd suggestions Dahl’s way, he’s spewing spittle-laden tirades of frustration at Riddick, whose head he repeatedly reminds everyone he wants to place in a box.
Guess how that turns out.
Clocking in at around two hours in length, Riddick is about 45 minutes too long. The opening stanza, with the dog and the flashback, could have been synopsized in one or two sentences, and much of what comes after it feels unnecessary. Based on what new it brings to the table and what it adds to his “chronicles,” Riddick is, at best, a well-intentioned misfire. What’s the point of developing such a rich back story for a character just to ignore it in subsequent installments? In an era where film studios are developing franchises with coherent continuities, retreating to old ground while ignoring past progress is a critical error. Though it is sure to earn back its budget (as of this writing, the movie tops the box office), it won’t earn any new fans and will most likely lose a few. As gratification has grown increasingly more instantaneous, moviegoers hate having their time wasted.
Better luck next time, Furyan.
(Photos and trailer courtesy of Universal Pictures.)
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