Have you ever liked something but had a difficult time articulating why? In my line of work, it doesn’t happen very often. I suppose everyone has some movies they really enjoy, in spite of whether they’re terrible or goofy or ridiculously over-the-top. Some would call them “guilty pleasures”; however I’ve never felt any guilt for liking Vin Diesel’s gloriously idiotic space adventures. They feature a gravely voiced killing machine named Riddick who has inspired three films, an animated direct-to-video movie, and a video game. They are dumb, fun movies, designed to hurt the brain when trying to apply logic to the goofiness which unfolds.
“Pitch Black” introduces Richard Riddick (Diesel), a killer who has special eyes that allow him to see in the dark. It comes in handy when the vessel transporting him crash-lands on a planet that goes dark and is overrun with bloodthirsty creatures, who navigate in the shadows with deadly efficiency. A great piece of sci-fi silliness, the movie takes the basic survival concept of “Alien” and treats it far less seriously.
A few years later, in a larger, more garish sequel, “The Chronicles of Riddick,” jettisons the potboiler concept in favor of a grand-space opera. It features a dark army menacing the universe and an interstellar prophecy seeing Riddick as the only one who could save it. It has the kind of manic energy of old films like “Conan the Destroyer” and “Flash Gordon. “This is not necessarily a bad thing. In spite of critical and commercial failure, writer/director David Twohy decides to give the character another go, returning the film to its survivalist roots.
Riddick is stranded on a desolate planet, trying to survive the elements, as well as a number of nasty local predators who would like to make Riddick the main course for snack time. Riddick decides that maybe exile isn’t going to be as peaceful as he thought, so he activates a beacon which brings an army of bounty hunters to the planet. They want to haul him in, dead or alive, for a sizable reward.
“Riddick” is such a wonderfully baffling movie. It’s like the love child of a remake and a sequel. So much of the film feels like “Pitch Black”—a return to that survival mentality that makes the first film so much fun.
I’ve lamented about fan service in the past. The worst thing a creator can do is to engage in a ludicrous amount of appeasement. Yes, it makes sense to deliver a story that goes in line with the character, but wasn’t there anywhere new to take him? At the end of the second “Riddick” film, our hero defeats the villain and takes over the entire evil army of Necromongers. Certainly there had to be 90 minutes of story in that scenario somewhere, right? Nope. We get a five-minute prologue that explains being king of all evil didn’t work out. Then we get 15 minutes of Riddick by himself, walking around the lonely planet.
Vin Diesel is still a captivating screen presence. Enjoyment of “Riddick” films will probably be based on how charming one finds Diesel. I still like him. For better or worse, he’s this generation’s Stallone: a chiseled piece of granite who appears in a lot of very specific action-oriented cinema. Most of it’s disposable junk food, without any cerebral nutritional value. And that’s what Riddick is: A big, greasy movie with a lot of empty calories.
One of Riddick’s biggest problems is the idea of the wandering protagonist. Everything moves around in the movie. We get Riddick’s narration setting up the story, then things shift to the teams of mercenaries who come to the planet to hunt him down. Then it mashes the two together as their interests align, and everything on the planet is trying to kill them. There are movies that go back to the well; “Riddick” is nothing but sediment. Highly polished deposits lack a little bit of the low-budget charm of the original.
The danger of a movie like “Riddick” is when it takes itself too seriously. This isn’t high art. No one is going to accuse anyone who worked on this production of creating “art.” Though I think they could be accused of being high. “Riddick” is perfectly average action junk, with a striking visual style, horribly cheesy dialogue, and a story so recycled it’s worth 10 cents in Michigan.
Starring Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Katee Sackhoff
Directed by David Twohy