Movie Review: Riddick (2013)
For fans of the eye-tinted anti-hero Riddick, it’s been a bumpy ride over the last decade. 2000’s surprise Sci-Fi hit, Pitch Black introduced audiences to Vin Diesel’s most iconic character, a dark and ruthless survivor with silvered eyes and mysterious past. Overshadowing his muscle-bound, muscle car persona in The Fast and The Furious series, Riddick was (at his best written) a complex character, as willing to slit a throat as to lend a helping hand, a blank slate the audience could project onto, capitalizing on Diesel’s stoic and guttural acting style. 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick took the character out of the dark and attempted to weld a mythology onto him, complete with history, special destiny and powers, and a largely incomprehensible arcana of Elementals, Underverses, and a new race of baddies, Necromongers. Audiences and critics alike recoiled, and the series seemed to have succumbed to sequel-itis. An anime and two well-written games tried to rehabilitate Riddick by hewing more closely to the aspects of Pitch Black that worked best: mystery, moral ambiguity, imprisonment and escape, a smaller cast with very minimalist Sci-Fi trappings. The attempts were at best a qualified success. Audiences proved they still had an affinity to Riddick and a desire to see him in action, but preferred him as more of a cypher, and less as a grand anti-hero messiah. Which brings us current, with Riddick having been away from the big screen for a decade, left in a limbo where writers seemed loath to touch the mess his story had become, content to fill in incidentals of his past, as long as they left no lasting marks on the character that would complicate him further. Enter 2013’s Riddick.
Back to (Pitch) Black
The latest outing for Diesel’s Riddick yanks the emergency brake on the series, and ejects the character from the messy spectacle of Chronicles. A very brief (and some might argue rather clunky) recap is given as to how Riddick has become uncoupled from his position of Lord Marshal of the Necromongers. Once again a hunted loner, we find Riddick betrayed and left for dead on an uninhabited, unidentified planet. Apparently the Necromongers were as glad to be rid of him as audiences are no doubt glad to be rid of their whole silly race, since no follow up is made to make sure the single most survivable killer they’ve ever encountered is actually dead (and incidentally, he still is their current Lord Marshall, since I recall, he can only be replaced by being killed by his successor…) But oh well, they’re gone, and good riddance.
While better lit, this new planet is essentially a copy of the planet from the first movie. We’re quickly acquainted with the predatory creatures that will hunt our remorseless hero, in a cool but rather silly training montage that serves more to establish how much of a bad mother-trucker Riddick is, than to actually make much sense. Seriously, dude, perhaps next time go around the giant poison scorpion pond.
Third Verse, Same as the First…
With the monsters behind him, Riddick must now lure bounty hunters down to the surface in order to hop a ship and get off the hostile planet. Two ships arrive, one crewed by sneering fools who might as well be wearing “cannon fodder for Riddick to murder” t-shirts, and the other crewed by a new Johns and Starbuck. The two crews at first squabble, but when Riddick does what we all knew he would and murders the initial hunting party, they decide to pool “talent” and try to bring him in. Things get complicated, and eventually the planet becomes the common adversary of both Riddick and the Mercs, and everyone has to reluctantly work together as they try to beat the clock and get off the planet before night falls, er I mean, before the rain falls. This may all sound familiar…
The writers of this movie obviously knew which side of Riddick their bread was buttered on. From unceremoniously dumping of all the prophecy mumbo jumbo and in effect the whole story of Chronicles, to re-introducing the excellent adversarial relationship between Riddick and Johns (this time in the body of Johns Sr., who does not come off as nearly physically able as his son), to the note-for-note recreation of Pitch Black’s setting and monster menace, it is fairly open about trying to adhere very closely to what historically worked in the series. The question I felt bubbling up throughout the movie is “is Riddick just essentially Pitch Black in a new set of clothes?” My answer: Yes. But I don’t care.
Riddick does exactly what it needed to do in order to save the franchise. The return to its roots manages to jettison all the accreted garbage that had attached to a character who fan’s have repeatedly clamored for, while delivering a mostly taut and lean action film that marries action with horror in a way that few movies since Aliens have managed. In fact, Pitch Black was the best sequel to Aliens ever made. Sorry Ridley Scott.
If you have any goodwill left over for the series, or are a fan of the nocturnal apex predator, Riddick, I would highly suggest adding this movie to your dance card. It puts the series back on solid footing, and sets itself up nicely for the inevitable sequel, hopefully one in which the loose threads are tied together without removing all the mystery from the character and universe. As should be obvious, Riddick works best in the shadows, and we’re happy to have him there, brooding and visceral.