It isn’t bad as a middle of the road sci-fi flick.
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Just the fact that it’s 2013 and we’re talking about Riddick at all is a minor miracle. The third in the so-called “Furyan Chronicles,” after the second film tanked in 2004, it’s taken star Vin Diesel and director David Twohy nearly a decade, countless starts and stops, and lots of their own money (Diesel put up his own house as collateral) to get to this point. While there is a fan base out there, there was hardly a massive cry for more, and this definitely qualifies as a passion project for the two primary players. As a movie, Riddick is half giddy, pulpy sci-fi that is a total blast; and half a clumsy, overlong mess, full of plot holes and inconsistencies.
At the end of the last film, Chronicles of Riddick, the titular space outlaw (Diesel) becomes Lord Marshall, leader of the Necromongers, a fact that Riddick quickly puts to bed. This move is for the best as that story was bloated and quickly spinning out of control. Now the story can get back to the spare, stripped down nature that served Pitch Black, the first in the franchise, so well. There is some betrayal, and Riddick—full name Richard B. Riddick—is left for dead, yet again, on planet he was led to believe was his home world of Furya. Turns out it was “not Furya.” Mad at himself for getting soft, losing a step, and letting someone get the better of him, the opening third of the film plays out like a return to nature story as the beefy antihero gets back to his tough guy roots.
Think of this as a manlier Walden, where Riddick sets his own broken bones, battles the nasty native beasties, and raises a stray space puppy. The sparse dialogue is a little one sided—he is talking to a dog after all—but there is a good deal of voiceover. Riddick also captures the aesthetic of a classic low-budget sci-fi serial. The expansive backdrops may be computer generated, but they look practically painted, and the stylistic choice gives you the feeling that you’re watching something from a bygone era, like this should be part of a drive-in double feature. The film is economical, and at this point, you’re totally along for the ride.
A literal storm approaches on the horizon, bringing with it some unpleasantness Riddick wants no part of. This device is introduced then conveniently pushed aside until the plot needs it again. In order to hitch a ride off this rock, Riddick activates a beacon that lets bounty hunters know where he is. We’re still talking about a prized commodity here, so it should come as no surprise that his presence attracts two big time crews. The first, led by Santana (Jordi Molla), falls into the grubby, tattooed badass school of mercenary. They’re just bad men in search of a lucrative payday. Crew number two follows the matching uniforms, military background, lots of high tech criminal catching gadgets and gizmos category. Captained by Johns (Matt Nable, who looks like a grizzled Hal Sparks), this team includes the likes of Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) and Moss (Bokeem Woodbine), and has a more personal interest in Riddick.
Here is one place where Riddick comes off the rails. For a huge chunk of time in the middle of the picture, the main character fades into the background. Instead of being the focus, he becomes some other, some thing looming, often literally, on the periphery. Then the movie chooses to tell the story of flat boring characters with no personalities that you don’t give two shits about. They’re stock types who exist solely as Riddick fodder, and the script wastes a lot of time and sacrifices momentum trying to spark any interest in them. It’s fun to watch Riddick pick them off one by one, slasher film style, but that’s all you get. Watching Johns and Santana but heads over and over as Santana bumbles through his hunt like an incompetent clown, gets old fast. It’s okay, but such a drastic shift in tone and pace makes for a jarring transition.
And then there’s the most puzzling and troubling element of Riddick, the weird undercurrent of misogyny and bizarrely confused sexuality. This is obviously a manly movie made by dudes for dudes, but its treatment of women is pretty horrendous. Here are the three instances where female characters pop up. First, as Riddick’s naked sex slaves during his Necromonger days. One crew of bounty hunters has a female prisoner (Keri Hilson) who has been tied up and raped repeatedly for who knows how long. When she gets released in order to get rid of excess weight, she is immediately shot in the back, primarily so that Riddick can see this happen and disapprove. And then there’s Dahl, who is admittedly as badass as any of the boys—she’s also gay, which, in the filmic language of Riddick, basically makes her a man—and Sackhoff plays her with that tough, icy demeanor that she does so well. Her character is also threatened with rape multiple times. First by Santana, who she subsequently mops the floor with—something that happens on the regular—then, in a flirtatious way, Riddick mentions that he’s going kill everyone else and fuck Dahl because she wants it.
I get that macho posturing is what this movie is built on, and in fact, it’s also a side of the movie that can be a lot of fun. But when did that become about threatening and abusing women? You get the impression that, for all of the tough talk and rampant testosterone, Riddick is really rather insecure in its own manliness. Much of the movie comes across as pumped up chest beating, complete with appropriately phallic alien creatures, and a guy so concerned with appearing straight that he refuses to ride “bitch” on another man’s space chopper, even when it means living through the night.
Riddick has one weird ass approach to sexuality that makes little to no sense—if you can decipher it, more power to you—but that leaves a lingering bad taste in your mouth. But even with this side, it isn’t bad as a middle of the road sci-fi flick. The action is solid, even pretty great at times, and though it could stand to be cut down by 20 or 30 minutes—119 minutes is way too much Riddick, Chronicles proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt—we’re talking about a reasonably good time. Twohy and Diesel have already come out and said that if Riddick is a financial success we can expect more installments in the future. While the end definitely sets that up—the idea of an extended search for home is central to the entire film—I doubt this will generate enough interest to make that happen, and you’d like to see them leave it at this instead of beating a dead horse for two or three more movies.