Many of us came to the conclusion long ago that Vin Diesel was the result of a particularly nerdy genetic experiment to recreate Richard Corben’s “Den” as a real-life human being. (“Many of us,” for the sake of this conversation, are admittedly also nerds.)
So it’s particularly appropriate that David Twohy wrote and directed Vin Diesel into Riddick, the third feature film in the spottily popular sci-fi franchise, and one that feels more than either of its predecessors like a live-action pulp publication, tatters and all. If Robert E. Howard had a lovechild with Frank Frazetta’s lovechild with Richard Corben, that lovechild would have made Riddick, and if that’s not a compliment either I don’t know what is or you don’t recognize enough of those names.
But while a compliment is still a compliment, not all compliments are created equal. Riddick is a three-star movie by definition, embracing macho power fantasies in a nifty low-fi sci-fi environment but caring little for anything even remotely resembling depth. More than half the cast seems to have originated from a machine designed for cutting cookies, and every attempt to make them behave in an unexpected manner is, at best, fractionally hearted. Normally I’d say half-hearted, but that seems a little generous in the case of Riddick. When these people act of out character, and by the film’s end they most definitely will, there is no motivation whatsoever beyond trying to make sure Riddick doesn’t end exactly the way Pitch Black did.
Riddick begins with Vin Diesel, a.k.a. Richard B. Riddick, awakening on an alien planet populated entirely by monsters and digital matte paintings. There are eels with no concept of personal space, jackal/whippet hybrids and an amphibious giant scorpion whose tail is so ridiculously overgrown that the creature's center of gravity would have to be as dense as a neutron star for its existence to make any kind of sense.
Riddick spends half the film surviving on his own in the wild, carrying the film with the sheer force of testosterone: he repeatedly injects himself with scorpion venom just to develop an immunity to it, and presumably to one day murder an intergalactic offspring of Wallace Shawn. But Riddick discovers that this alien world will soon become completely uninhabitable, so he sends a distress beacon into space, knowing full well that it will only attract an ensemble cast of bounty hunters with names like “The Religious One,” “The Dangerous Blowhard,” “The One with a Mysterious Connection to Riddick” and “Katee Sackhoff, Playing Herself.”
From here Riddick evolves into a truncated version of Pitch Black, with an off-screen Riddick stalking B-movie regulars and eventually teaming up with the survivors to ward off an invading force of nightdwelling alien demons. Riddick has only done this once before, but he still seems to know exactly where the plot is going and who will betray whom. The only surprises stem from arbitrary twists courtesy of screenwriters who, once again, presumably realized a little late in the game that their attempts to recreate the feel of Pitch Black were hewing a little too close to either repetition or self-parody.
But kudos to everyone for replenishing Richard B. Riddick’s integrity as a chaotic neutral cinematic antihero in a sci-fi world that may be cartoonishly cocky, but– after the awkward myth-building absurdity of The Chronicles of Riddick – at least once again has a healthy cynicism and an appealingly low-tech aesthetic. The fact that Riddick’s mercenaries still use 20th century firearm technology makes the film’s world feel much more relatable than a see-through Judi Dench with BDSM “Just Married” chains tied to her ankles ever could.
And kudos to the screenwriters for integrating Riddick’s uncomplicated, intimate storyline into the grander scope of Chronicles without completely negating the previous film. Personally, I thought Chronicles of Riddick sucked, but it does have its fans and they will appreciate that the makers of Riddick found a way to return the franchise to its roots without completely rebooting it and pretending that the previous, less popular film didn’t happen. Take that, Spider-Man franchise, and take it from Riddick of all things.
The hyper-masculine joys of Riddick come at the cost of plausibility, and the extremely arch CGI environments that digitally insert Vin Diesel into too-perfect landscapes designed to make him look butch don't help. Or rather, they help immensely if you're actually into this sort of thing, and can enjoy this unabashedly testicular power fantasy without a security blanket woven from your own personal sense of ironic detachment. If you're willing to accept Riddick for what it is, a three-star movie, you will find that it is in fact a four-star three-star movie: honest with its intentions, consistently entertaining, and a welcome change of pace from a genre dedicated almost entirely to superhero origin stories and obvious metaphors for our own present-day crapulence.
Riddick simply "is," and Riddick is simply badass. For as much or as little as that's worth.