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Riddick

I claim absolutely no interest in the franchise of Riddick. I saw Pitch Black once, but that was years ago and I’ve had no urge to revisit it. I didn’t even bother with The Chronicles of Riddick. For me, the most interesting thing about Riddick was in Vin Diesel’s die-hard loyalty to the character. Diesel could never shut up about taking another go-round with Riddick, and Chronicles was a critical and commercial flop that hit nine freaking years ago.

To put that in perspective, Dan Aykroyd has been fighting for Ghostbusters 3 since the ’90s, and people actually like that franchise. If anyone out there was clamoring for a Riddick sequel — aside from Diesel and writer/director David Twohy, of course — I never heard it. Yet the Ghostbusters crew is getting on in years, and none of them have had an undisputed box office hit in ages. Compare that to Diesel, whose Fast and the Furious franchise was recently given a new lease on life and a billion international dollars with the two most recent films.

So Diesel gets to put on the goggles once more.

Riddick opens with the titular anti-hero stranded on some god-forsaken planet. It seems that after Riddick took control of the Necromongers (don’t worry if you’ve never seen Chronicles, the movie gets you nice and caught up), he was betrayed by someone named Vaako (Karl Urban, reprising his role). So now, Riddick is terribly injured and left for dead on a planet that very clearly doesn’t want him there.

The first act is a sort of “wilderness survival” story (think Cast Away) in which our protagonist, armed with nothing but his wits, must fight to stay alive in a barren wasteland against a variety of fierce creatures who are all out for blood. This is easily the best part of the film. The landscapes are good, even if the color palette is oppressively yellow. The creatures all show a lot of personality, even if their CGI falls way short of photo-realism. Riddick proved himself as a true badass in this act, using his muscle and his brains to fight for survival in very clever ways.

Best of all, the first act is almost completely devoid of dialogue. This turns out to be a blessing, as Riddick proves with his voice-overs that Twohy is no Oscar-caliber screenwriter. Though some lines of dialogue yield a laugh or two, most of them are pitifully overblown. It might have worked on a “so bad it’s good” level, if it wasn’t so clunky.

Anyway, the second act begins when Riddick activates an emergency beacon (don’t ask) which alerts a couple of mercenary gangs to Riddick’s exact location. This section of the film is more like a straightforward “slasher horror,” in which a pool of potential victims try to find and kill Riddick before he can kill them. The twist, of course, is that the slasher is actually our protagonist, and we’re actively rooting for him to kill off this crew of knuckle-dragging morons. I’ll get back to that point later.

The third act is very much a return to basics. Riddick has to help a team of mortals escape from a god-forsaken planet full of nocturnal beasts who want them all dead. So now we’ve got a “creature slasher” film, coming after the “slasher horror” and the “wilderness survival” films we already got. Yes, this movie is essentially three films in one. They do a passable job of segueing into each other, though the differences in tone can be rather jarring at times.

Quite often, I’d find the film at a Point B, look all the way back to Point A, and ask myself “How did we get here?” This is also a problem that affects the film in small ways: There were so many story points, character reversals, and setup/payoff threads that were probably missing scenes for how little sense they made. On the other hand, I won’t deny that the film had some very clever moments of plotting, especially when it came to Riddick.

Yes, everything good about this film comes back to Riddick. Diesel plays this character with a strength that could only come from true passion, and his voice is of course beyond reproach. More importantly, though the character is a powerful badass, he stops just shy of being a “Gary Stu.” The first act does a lot to establish this, as we clearly see that he’s not immune to fear or pain. He can be hurt, he can be overpowered, and he can make mistakes. Also, though the character is very intelligent, there’s a sense that his knowledge and resourcefulness mostly stem from primal instinct. He can set a bear trap like nobody’s business, but he couldn’t see a glaringly obvious political trap until it had already sprung.

The problem with this franchise is not Riddick. The problem is that Riddick is an interesting character in a boring universe. Absolutely nothing in this movie was remotely as interesting as its namesake character. The creatures may have been an exception, but that’s only until the end of the first act. After that point, one monster becomes a loyal canine pet, another becomes a legion of generic predatory beasts, and all the others simply drop off the face of the planet. The movie actively drained the personality from them.

A better case in point would be our two teams of bounty hunters. One of them is led by an arrogant, sexist slimebag named Santana (Jordi Molla). The other one is led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), and of course the two bicker endlessly about who’s in command, who gets the bounty, etc.

First of all, nothing about these characters was compelling. They offered absolutely no hint that anything about this greater universe (the cultures, the technology, etc.) was worth paying attention to. Secondly, both gangs were comprised almost entirely of total meatheads who were either annoying and/or incompetent. Throw in their constant bitching, and I found it very easy to cheer as Riddick ran circles around them.

However, I will grant that not all of them were completely unsympathetic. Johns is a notable example, since he has a mildly sympathetic reason to be on the hunt. It’s rather contrived, and it won’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t know or remember Pitch Black, but I’ll allow it.

The other example is Dahl, played by native Portlander and BSG alumna Katee Sackhoff. I’m very curious to know why the filmmakers created this tough-as-nails lesbian whose name sounds exactly like “doll.” It’s kind of hard to take the character seriously as a “strong independent woman” type when her male cohorts all refer to her as “doll.” Anyway, Dahl gets by because she’s there’s nothing about her to hate. She’s competent, she’s not annoying, and she’s a lesbian — that’s all we ever learn about the character. She’s a mediocre character surrounded by awful ones, which makes her sympathetic by default.

Then again, we’re still talking about Katee Sackhoff kicking ass. That’s gotta be worth something.

On a technical level, meh. I get the impression that Twohy is much more of a visual filmmaker, since the movie is at its best when it moves the story forward without dialogue. However, recent films have been oversaturated with orange/blue contrast, and Twohy’s work here is a very egregious case in point. I also get the impression that Twohy is a very self-indulgent filmmaker as well: You can practically see the stitches where footage was cut for time.

All told, I don’t really hate Riddick. I just wonder what the point of it is. I get why Riddick is a popular character, and I get why Vin Diesel has so much fun playing him, but I don’t see anything else in this universe worth getting invested in. I don’t see anything about this franchise that encourages and rewards exploration, the way Star Trek, Dune, Firefly, or even Pacific Rim do. It’s almost like the filmmakers aspire to those epic levels, but don’t really have the talent or the work ethic to make that happen. Then again, maybe there was something in Chronicles I missed out on? If so, then the filmmakers still fail for not adding onto that mythology in any way.

As a stand-alone film, it works well enough as an action-packed B-movie that I can recommend it as a second-run or a rental. The film might easily have been worth a first-run or even an IMAX premium, if only the filmmakers’ grasp was closer to their reach.

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