You know those clips you may have already seen from Riddick, in trailers and TV spots? The vast majority of them are from the final third of the movie. I understand why, of course: that third act is a virtual copy of Pitch Black, the Riddick movie that those of us who know there is more than one Riddick movie refer to as the good one. Also, Riddick as a whole would be a more difficult sell, because each of its acts is basically a completely different kind of movie.
Act one sees galactic antihero Richard B. Riddick, as night-visioned and super-strong as ever, waking up on a hostile planet where peril abounds and escalates from the surrounding environment and its wildlife. Near-wordless save for some narration and enough of a flashback to how he got here from his throne as King of the Necromongers (if you don’t already know what this means, don’t ask – it doesn’t much matter anyway), this part of the story plays out like Conan in space, against backdrops that look like pulp sci-fi covers of the ’80s in a beautiful way.
Act two abruptly shifts gears, as two rival groups of bounty hunters show up to collect the reward on Riddick’s head. Riddick himself all but disappears from sight at this point, and the movie becomes an outdoors take on Alien, with Vin Diesel as the monster who eludes capture, slithers through ducts, and picks off crewmen one by one while barely being seen. Finally, having shown the points of view of both sides, writer-director David Twohy brings them all together as a group, when night falls, monsters arrive, and we get an abbreviated Pitch Black all over again.
It’s a risky way to play with audience sympathies, but it’s far from the only potential alienating factor. Twohy and Diesel, from the start, have designed a dark, scuzzy, hard-R rated universe – second film The Chronicles of Riddick was made at a PG-13 level to justify a bigger budget, and nearly collapsed under its own pomposity – but they actively flip off the audience at least twice in this installment. Once when a beloved pet is brutally killed, and a second time when Riddick makes rape jokes toward Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl. It’s one thing when a nasty, obviously evil character like Jordi Molla’s Santana threatens sexual abuse toward the only woman in the film, and she beats the holy hell out of him every time in return. But when a hero, even an antihero like Riddick does so, it makes me feel lousy for ever sympathizing with him, especially since it has been established that Dahl is a lesbian and he seems to have designs on converting her (ask the stars of Gigli how well that plot development plays with contemporary audiences).
It almost plays like a weird way of saying, “Hey fanboys, don’t panic, Riddick’s not gay,” following some strange homoerotic moments between him and faction leader Boss Johns (Matt Nable) that include the two of them riding in a suggestive position on a hoverbike as Diesel smiles to the camera. (Following this scene, Johns complains that he was in “the bitch seat.”) Newsflash: gay panic among fanboys ain’t what it used to be, and even if it were, rape jokes don’t assert anybody’s masculinity – quite the contrary most of the time. At any rate, Diesel does go bare-ass naked in one scene that feels like a tribute to the original John Carter books in which the hero of Mars did likewise; to balance this, Sackhoff gets a totally gratuitous shower scene, not that audiences will likely complain.
Looking at the amount of space I’ve just spent discussing the flaws, I do feel like I may be overstating them a bit – I applaud Twohy and Diesel for sticking to their vision, and working to revive their semi-dead franchise with their own money, work and reputation rather than begging on Kickstarter. At the same time, I’m damn glad I didn’t bring my wife to it, and while the pet death is arguably a spoiler, trust me, fellas, I’m saving you some grief by revealing it here and letting you make the call.
So what’s good? Lots. That first third of the film that’s all Riddick is up there with those middle 20 minutes of Cast Away where Tom Hanks says nothing – it’s a manly man survivalist adventure to make John Milius proud, and a testament to the fact that Diesel could have been a capable new Conan but for Arnold un-retiring and wanting to play him old. The main evil creatures are fun for a while – imagine a giant Alien chestburster on two legs with a scorpion’s tail – though they get tedious en masse toward the end. And the sheer sleaziness of the whole thing is part of the point; I feel like I want to see more of this universe, but then I realize I did, in the overblown second installment. Snapshot POVs from the scum of the galaxy turn out to be more valuable.
Do I recommend this? I really don’t know. As much as moments of the first act are considerably enhanced by the big screen, I feel like saying this is best engaged as a cheap rental. Should this universe get expanded on the creators’ terms, I’m game for more – but would prefer it not be yet another variation on monsters in the dark with a token blonde.