*Spoiler Alert! Actually, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that could possibly spoil this movie any worse than watching it. It’s terrible. But I may inadvertently give details of things you don’t want to know if you’re planning on still wasting your money seeing it. Little tip: set your money on fire instead. You’ll get a brief few seconds of warmth from it which is more than you’ll get in two hours at the theater.
Beware long awaited sequels to cult-following type movies. Lest we forget, there’s the damage done to Indiana Jones by the horrible Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or the sheer reputation-destroying wall of schlock thrown up by George Lucas in his second set of Star Wars movies to remind us. Sometimes it’s best to just leave well enough alone. Of course, both of those terrible affronts to iconic characters banked enough coin to encourage talk of an Indy 5 and spur Disney to drop the price of a small country to land the rights to produce the next series of cash-printing Star Wars films. But that’s the way of Hollywood these days; squeeze that franchise for every dime regardless of quality. And you don’t have to worry about killing the golden goose because you just hire new folks and reboot every decade or so. Great for the accountants but not so hot for continuity, coherence or character.
At least with those films, you have a solid bankable asset still in play with a large fan base’s fond memories of past success. That’s not the case with Vin Diesel’s labor of artistic love, Richard B. Riddick. A character, by the way, who only even has a first name or middle initial to prop up an offhanded joke near the beginning of Pitch Black, the first film in this now-trilogy. Riddick is a character so thin on nuance that even giving him a full name seems superfluous. But that was okay to me because the Riddick introduced in Pitch Black was mysterious, silently threatening and sneaky-clever beneath the veneer of a muscle bound dullard. In that way, Diesel fit his character, his performance naturally seamless from his personality and acting style.
Despite the money, accolades and string of Fast and Furious driven hits, Diesel is not a very good actor. He has one speed, and it works if the character he’s playing is firmly in that wheelhouse. Dominic Toretto is one of those, and the big difference that separates the B-movie, direct to video feel of the Fast films without him from the A-list blockbusters the one’s with him have become. Riddick, at least in the first two incarnations, was another, albeit sans the massive box office.
Pitch Black was released in 2000 to little fanfare. It was an atmospheric low-budget ($23 million) sci fi/horror movie, more in common with Alien than any kind of space opera. At its simplest, Pitch Black works well. Cold anti hero finds that little spark of humanity left within him, the crash survivors picked off “Ten Little Indians” style by the seemingly inevitable crush of the darkness-loving monsters. The movie hints at a larger universe, but keeps things vague enough that your imagination fills in the details of the world they exist in and allows the story to focus wholly on the man vs man/man vs monster battles for survival.
The second film, The Chronicles of Riddick, was much different. In place of the simple survival against long odds story was an overly-ambitious sweeping space epic. The budget for the film ballooned to nearly $120 million, and with it, expectations of box office success it just wasn’t capable of meeting. Despite the far expanded scope of the film, the Riddick character was essentially the same steely badass taking each fight as it comes from the first movie. He was given a sometimes incoherent backstory about his Furyan heritage and a prophecy he may have been born to fulfill but, much like his full name in Pitch Black, it felt like pointless exposition to set up the next scene of Riddick coolly wreaking carnage. And I was okay with that. Movies are what they are and this, in particular, was one not to get too hung up on the details or occasional dangling plot points.
After the relative box office bomb that Chronicles became, it looked like the accountants would do what all the space monsters, Mercs and Necromongers couldn’t and kill Riddick. The movie actually wasn’t a bomb in the epic sense. When all was said and done, and the International box office was counted up, Chronicles was dangerously close to break even. But for $120 million in 2004 dollars, break even was light-years away from good enough to green light any more chronicles.
After that, as part of the deal that brought Vin Diesel back to the Fast and Furious franchise, he swapped a cameo for the film rights to Riddick, a decision that now looks like it might be a very astute, and very profitable one. I waited anxiously for the nine years after Chronicles, sucking up every little piece of internet gossip I could find, hoping beyond good fiscal reason that a third movie would find its way to theaters. Hell, I’d have been happy with a direct to video. As imperfect as Chronicles was, and its imperfections are easily as epic as its scope, I wanted to see more. There were questions I wanted answered. And that sly little smile curling up on Riddick’s lips at the end of Chronicles as he realizes the implications of “you keep what you kill” was a supreme tease. This man was hard enough to handle on his own, what special kind of hell would he bring forth in charge of the entire Necromonger fleet? I wanted to see it.
When I finally saw the trailer for the long-awaited third film, simply named Riddick, earlier this year, I was so happy, I wouldn’t let my concerns about the film surface. This was gonna be awesome! How could it not be? All the years, all that work from Diesel to keep this dream alive? You don’t see people put that kind of effort in without good reason. Or so I told myself. When I bought my ticket and perched myself into that theater seat, I was so excited for what was to come. Then, as the film’s near-two hour runtime spooled out before me, I slowly realized there was one major problem here; the movie itself really sucks.
It isn’t bad in the same way Chronicles was bad, failing because their vision outpaced their grasp. It’s bad in the way Hollywood sometimes ham-handles series reboots. Riddick is part Pitch Black only without the atmosphere, tension or claustrophobic feel. And it’s also part Chronicles without the scope and even more incoherent backstory. Why the strong desire to go home for a man self described as born in a liquor store trashbin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck? Relive the good times?
Riddick is a movie that feels put together by audience survey. Riddick fighting monsters tested really well? Here’s 45 minutes of Riddick fighting monsters to open the film. Riddick fighting Mercs also tested well? Then we’ll double down with two competing Merc crews to battle. Riddick winning over the space cat from Chronicles tested well? Have 20 minutes of Riddick raising a vicious brindle space dog from a puppy. The Necromongers didn’t come off so hot? Well, we’ll wrap that plot point up with five minutes of flashback exposition. The end result is a clunky film that seems familiar, mostly because we’ve already seen everything in it done better in the earlier movies.
None of the characters are even slightly compelling. Even Riddick himself seemed less than before. His banter with Katee Sackhoff was blunt and crude, none of the sly allusions of earlier films. The Riddick of Pitch Black or Chronicles wouldn’t have used the phrase “balls deep”. Too coarse, too obvious. Too sexualized. The shot of Riddick’s bed full of naked Necromonger hotties was a stark contrast to the stoic feel of before. It was an attempt to add sex to the character that didn’t need to be. Before, it was subtle and implied. This was ugly and obvious.
The Mercs were hollow shells of their counterparts from the previous movies. Johns in Pitch Black was a far more interesting character, eliciting far more of a response than his father, the elder Johns who appears in Riddick searching for answers about the death of his son. Santana had none of the humor or presence of Toombs from Chronicles. Their respective crews were just to pad the eventual bodycount.
All except for Sackhoff, that is, who had the pleasure of playing the lone female character in the movie, with the exception of the aforementioned naked bed of Necros. This was perhaps the most disappointing part of this. There was an obligatory topless shower scene for Sackhoff, of course, being the only woman in a sci fi movie, that I’m sure the Battlestar Galactica fanboys will enjoy. But overall, she’s a stock character like the rest. Even worse, we’re expected to believe Riddick’s raw animal magnetism gets the lesbian to switch sides. People talk about sexism in sci fi, and this movie’s sure not doing anything to put the lie to that.
It’s particularly disappointing in that both of the earlier films had strong and/or interesting female characters. Pitch Black had Radha Mitchell as the docking pilot who grew into the role of Captain after the crash and Claudia Black’s take-charge prospector. Chronicles had Judi Dench, for god’s sake, an an envoy from a race called Elementals who oversee balance for the entire universe and Thandie Newton as the scheming, Lady Macbeth-type Dame Vacco, wife to the heir apparent to the Necro throne. And then there’s Jack/Kyra, who grew from the cowering girl dressing up as a boy in Pitch Black to the fully grown, ass kicking woman in Chronicles. Riddick’s universe went from strong female characters to a token woman who exists solely for Riddick to make lewd comments to. That, in this case, it happened to be a woman who did such a good job with a strong woman character in Battlestar Galactica makes it all the more disheartening.
Somehow, this film is actually being received fairly well. Rotten Tomatoes is showing a critics’ rating of 58, which isn’t gangbusters but is much better than this deserved. The viewers’ rating is even higher, at 73! Riddick was produced more in line with Pitch Black. It had a low budget, around $38 million. In just five days since the movie opened in the U.S., it’s already earned back close to $30 million. I think it’s safe to say, when all the receipts are in, the international box office added, and the inevitable video game tie-in or two, Diesel is going to have a nice pile of money for his troubles. That also means we’re very likely to see Riddick 4 and probably Riddick 5 over the next few years.
Back in 2004, after Chronicles bombed, I remember being disappointed knowing that, barring a miracle, there’d probably not be any more Riddick movies. Now, after seeing the new one and knowing with near certainty that there will be more, I find myself disappointed yet again. There’s millions of dollars to be made, after all, so these movies will exist, but by the time the money dries up, will anyone still remember why we watched the Riddick movies in the first place? Be careful what you wish for.