Riddick is a fascinating proposition. Pitch Black was an original film (unusual in itself these days) that came out of nowhere to great success, at least on home video, where word-of-mouth managed to gain the film a second-wind financially, meriting an eventual sequel. Unfortunately that sequel was as overblown and pretentious as its title, The Chronicles of Riddick, although that said, it made a commendable attempt at original world-building with a gothic look straight out of Lynch’s Dune. Having become the very antithesis of the original, the second film was deemed a critical and financial failure, and that seemed to be that for the character and a franchise.
But Vin Diesel’s anti-hero Riddick remains an original and enduring character, and nearly ten years later we have another movie (take heart, fellow Dredd fans, there is yet hope!). And here is the fascinating part- the title itself is perhaps indicative of the films’ approach; Riddick is simple and stark minus any pretensions of its epic predecessor, and so it is lean and mean, costing less than $40 million to make in comparison to something close to the $120 million that Chronicles cost. You have to admire film-makers who listen to the fans and act on what they have to say, because its evident in how the film returns to the roots of Pitch Black that such corrective action has been taken.
Riddick reminds me of the best stories from Heavy Metal magazine in its 1970s heyday; heavy in style and hardware with a hard adult approach in its sensibilities, much akin to Alien, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and the original Robocop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Riddick is approaching any of those films in quality but it does share with those films an inherent, integral self-logic of purpose. Alien was a silly monster-in-space movie elevated by incredible production design and realistic, life-worn middle-aged characters, in which the steam-drenched, haunted-house corridors of the post-2001 space ship somehow made sense. Blade Runner‘s central premise (making superior artificial humans without any way of actually identifying them) is nonsensical but in its grimy, rain-saturated city it has a reality beyond its central proposition with its fascinating investigations regards death and humanity. Both films are violent, edgy and adult, traits further exampled in the brutal dystopian future of The Road Warrior or in Robocop’s corporate satire. Its rock and roll science fiction of the senses, decried by literary purists but damned effective film-making nonetheless. They may not have been based on Heavy Metal comic-strips but they all feel as though they could have been.
So we have Riddick. After that bloated second film Chronicles I really didn’t expect very much from this, but you know how low-expectations somehow have the opposite effect, raising your sense of enjoyment? Well, I think I enjoyed this film more than I should have. Its low budget goes pretty far, and while its hardly a high-concept movie, it works. Riddick is left marooned on another hostile planet, and the set-up for this post-Chronicles turnaround is the only real false step, as the film attempts via flashback to establish an explanation/continuity that feels awkward as it refers back to the second film. This may work better in the extended cut on Blu-ray, but I saw the film on a HD stream via Amazon Prime so can’t comment on that. But anyway, Riddick is on the planet struggling to survive, and after several weeks (months?) finds a more habitable region and an abandoned outpost. Figuring the bounty on his head is the biggest pull, he sets off an emergency beacon announcing his identity, and sure enough two rival bounty teams fly in looking for his head. But soon all of them have more urgent dangers pressing on them, as a stormy rainy season sets an army of amphibian monsters onto them, leaping the film back into original Pitch Black territory. Its simple and, at its best, direct- in a similar way to how Dredd worked so well, it uses the limitations of its budget to strip the film down to its core fundamentals and make the best of them.
No doubt some fans, and particularly those fond of the second film, will be disappointed by a perceived lack of ambition, in not pursuing the world-building set-up by the second film. Maybe a fourth film will return to add some closure to that as Riddick works on his revenge. I don’t know if a fourth film is in the works but after watching Riddick I’d be rather interested to see it. If Riddick‘s purpose was to breathe fresh life into a dead franchise then it seems to have succeeded.