Vin Diesel eats Space Pistachios in David Twohy’s clumsy-but-entertaining “Riddick.”
It’s official. By muscling through to a third movie, the “Riddick” franchise survived a messy suicide attempt. After the surprise success and lasting popularity of Pitch Black, writer/director David Twohy did something naughty: he decided to shift the genre for his new Riddick movie, from sci-fi/monster to the very different sci-fi/fantasy. A strange decision, considering that Pitch Black feels more like a happy accident than a premeditated success. You’d think Twohy would have desperately stuck to his winning formula. Instead, for The Chronicles of Riddick, he chose to do a “Conan the Barbarian in Space” sort of thing. Turns out the inscrutable fugitive Riddick is now the last survivor of some revered alien race. And he must save the universe.
Maybe this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but Twohy’s giving backstory to a character who was cool largely he had no backstory doesn’t feel like it was the best approach. Totally spoils the mystique. That’s like Ridley Scott explaining that the Space Jockey in the original Alien was actually an albino bodybuilder in space diapers. I’ll admit, there are some things in Chronicles that I enjoyed, but ultimately I feel the film did catastrophic damage to the mystique of what was a refreshingly unique anti-hero. After COR, the Riddick franchise (which at that point included a video game and animated movie, both voiced by Diesel) seemed down for the count.
So I was intrigued by the possibility of yet another Riddick movie. Especially when considering Director Twohy, due to limited budget and/or a sudden rush of common sense, was going to take the series back to basics. Clean the slate of all that Necromonger ghost lady stuff. The idea was to lose the fantasy edge and reroute the series back to Pitch Black’s original vibe. Simple and with plenty of monsters.
I was like, cool, but just how small a budget were we talking? A glimpse at a very-earlier trailer for the film had me thinking that the new film, Riddick, was going to be a few chromosomes shy of a direct-to-DVD release. On top of that, quick images of a nocturnal army of wet slithery monsters—plus a gaggle of tough-looking mercenaries—pretty much told me we’d be getting a dollar store scene-for-scene remake of Pitch Black. How’s that for “back to formula”? I had a feeling it was going to be a phoned-in endeavor through and through. Certainly it would be the last nail in the coffin of what was once—at least to me—a fun sci-fi property.
I was in for a pleasant surprise.
When the new film opens we find Riddick apparently marooned on a deserted, violent alien landscape. There’s no dialogue at first, just Riddick doing his damnedest to keep from being eaten by alien wolf-dogs or poisoned to death by amphibious scorpion creatures (distant cousins to the cobra-like swamp creatures from the 1987 film Enemy Mine). Before very long we get a flashback sequence to address the elephant in the room—what happened to Riddick being the new Lord Marshall of the nefarious Necromongers? Turns out Riddick was betrayed and left for dead on this planet by Karl Urban’s Vaako, who believed—like us—that Riddick had no business being Lord Marshall of an army of undead palefaces. Too bad Karl didn’t mention this to David Twohy before he wrote The Chronicles of Riddick.
The flashback is wisely kept brief, and once it’s over David Twohy makes it clear to us that this film is not going to be about Riddick seeking revenge on his betrayers. It’s all water under the bridge—Riddick deserved it for allowing himself to get soft. His only goal now is to find a way off this rock, and to regain that “animal edge” he feels he’s lost. Riddick as narrator even uses the delightful phrase: “We’re zeroing the clock.” In other words, Twohy wants us to pretty much forget The Chronicles of Riddick ever happened and get back into a Pitch Black frame of mind. And though there’s no way to fully repair the damage done by COR (short of saying it was all a dream), I thought Twohy did as good as job as one can hope for vis a vis bad-sequel damage control.
So far so good. Back to the plot. After befriending a cute puppy alien wolf-dog, and developing a sort of immunity to the Enemy Mine scorpion beasts, Riddick pushes onwards through the desert. Eventually he finds an abandoned laboratory/refueling station sorta place, where he promptly activates an emergency beacon. He figures if he can get a starship to land on the planet, he’ll go ahead and borrow it. But of course it’s not AAA that shows up—it’s bounty hunters hungry for some sweet Riddick cash. Riddick, now hiding in the hills and caves that surround the station, must essentially “Home Alone” this irreverent batch of bad guys via his particular set of skills. Soon a second batch of mercenaries arrive, more civilized and professional than the first. They too want Riddick, for altogether different reasons. The two groups start butting heads right from the get-go, each with a different opinion as to who gets to go home with the prize, and how best to snag him.
Of course, in keeping with the spirit of Pitch Black, all three parties are eventually forced to work together against an even greater foe. In the first movie it was the “hammer heads.” This time it’s those same scorpion creatures we met at the beginning of the movie. Turns out these things are kinda like earthworms; all they need is a nice big puddle of rain and suddenly there they are slithering around. Just so happens there’s a massive rainstorm heading this way.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised with this film. Despite some hare-brained logic and a marathon of juvenile dialogue, I think this movie turns out to be a fun low budget sci-fi actioner. That is, as long as you’re willing to toggle your brain activity down to “simmer.” I was. I’m a card-carrying fan of Vin Diesel. I think he’s the best next generation action hero we’ve got. Duane “The Rock” Johnson is okay, but if you ask me he’s way too articulate. Action heroes need a sort of caveman mumbling quality a la Arnold and Stallone. Deisel delivers the marble mouth every time.
The story in Riddick wasn’t particularly inventive, but it’s not like Pitch Black is some great sci-fi masterpiece. I appreciated that Riddick managed to recapture the ultimate simplicity of Pitch Black without having to cut and paste that movie’s main story beats (as I was sure would be the case). Yes, there’s plenty of similarities between the two movies, but this latest sequel really doesn’t feel like the carbon copy I had braced myself for.
The writing is a step down (!) from the first two Riddick movies. I could quote all kinds of clumsy lines that went above and beyond my tolerance levels, but let me sum it all up with just one example. Remember how I said that Riddick, early in the movie, uses the phrase “zero the clock” to let us know we’re starting this new movie with a clean slate? Well, later on, one of the scruffy evil mercenaries casually uses this same phrase in a completely unrelated way. And it clearly wasn’t meant as a sort of clever echo to the whole franchise reboot theme (I’m pretty sure he was talking about literally “zeroing” some actual clock). Just sloppy writing. As if the phrase “zero the clock” is like all the rage in the fictional Riddick universe. It’s like saying “Netflix binge” in our own universe.
There’s at least one laugh-out-loud “really?” moment. At one point Riddick breaks open a box of emergency space rations, and there’s a little vacu-sealed packet of pistachio nuts in there. Shells ‘n everything. And he just starts dutifully eating them as if they’re standard issue field rations. Riiight. I don’t know about you, but when I think emergency survival food my first thought isn’t salty, messy, not-very-nutritious pistachio nuts. Almonds? Maybe. Fine. But pistachios? I honestly couldn’t tell if this was supposed to a joke, or if the writers actually project that pistachios will accompany humanity as it boldly ventures out into the galaxy. Judging by the rest of the script, smart money’s on the latter. What surely happened was that the script called for “nuts,” and the producers made the mistake of asking Vin Diesel what he preference was. Space Pistachios. Available at your local star base.
Nevertheless, despite the cornball writing, Riddick somehow manages to keep afloat. Largely due to clever casting. Vin Diesel, as Richard B. Riddick, is as charismatic as he was in the previous two movies. He does his “Riddick” thing, and that’s all we ask. Jordi Mollà, who plays Santana, the bumbling leader of the first team of mercs, is quite entertaining in the role. He’s tasked with delivering the lion’s share of corny dialogue, but, thanks in no small part to his heavy Spanish accent, he makes plenty of lemonade with those lemons. Then there’s Katee Sackhoff, who plays Dahl, a tough-as-nails bounty hunter working with the more streamlined team of mercenaries. Seems like with Sackhoff you sort of know what you’re gonna get: the ol’ Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica routine. But this isn’t a bad thing, as she’s got plenty of magnetism and helps add a solid dose of genre credibility to a movie populated almost exclusively by jacked, grunting meathead types. Then there’s her boss, played by Matt Nable. Turns out Nable’s character has an interesting connection to a major character in Pitch Black. I appreciated the connection, though the casting didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Nable is decent in the role, but he seems a little young for the part, considering said connection. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll see what I’m talking about when you get to the reveal.
No, it’s not a modern science fiction classic, but in the end “zeroing the clock” was just what this would-be franchise needed. Twohy cut out the fat and put together a surprisingly entertaining second sequel to Pitch Black. As a keen observer and devoted fan of so many science fiction franchises—all of which eventually nuke the fridge at some point—I will say that Riddick is a rare example of a low budget sequel successfully mopping up the worst of the mess left by its bigger budget predecessor. Riddick ends much like Pitch Black did, leaving us curious and wanting more, not less. Ball’s in Twohy’s court.
Click on the link for an unaffiliated Riddick review.
Click on the link for a Riddick movie trailer.