An efficient, intriguing and gorgeous ‘Riddick’ almost lives up to the high standards set by ‘Pitch Black’

September 30, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 30, 2013

In 2000, writer-director David Twohy helmed a modestly budget science fiction actioner named Pitch Black. The film, made for $23 million, starred Vin Diesel as a violent criminal named Richard B. Riddick who is stranded along with a handful of other people when their commercial transport crash-lands on a backwater desert world.

The tautly paced 109-minute movie begins with the thoroughly harrowing crash. Every subsequent bit of the story chronicles the castaways’ battle for survival — a struggle that sometimes pits them against each other even as the group must face down swarms of malevolent predators that soon emerge from their new surroundings.

Riddick, a violent and menacing presence whom a lawman named Johns struggles to contain, is the dark heart of Pitch Black. But to its credit, the film — co-written by Twohy along with Jim and Ken Wheat — is populated with several other fascinating characters. Viewers are not only entertained by the action sequences but intrigued by the task of working through just what is happening on the planet and by puzzling out just who among the survivors might be trustworthy.

Pitch Black was followed by a 2004 sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, another collaboration among Diesel, Twohy and the brothers Wheat. I’ve only seen this film in parts (much in the same way as I initially became familiar with Pitch Black), but I know it works a much broader canvas. The film dispatches its antihero to at least two different worlds and pits him against a villainous horde intent upon conquering the universe.

Chronicles of Riddick, which was made for about quintuple the budget of Pitch Black, opened to a lukewarm critical reception and reportedly made back only about half of its budget.

For the recently opened Riddick, Diesel has reunited with Twohy, who this time goes solo on screenwriting duties. The new movie has a scaled-down story and budget (just $38 million) in comparison with its predecessor. It looks stunning, efficiently cranks up the tension and delivers reliable thrills, but unfortunately, it lacks some of the zip of the original.

The picture begins with Riddick in a desperate fight for survival on an unpopulated desert world that the film never names. He has been marooned there — left for dead — roughly five years after the end of Chronicles of Riddick.

What begins as a struggle against the elements morphs after 20 minutes or so into a plot that resembles Pitch Black. Riddick, alarmed by a threat that is not initially specified, activates an emergency beacon at an abandoned “co-op station” that he conveniently stumbles across. The beacon attracts two crews of mercenaries. One of them, run by the vicious Santana, is eager to put Riddick’s head in a box; the other, a more disciplined troop, has a reason to capture the fugitive alive (at least for a little while).

Ultimately, however, the small band of humans will find reason to join forces (at least for a little while!) against a common foe — swarms of malevolent predators that soon emerge from their new surroundings.

Like Pitch Black, the new film assembles an interesting cast of characters, presents superb action scenes and challenges the viewer to figure out both what is happening on the strange world and who can be trusted. Alas, Riddick just never comes together as well as the 2000 film did. 

I can’t quite put my finger on why this is. Possibly it’s because, in returning to the elements that made Pitch Black so successful, the new outing just seems too familiar — increasingly so as the narrative progresses. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the climactic sequences, while competent and enjoyable, don’t have enough of a wow factor. Or perhaps the movie simply wraps up in too predictable and pat a fashion, with fellow survivors just a bit too favorably inclined to Riddick.

The excellent supporting cast features Katee Sackhoff, who plays a badass much like her Starbuck from the Battlestar Galactica revival. Matt Nable and Jordi Mollà play the heads of the rival mercenary squads, with Bokeem Woodbine and Dave Bautista putting in solid turns as team members.

The humans in the movie are supplemented by an impressive array of digital wizardry, although it never intrudes on or supplants the story. The very best visual effect is a dog-like alien creature that accompanies Riddick throughout much of the story.

Riddick remains a magnetic figure; he’s ridiculously strong, quick and cunning, yet touchingly vulnerable and even soulful at times. The film’s conclusion leaves ample room for a sequel. If there’s a fourth Riddick feature — and if I were a betting man, I’d put money on that happening — I definitely plan on seeing it.

It’s worth noting that Riddick is best viewed only by action and science fiction fans. There are a number of gory kills (not to mention a few quasi-surgical scenes) that will turn off mainstream moviegoers and that are certainly unsuitable for youngsters.

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