Pitch Black writer/director David Twohy returns to the series he created with Riddick, a partly visionary, mostly routine outing starring Vin Diesel as his signature brawny, bari-toned anti-hero. This time fugitive Riddick is stranded on a barren planet fending off ferocious canines and lethal reptiles while being pursued by bounty hunters. It’s a movie that begins with a bang, but fails to sustain its tension or thrills.
The bar was admittedly set low for Riddick after 2004’s disastrous The Chronicles of Riddick, but the new picture returns to the slickness and style of 2000’s Pitch Black, where we met Richard B. Riddick, a criminal with the smarts and skills to fend off its bat-like aliens, and in its sequel, where Riddick shared the screen with Judy Dench, at her career nadir amidst cheap-looking, bloated CGI.
While the new picture recaptures some of Pitch Black’s craftiness and largely dispenses with Riddick’s posturing machismo, it mostly underwhelms due to underdeveloped characters and a been there, done that feeling that creeps into the picture’s second half.
But the first half hour, truly, is worth the price of admission, with a stranded Riddick announcing that he’s been left for dead too many times to count—he rises, resurrected from the ashes, hand around the throat of a vulture. After setting a broken leg, he manages to tame a beastly wild jackal, the pair fending off the slimy, bloodthirsty creatures that exist in the planet’s many cauldron-like pools. The creatures, with their long necks, rubbery skin and razor-sharp teeth are the film’s visual highlight, not unlike the original picture’s nocturnal foes.
The opening charts Riddick’s survival against these odds, including a flashback referencing the 2004 picture’s deification of the character, who was rescued by a group of religious extremists and feted a savior—think Paul Atreides or Neo. After rejecting their throne in a quest to return home to planet Furya, Riddick ends up exiled on a mysterious desert planet, depicted here as a orange and red wonder with enough meance to sustain a feature, had the screenplay chosen to simply focus on Riddick against the elements.
Enter two separate teams of bounty hunters determined to capture the planet’s most wanted, and here is where Twohy goes somewhat awry, presenting a colorless collection of generic renegades, with the exception of the underused Katee Sackhoff, a lesbian rogue who can hold her own and diffuses the testosterone: “I don’t fuck guys. Occasionally, I fuck them up.” It’s the movie’s one memorable line, and a pity Twohy didn’t write more for Sackhoff to do.
Also out for the reward is Santana, played with relish by Spanish actor Jordi Molla, who seems to think the picture is about him each time he’s onscreen, doing what he can to liven things. It won’t come as a surprise that Riddick ultimately does battle with an army of creepy creatures, expertly shot in rain and lightning by veteran DP David Eggby, the guy you call when you need to shoot B-movie desert-scapes with authenticity—he lensed the George Miller’s original Mad Max, as well as the first Pitch Black and scores of other great looking, low-budget scrap.
It’s probably best to think about Riddick as two separate movies—the first, a beautifully-realized piece of sci-fi survivalist poetry with eye-popping grandeur and imagination, as good looking as anything onscreen so far this year; the other, a plodding, formulaic B-movie with an off-the-shelf collection of action mercenaries that would have felt recycled three decades ago. The former is so blazingly good you’re convinced you’re watching one of the year’s movie surprises; the latter is a major comedown.
Whatever Riddick’s unevenness, Twohy is an undeniably sci-fi stylist whose best picture, The Arrival, had its feet planted on Earth but imagined a world being repopulated by aliens warming the globe, culminating in a doozy of a sequence where a gigantic satellite dish came unhinged.
The talented Diesel, long since sold out by Hollywood as B-movie material and whose career is now inextricably tied to the Fast & Furious franchise (even though he displayed considerable dramatic chops early on in Saving Private Ryan, Boiler Room and Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama Find Me Guilty), can do this role with his eyes closed, but his effortless sense of slyness and way with a one-liner are undeniable. He fully embodies Riddick without caricature, hulking yet efficiently limber, adept at both holding a close-up or wrestling a lizard—how many actors can say the same?
My advice? See the film’s opening and then exit at the thirty-minute mark—Riddick’s survival sequence is that good.
Opening half-hour: 4 stars.
The rest: 2 1/2 stars.