After the risible attempt to make a mythic space opera hero out of Riddick in Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick is a back-to-basics attempt to remind audiences how great the character is. The problem is, he isn’t; he’s one of the reasons Pitch Black is great, but he’s not the reason, and his story was essentially complete in that film. Where Chronicles tried to mythologise him, Riddick simply boringly retreads him.
The film glosses over that thing about Riddick being King of the Universe or whatever it was that happened in Chronicles with the narrative equivalent of an embarrassed cough, instead placing him on a desolate planet, targeted by bounty hunters. The first third of the film is a half hour or so of Riddick against the elements, fighting slavering, venomous slugs and whatnot. It’s not bad, though what could have been a classy, dialogue-free, man-against-nature sequence is marred by voice-overs and other asides. This is purportedly Riddick learning how to be Riddick again but without seeing his decline, seeing his rise is pretty meaningless; he comes out of it looking, sounding and behaving just as he was before.
This is one of the problems I have with Riddick, and it’s a similar problem I had with Chronicles; the character just isn’t that interesting. There’s no depth, there’s no conflict, there’s nothing; he’s all style and no substance, and in Riddick he’s usually the least personable character on screen. He’s effectively invincible and that makes him boring to watch; even when he’s snapping bones back into place or cauterising wounds you know that it isn’t going to slow him down for more than a second or two.
Gone also is the morally ambiguous hardened criminal of Pitch Black. Morally, he’s a fucking paragon; he offers the bounty hunters a compromise so that nobody has to die, he only kills when threatened, he’s a man of his word, he doesn’t leave people behind and he risks his life to save a puppy. Seriously, it’s this adorable, zebra-hyena hybrid with cute widdle boggle eyes. The opening act of Riddick is pretty much that Athena poster with the hunky man holding a baby.
So, in Twohy and Diesel’s ongoing quest to make Riddick into a legend, they’ve added very little here. No character growth, no world-building, no real reason to care. This probably doesn’t matter; most people invested in this probably just want to see Diesel growling his way around a soundstage inventively and brutally killing people, and there’s plenty of that here.
Where Riddick stumbles the worst, though, is in its treatment of its female characters. First, an unnamed and imprisoned woman is released and then murdered for no other reason than to show how much of a psycho the bounty hunter leader is. It’s a sour note, and it doesn’t even work; Riddick is a witness to the killing but we know, and he knows, and even all the other characters know, that he’s ten times the bad-ass his opponents are. It’s unclear if the audience is even supposed to care; it’s heavily implied that the bounty hunters sexually abused her, but soon after her death everyone’s wise-cracking and quipping and nobody seems that bad. She’s never mentioned again; there’s more pathos and screen time given over to the killing of Riddick’s dog.
Equally sour is the treatment of Katie Sackhoff’s character Dahl, the film’s only other female presence; I spent the whole film thinking everyone was patronisingly calling her ‘Doll’ and it didn’t seem incongruous at all. Sackhoff, brilliant in Battlestar: Galactica and Longmire, is wasted; Dahl appears to be here simply to flash a tit to wake up the boys in the audience and to show how charismatic and manly Riddick is by declaring that she “doesn’t fuck guys” at the start of the film, then offering herself to Riddick by the end. Urgh.
While I’m sure that Twohy and Diesel’s intentions were good, there’s something overwhelmingly tragic about this film, a fourteen-year-old boy’s idea of what’s cool as presented by a man in his mid-40s, with a hint of jowl and the sense that he’d be happier if he could just put on a shirt and get a job advising people on mortgages. While a return to a Pitch Black-style flick appeals in theory, in practice the one-note characters, a protagonist who may as well be invincible and a unpleasant misogynist streak all diminish Riddick. I suggest just watching Pitch Black again.