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Ebiri: Riddick Is Vin Diesel’s Life’s Work, for Whatever That’s Worth

Riddick seems to be a sequel to a movie very few people liked or saw. 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick was an ill-advised attempt to turn 2000’s nasty, effective little sci-fi horror flick Pitch Black into a Star Wars–like PG-13 space opera franchise. It was a bad idea, and duly met a financially disappointing end. But it had a second life on video, and star Vin Diesel was apparently so taken with the concept that he convinced the studio to release another one, reportedly using his appearance in the Fast and Furious films as leverage. One has to admire the man’s dedication and his conviction that, whatever the wider public might have thought, this franchise was worth saving. If only the great, unfairly maligned Babe: Pig in the City had also starred Vin Diesel, maybe we’d have another one of those, too.

So, Riddick (first name, inexplicably, Richard), the intergalactic Furyan outlaw who escaped from captivity and an eclipse-ridden desert planet in Pitch Black and was crowned King of the Necromongers (don’t ask) in The Chronicles of Riddick, is now back. “This … this ain’t nothing new,” he noirishly intones in voice-over in the film’s opening minutes, and he’s right. It ain’t. Deposed and betrayed, he’s now been dumped on yet another hostile planet and left for dead. While Riddick leaves behind all the space opera stuff from before, it’s very much back in the modest thriller mode of Pitch Black. (The Chronicles of Riddick may have been a small hit on video, but it’s pretty clear that director David Twohy and Diesel want nothing to do with it anymore.)

At first, we watch Riddick get his bearings in this desolate new world, with its vicious doglike creatures and its strange, deadly race of frog-serpent-scorpion thingies that live in the water and travel by rain. While the sets and the effects look pretty cheap, I’d have been pretty content just watching Riddick quietly hone his survivalist skills — harvesting frog-serpent-scorpion thingie venom and immunizing himself, taming one of the doglike creatures, etc. — for a couple of hours. But alas, other humans eventually arrive, as two teams of rival bounty hunters land on the planet to claim the reward on Riddick’s head. With them comes the deadliest killer of all: dialogue. These aren’t so much characters as they are collections of postures. There’s little beyond their loglines: Santana (Jordi Molla), the scuzzy, Eurotrash leader of one of the bounty hunter teams; Johns (Matt Nable), the by-the-book leader of the other team; Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), the tough female. Et cetera. (The only one whose story may have resonated just a little bit is Johns, who is apparently the father of one of the characters from Pitch Black. This would be touching, if I remembered anybody from Pitch Black besides Vin Diesel.)

The problem, at least partly, is point of view.  We’ve got Riddick, supposedly our hero, on one end. But when the bounty hunters arrive, the film virtually abandons him for an extended period of time, as it watches these other characters bounce off each other under the threat of his presence. To them, the mysterious Furyan is still an unknown, a creature of the dark who can apparently do all sorts of horrific things. But the tension is mostly lost on us, because we know Riddick and, for all his stone-faced bluster, we know he’s a good guy. We know that, when he kicks a machete at some guy’s head and decapitates him, the person will really deserve it. Imagine Alien, only told from the perspective of the alien, and he’s played by a movie star, and at heart he’s an okay dude. A cute idea, perhaps, but kind of a wash when it comes to narrative tension. As a result, we get relatively little insight into the other characters as they react to Riddick. Without an unknown force to spark our own imaginations, the result is mostly dead air. At least, until the third act, when the giant frog-serpent-scorpion thingies make their move and the film becomes a somewhat more typical action flick.

That said, there’s something to admire in Riddick’s initial willingness to be patient with its story, to quietly follow its hero and then, after the other characters arrive, to soberly watch them interact. Pitch Black seemed as inspired by classic Westerns as it was by horror movies, what with its sparsely populated tale of a convict and his pursuers/captors coming to a tense understanding in an extreme landscape. Riddick, though far, far less successful, has a bit of that same quality.

Photo: Universal Pictures