|Rating: The Good – 73.8
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 119 mins
Director: David Twohy
Stars: Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Katee Sackhoff
Waking up tattered and broken on a desolate alien planet, the surly goggle-donning Riddick decides to hole up and recuperate. However, when hordes of slumbering monsters begin to awake from a long sleep, he decides the time has come to leave and so he lures a bunch of gnarly bounty-hunters to come get him with the intention of nabbing their ship.
When it comes to the science fiction genre, the alien planet and space fiction sub genres are massively under-represented and it’s a real shame given their ability to dominate the imagination of their audience. What these films offer better than perhaps any other genre is a context that can invigorate old stories and narratives by infusing them with exotic concepts and ideas. Pitch Black, the elegantly economical forerunner to Riddick, was a testament to this ability as it energised both the “all against the desert” and “monster horror” scenarios by making the desert an alien setting with two baking hot suns and the monsters ferocious nocturnal creatures who hunt ravenously on the rare occasions night comes along. Of course, Pitch Black was much more too in that it used the transition from one scenario to another as a pulsating genre shift and contrasted the intentions of the group with those of a magnetic central character. But the main trick to Pitch Black was that it used the context as an incidental backdrop to the story. This allowed character to dominate and the story to feel more substantial. The first sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, forgot this and got drawn towards the shiny allure of special effects and expansive plot so that the science fiction universe became bigger than character, even that of Riddick’s. Needless to say, the contained magic of Pitch Black was lost.
With Riddick, writer-director David Twohy has attempted to return to the basics and for the most part, he’s got it right. Again the central story here is that of a manhunt, the pillars of which are a scintillating group of gritty characters. The “working together or die alone” theme is played on yet again but to sufficiently different effect than in Pitch Black as to warrant another trip around the block. Best of all, everything is again coloured (but not eclipsed) by Riddick’s personality and Vin Diesel is every bit as good as he was thirteen years ago. It’s not easy to be both charming, sinister, and bad ass but Diesel always seemed to have a handle on it while in Riddick mode through a combination of his good timing, drawl delivery, and burly physique. Of course, Twohy’s writing and framing and that familiar minimalist costume design helps but it remains impressive that Diesel has managed to retain that same edge.
As he did in Pitch Black, Twohy shows enough trust in his long time collaborator’s presence to surround him with all sorts of uniquely memorable characters. These can be separated into two groups. A ragtag posse of pillaging hunters who are first to respond to Riddick’s bait and the altogether more slick unit which follow. Thanks to some sparky dialogue and some truly outstanding casting, every last one of these guys (and we are talking nine or ten different characters here) are terrific fun. Jordi Mollà as the slimy leader of the first group is a veritable throwback to the best sci-fi villains of the 80’s being as repellent as he is compelling. BSG’s Katee Sackhoff is probably better than ever as the ball breaking sniper from the competing team but it’s the guy who plays her boss, Matt Nable, who really drives the early bounty hunter sequences. The former rugby league player is perfectly grizzled as the hi tech bounty hunter and provides an intuitive foil for the primal nemesis of Riddick – once the shiny headed/shiny eyed antihero intrudes on their party.
The technical qualities of the film are just as impressive. Twohy does much to give the planet a personality of its own through a combination of rich lighting and impressive CGI. The nasty inhabitants of the planet, everything from roaming packs of strange wolves to giant amphibious scorpions, are well designed, ably brought to life, and quite scary. Beating within all this is a powerful sense of momentum thanks to Twohy’s ability to establish, maintain, and escalate pace. The stirring signature score of the original fleets in and out but the less defined replacement is both muscular and pleasing. The action is again restrained compared to big budget actioners which of course magnifies its overall all effect and leaves more time for character and Twohy’s ever tasty dialogue.
As impressive as all this is, it’s a series of little things that partially let the show down. A needless vulgarity on Riddick’s part at one or two points only diminishes his mystique and takes the sheen off the screenplay. An early flashback sequence linking the events of the second instalment with this one during which Karl Urban reprises his role also feels out of tone with the rest of the film. Most unsettling however is the transition between manhunt and monster fighting which occurs much later than in Pitch Black and is somewhat rushed. In the end, it feels like a token step for the story to take as if to fully replicate the template of the first film. That said, the plus column significantly outweighs the negative as thanks to its character respecting slickly written script, its interesting cast, and the bold technical qualities of the film, Riddick is thrilling and loaded with personality.
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