As a part of a franchise that sits firmly in the “B-movie” section of the science-fiction genre, writer/director David Twohy’s Riddick isn’t a victim of high expectations. But in the search for fun sci-fi action and adventure with an interesting script and an ensemble of cool characters, audiences who have been waiting nine years for the film are going to be sorely disappointed.
Set years after the events of 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick - which isn’t necessarily must-see viewing before going out to see the sequel – the new film finds the eponymous hero (Vin Diesel) stranded on a violent planet and left to survive with nothing more than his wits. Managing to find an abandoned station, he sends out an emergency beacon to try and get rescued. Unfortunately, this only serves to alert two very different teams of mercenaries to his presence on the planet, and they arrive to try and collect the bounty that’s on Riddick’s head.
The straightforward plot is a solid breeding ground for both horror and action and the film performs moderately well on those two fronts, with thrilling sequences that feature some cool creature design. But it’s when the script has to try and tell a larger story that it begins to trip up. The transparent structure splits the movie into two halves, the first explaining how Riddick has survived on the planet and the second bringing in the mercenaries, and both present their own unique problems. Without much story to push it forward, the earlier part eventually gets too slow and repetitive for its own good (watching Diesel take on CGI beasts one-by-one does get tiring after a while); and the latter half disengages the viewer by almost taking the hero out of the story completely.
By the time the entire cast is assembled on the harsh planet there are 11 mercenaries hunting Riddick, but only two have personalities that need more than three words to be described. With the exception of Jordi Molla’s Santana (who is the slightly unhinged leader of the ragtag mercenaries) and Matt Nable’s Boss Johns (the leader of elite mercenaries with a tie to Riddick’s past), every other is either incredibly dull or cannon fodder just waiting for his turn to be killed by Riddick or the monsters. And don’t hope that they can be distinguished by their dialogue either, as all of the lines are written with the same slightly panicked, mostly flat tone that is occasionally peppered with unfunny jokes and terrible one-liners.
While none of the actors make it out of the movie unscathed – including Diesel – Katee Sackhoff’s character Dahl, a high ranking member of the elite mercenary team, is a particularly egregious waste. While the actress has a large sci-fi following thanks to her big role on the popular series Battlestar Galactica, in Riddick she can only really be described as the “strong lesbian chick” who occasionally punches Molla’s character, seemingly just to emasculate him. While this is bad enough on its own, it’s made much, much worse by the fact that her presence as the only woman in the movie makes her a constant target for crude sex jokes and threats (it would be one thing if this was only coming from the villainous characters, but Riddick makes more than a few advances of his own). The cherry on top, of course, is a blatantly gratuitous topless scene that seems to only exist so that the titular character can later make a joke about the color of her nipples.
Part of me wants to support this franchise on the grounds of how rare it is for an original science-fiction concept to get a full trilogy of theater-released feature films, but Riddick makes that damn near impossible. Made for a tiny budget compared to most modern blockbusters, the film does what it can from an aesthetic point of view and is at least visually interesting, but Twohy’s script is a total mess that seems to stumble into its best parts accidentally.