Fans of Vin Diesel’s best-loved character Riddick have been waiting nine years for the promised sequel to 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick and its predecessor Pitch Black (to say nothing of the top-notch video game installments). We’ve perked up at any offhand mention of a new movie in interviews and taken heart in teasing messages posted by Diesel himself on his personal fanpage. Now, at last, Riddick is back in a new adventure that is more of a series reboot than a proper continuation of the intergalactic convict’s story.
Stripped down literally and figuratively, Vin Diesel and director David Twohy deliver one of the stranger examinations of machismo dressed in sci-fi trappings in recent memory. After waiting so long, so patiently, I had a lot of feelings watching Riddick. There’s some good, some disappointing, and some frankly really, really disturbing.
Spoilers after the cut.
“Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead,” Riddick intones in the movie’s opening. This has been happening to him since his birth, when he was abandoned in a trashcan on his homeworld Furya. After unwittingly backing into the throne as Lord Marshal of the creepy supernatural army of Necromongers, the lone wolf found he didn’t like wearing a crown. Still searching for Furya, Riddick was duped into being dropped off on a new barren planet filled with hostile beasts with only his cunning to help him survive.
A brief flashback—with bonus R-rated naked babes—to Riddick’s crushing melancholy is all we get of his recent past. Riddick is, after all, a rebirth of the franchise. It’s not meant to move Riddick’s journey forward in much of a meaningful way and on that note, Riddick delivers on its promises. This is a self-contained side story.
On first watching, I thought the beginning half of Riddick was really oddly paced. Even a bit slow. It’s Jeremiah Riddick, as, totally alone and broken, Riddick dedicates himself to getting back to his primal roots among the ravenous space-hyenas and mud-dwelling space-scorpions. He fashions crude weapons, hardens himself against venom, and even briefly goes naked. He makes friends with nature, in the form of an adorable hyena pup that he raises and trains to be his sole ally.
But there can’t be a birth without blood and when desperation forces him to activate a beacon as a lure for bounty hunters and their much-needed spaceships, there’s blood and action aplenty. Riddick is the man that can kill you with a tea cup, after all.
Yet, I think I enjoyed solo Riddick more than Riddick playing another game of cat-and-mouse against two really ugly groups of mercenaries. One group is lead by creepy pervert Santana. The only standout among his crew is a pretty charismatic Dave Bautista. I’m told wrestlers are good with charisma. See: Duane “The Rock” Johnson. The other group is more organized and led by Boss Johns (screenwriter and author Matt Nable). If that surname rings a bell to a longtime Riddick fan, well, it’s no surprise there. His second-in-command is beloved badass female actress Katee Sackoff.
It’s Sackoff’s character Dahl (pronounced like “Doll”) that really made me super uncomfortable. Women are barely featured in Riddick, unlike the decent assortment of females present in Pitch Black, who were tough and subversive and flawed. And Riddick treated them with the exact same amount of respect he gives any human. Which, granted, isn’t much at times, but still. It counts. And I’ve already addressed my issues with women in Necromonger society, but Dahl kind of made me wish for Dame Vaako’s return. It was that bad.
You see, Dahl says she “doesn’t fuck guys.” We don’t know if it’s a lie to keep scummy Santana from creeping on her, but let’s take it at face value. This is all we know about Dahl’s personal life beyond her sniping skills. So later on when Riddick is doing his trademark “This is how I will kill you” threats, he also mentions that afterwards, he’s going to go “balls deep” in Dahl. It was really fucking disgusting and not the Riddick I enjoyed previously. It immediately threw me out of the movie.
The only other times women were seen were, as stated earlier, writhing naked in Riddick’s Necromonger bedchambers and one escaped prisoner (presumably a rape victim) that Santana murdered for pretty much no reason in front of Riddick. Yeah, classic fridging.
But it gets worse for Sackoff, who deserves a million times better for her nuanced portrayal of Colonial frack-up Kara Thrace on Battlestar Galactica. She has a really gratuitous topless scene where Riddick spies on her. And he then tries to rattle her about it later in the crudest way possible: “Your nails are pink. Like your nipples.” WAT.
Finally, when all of the mostly interchangeable redshirt mercs are dead (and you pretty much know immediately who’s going to make it the moment they are introduced) we’re left with the implication that Dahl, who had no other conversations with Riddick beyond trying to kill him and who is gay, fucks Riddick. You know, because Riddick is so manly he can “cure” a lesbian.
It’s a big chunk of ugliness in what is otherwise a perfectly serviceable sci-fi thriller. The action scenes have a lot of style, the violence is really over-the-top as you’d expect from the franchise and there are some funny one-liners. I was disappointed Riddick’s flashbacks with Karl Urban (sans mullet! Nooooooooo!) were so brief, but I get it. This movie was funded on a much smaller scale than Chronicles. The FX that are here are solid and the planet has a lot of dark, creepy atmosphere, but it’s definitely not as baroque and beautiful as Chronicles. Matt Nable intrigues and I hope to see him in more roles soon. He imbued Boss Johns with a lot of world-weariness and heart.
But a good script is a lot harder than good CGI, apparently. Even though words cost a hell of a lot less to create. At least in theory. There’s no excuse for some of the terrible dialogue in here. Not even funny-bad, just plain bad-bad. Again, lots of that is centered around Katee Sackoff’s character, but not always. Riddick was never a poet, educated as he was in the penal system, but fans have come to expect a certain level of cleverness from him that just isn’t really to be found here.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Riddick the character should’ve stayed buried in development hell because there were glimmers of goodness and, if the movie does well enough, a continuation of Riddick’s story proper—i.e., a visit to Furya and the Underverse—seems likely. And I’d still want it.
But this Riddick made me think more of Pet Semetary than Pitch Black: “Sometimes dead is better.” Riddick came back wrong. As a huge Riddick and Vin Diesel fan who is also female, I’m incredibly disappointed that the movie I waited so long to see was so incredibly, blatantly, alienating. Riddick isn’t some meta-commentary on male superego. It’s not that smart. And it didn’t need to be super smart to be enjoyable. But if science fiction says more about the present state of a society than the future, what does that say about representations of women in genre? If Starbuck could be so humiliated, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Riddick is in theaters now