“Pitch Black,” released by Universal in 2000 to little fanfare, was a small-scale genre movie that took almost everyone who saw it by surprise. It featured a nifty conceit (space travelers are marooned on a hostile alien world inhabited by nocturnal predators days before a lengthy solar eclipse) and an agreeably asshole-ish antihero in Riddick (Vin Diesel), a gruff prisoner who escapes in the crash. The problem, of course, was that Universal mistakenly took a cult phenomenon for the stuff of big budget crossover material, and when “The Chronicles of Riddick” opened in 2004, it was clogged with “world building” nonsense and ornate production design that was halfway between “Dune” and “Dungeons & Dragons.” Universal’s franchise dreams were squashed and they quietly returned the rights to Diesel in exchange for a brief cameo appearance in “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” (yes, seriously). This week’s low budget reboot “Riddick” undoes much of the cumbersome mythology that made “Chronicles of Riddick” such a laborious slog, and instead returns it to the meat-and-potatoes format of the first film. The results are much more satisfying, if not wholly so.
The movie opens in an awesomely film noir-y way, with hard-boiled narration over footage of our hero left for dead under a pile of rocks. All that’s sticking out from the rubble is his gnarled hand. A small dragon comes over and starts nibbling on Riddick’s finger and Riddick springs to life, strangling the dragon. We then watch as Riddick stumbles around this weird ass planet, interacting with these scary space werewolves (they have tiger stripes), slithery eels, and worst of all, the story’s big bad: scary monsters that rise out of the muck. They have giant, scorpion-like tails and venomous heads that owe a considerable debt to H.R. Giger‘s alien design (another thing this movie shares with the first movie) and they’re the one thing standing between Riddick and freedom.
Since it takes fucking forever to make his way to the other side of the monster-infested canyon, we eventually get Riddick’s backstory doled out via blood-splattered flashbacks. Apparently at the end of “The Chronicles of Riddick” (which co-starred, it should be noted, screen legend Judi Dench), Riddick became king of the galaxy (or something). But he was bored with all the foxy intergalactic tail he was getting and wanted to get back to his home world. So he made a deal with Karl Urban, wearing eyeliner, with the agreement that Urban would take him back to his home world. Except, psyche, Urban double crosses him, leaving him where he is now: scrambling to survive on this miserable hell-planet.
Still, Riddick is kind of psyched about it. His time in the wilderness allowed him to regain some of the primordial nastiness that he lost during his time on top of the iron throne. He’s back to becoming a grade-A bad-ass. Also, he’s adopted an adorable space werewolf as his pet. There’s a hitch, of course, when he witnesses a monsoon-y rain that blankets the planet. It seems that those monsters are buried in the dry earth and, like Syfy Channel‘s “Ghost Shark,” come to life in the rain. Damn you puddles! It’s a neat take on the first movie’s eternal night concept: this time, it’s endless rain. Riddick has to get off of this planet. Quickly.
If this sounds like an insane amount of set-up for a movie where Vin Diesel battles space monsters for two hours, it is: “Riddick” takes its sweet, sweet time getting going. So much so that once the movie finally kicks in, somewhere around the 45 minute mark, with two bands of bounty hunters coming after the criminal, you might be too exhausted to actually notice. By this point, Riddick has reset his broken leg, made himself immune to the scary monsters’ venom, and raised a beautiful space werewolf that for the purposes of this review we’ll name Wolfy. The bounty hunters include the typically colorful Jordi Molla as the villainous Santana, Dave Bautista as Diaz, Katee Sackhoff as Dahl (get ready, fan boys, you get to see Starbuck topless!) and Matt Nable as Boss Johns, a character who has a connection to another character from “Pitch Black.” See: everything is connected in the vast, hugely confusing Riddick universe.
“Riddick” was once again written and directed by David Twohy, an underrated genre filmmaker whose last film was the terrific, little-seen Agatha Christie-goes-Hawaiian thriller “Perfect Getaway.” It’s Twohy’s fault as much as anyone’s that the franchise spun out of control, watered down with a restrictive PG-13 rating and focus-grouped into oblivion. With “Riddick,” he does a lot to try and course correct, with a purposefully pared down, incredibly R-rated sci-fi romp. Diesel was so committed to the project that he reported leveraged his house, and you can sense that the movie, despite being incredibly silly and full of space werewolves, was something of a labor of love. It’s a low-budget treat, very much along the lines of the first “Pitch Black,” and its cheapness only comes through every so often, mostly thanks to locations that scream “anonymous Canadian soundstage” and actors who you feel are just a couple of degrees away from the people the production really wanted for the role.
The main goal of “Riddick,” of course, was to get the franchise back on track so that more films can follow (and Diesel can keep his house). At the end of the movie, Riddick, in command of a boxy spaceship, flies off to find his home, something that he wanted to do when he was marooned on dragon-world. While his character arc has been completed for this movie, from a galactic king content with the nest he’d amassed to a lean, mean, monster-killing machine, you can feel things starting to teeter out of control. Riddick, as a character, is best when he’s alone, fighting against insurmountable odds, with narratives that serve his singular nastiness. The end of “Riddick” suggests that the character could return, but that the knotty, overly complicated mythology would return with him. And that promise is worse than any cosmic mud monster. [B-]