Without the kind of financial success expected from The Chronicles of Riddick, the Riddick franchise seemed dead. Through some negotiation and a cameo in the third Fast and Furious film, Vin Diesel acquired the rights to Riddick from Universal, and he and David Twohy scrounged up the money independently to finance this third entry in the fractured series. You could buy the conceit that Pitch Black was supposed to be akin to The Hobbit in to a Chronicles of Riddick version of The Lord of the Rings, but the second movie so botched the job that the third film couldn’t follow the larger canvas set there. The only direction to go now was smaller, to return Riddick back to his roots and come up with a similar story to the one that audience’s held any affection for. That decision might have been due to an unfortunate series of events, but it seems to have been the right choice for Riddick finally finds the right balance of storytelling to actually tell an interesting genre tale. Finally, this series has a pretty good movie in it.
Dealing with Riddick’s place as Lord Marshall of the Necromongers in what essentially amounts to a prologue, Riddick was the victim of palace intrigue that capitalized on his desire to discover his home planet of Furya. Taken to a remote, desolate planet, Riddick was betrayed and left for dead, and suddenly the character of Richard B. Riddick is (gasp) interesting for literally the first time in the entire franchise. Near death, the first half hour of the film is Riddick learning to survive on an alien, dangerous world. He survives a small pack of alien dogs, adopting one. He has to face a new creature that lives in the only water supply, adapting to its poison before fighting them. It’s a largely wordless extended sequence that shows why Riddick is so awesome in a tangible way. This is probably the best this franchise ever got.
Riddick and his adopted dog traverse across the surface for some time (long enough for the puppy to become full grown, so who knows how long) until they find an abandoned merc camp. It’s when he sees an incoming storm that he knows will bring the dangerous creatures in large number that Riddick kicks off the emergency beacon that scans his face and lets the universe know that this wanted man is alive in a specific place.
Already you can see the mirror of events in Pitch Black with the horde of scary creatures and their impending dark environment that will bring them in greater number. This really is a return to Riddick’s roots, and it far more effectively uses Riddick than in Pitch Black. Riddick being the quarry of two mercenary groups with different motives for wanting to chase him down is a quality scenario. That we actually got thirty minutes building up Riddick’s badassery is a welcome change and a very good starting block. Far too much in this series up to this point has Riddick’s awesomeness been just assumed by the filmmakers, negating a lot of the effect of the films’ senses of danger. Here, the work actually enhances that sense and makes the middle section a whole lot more fun that it otherwise would be.
Now, the two merc groups having completely different motives is really interesting. The first, led by a man named Santana, is a ragtag group of mercs who all look, sound, and act different, most prominently Dave Bautista’s Diaz. The second is led by Johns, the father of Johns from the first film, and they wear matching armor and are all far more professional, the most prominent follower of whom is Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl (a female character named “Doll”, interesting choice). Santana wants Riddick for the money, and Johns wants Riddick not so much for revenge but simply for the knowledge of what happened to his son on that backwoods planet. Johns and Riddick end up mirroring each other, both needing to deal with their past in different ways, providing an interesting connection that extends slightly deeper than simply Riddick was around when Johns Junior died.
Riddick being the dangerous quarry, he sets a series of traps when the mercs deny him his demand that they leave one ship for him. The middle section ends up being a game Riddick is in control of, but told from the mercs’ perspective, turning Riddick into a monster just on the edge of the frame. Actually giving us Riddick becoming awesome in the first act pays off here by making Riddick feel dangerous even when he’s off screen.
The third act is a repeat of Pitch Black with Riddick leading a small team out into the monster filled rain in search of a pair of glowing items to power the ships, and then return back. What makes it different is the relationship between Johns and Riddick. It pays off well here, though the film’s relative uninterest of exploring the relationship to any real depth, essentially creating it and doing little else, prevents it from giving the final act the kind of emotional weight it could have had. It’s fine, providing genre thrills with strong CGI monsters and enough character work done before to help the audience invest in the action.
It’s a solidly good space fantasy thriller, the height of the franchise up to this point, taking the concept of the first film and actually delivering on it in a complete package. It’s not great entertainment, but if Diesel and Twohy can somehow manage to get another film made (eight years on and nothing but a script, apparently, so doubtful) then Riddick could end up on a solid narrative course in the future. I’m not holding my breath, but I’d happily check it out should it come to pass.