The latest installment of the Vin Diesel franchise abandons the mythic ambitions of its predecessor in favor of a back-to-basics approach. It’s tempting to describe this film as a return to the roots of the series, as it does feature a third act largely concerned with surviving a horde of beasts, but in truth it doesn’t resemble Pitch Black at all. Like World War Z, Riddick is actually three separate movies strung together. And, also like World War Z, it works a lot better than it should.
The first act is a survival film: a lone man against an unforgiving natural world. For reasons that are very casually explained (and that also serve as the requisite loose connections to the previous film), Riddick finds himself stranded on a miserable dusty rock with no weapons and a broken leg. He’s forced to adapt to the harsh environment and fight off various incredibly hungry predators – presumably because they are stuck on a planet with no prey. The second act begins when he finds a mercenary station and deliberately trips an alarm to attract a spaceship. The film suddenly transforms into Predator as we watch the mercenaries get picked off one by one by the implacable monster who used to be our protagonist. Then, almost as an afterthought, the third act turns into a compressed version of Pitch Black, where Riddick once again becomes the protagonist just in time to team up with his adversaries and fight off a swarm of nasty creatures.
If that makes the film sound like a hot mess, that’s because it is. And yet, despite the utter confusion surrounding what the story is about, it succeeds in delivering a lot of simple, cheesy, low-brow fun, which is all a movie like this really needs to do. The action is more likely to leave you grinning from ear to ear than keep you at the edge of your seat, but this is a good thing. The performances are quite good, especially from the always brilliant Katee Sackhoff as a sassy, tough-as-nails sniper. Dave Bautista also demonstrates a knack for deadpan comedic delivery, outshining Vin Diesel in that regard, whose quips never seem to generate any laughs. The film is really at its best when Riddick takes a backseat to the mercenaries’ hijinks, as that is the stretch of the film where it finds an entertaining balance between cheese and suspense.
The rest of it is kind of a mixed bag, though. While the action is fun and the character interplay is entertaining, it’s accomplished despite the three-movies-in-one approach. Given the reasons for why Riddick has been stranded and left to die, one would think the film would be about him finding a way to get off-planet and get payback. Instead, the bad guys who put him there are immediately forgotten and never matter. To follow what appears to be a setup for a hero’s revenge with Riddick essentially becoming the antagonist during the entire middle section of the film is just bonkers. We’re supposed to identify with him, not the mercenaries that are there to kill him. And the third act is an absolute disaster. Character motivations are thrown out the window, the monster swarm only serves to remind you of how much better it was when the whole movie was about them, and the ending is completely unsatisfying. It just kind of ends without any real payoff to any set-up. The movie is clearly cheap as sin, too – at least as far as sci-fi pictures go. The actors spend the majority of their time on what looks like a soundstage that is maybe fifty feet deep, with a lot of CGI work that looks more like a decent TV show than a feature film.
Still, for a project with a clearly constrained budget and a writing team that couldn’t decide what movie to make, there isn’t a single action set-piece that can be described as boring. And honestly, given the recent string of big budget Hollywood yawn-fests, that is quite the feat to achieve. The bottom line is that the Riddick franchise has always tried to be the perfect companion to movie theater popcorn, and this film manages to do just that, though perhaps just barely. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fun one. And let’s be honest: for all you sci-fi nerds out there, it is absolutely worth the price of admission to watch Katee Sackoff in a space corset beat the crap out of thugs on another planet with her bare fists.