2000’s Pitch Black was for all intents and purposes the perfect B-movie. A dark, pulpy sci-fi/monster thriller with some noirish crime elements thrown in, it featured the ultimate anti-hero, Richard B. Riddick, convicted murderer with a code of honor and some vicious knife skills. It was a solid success in the theaters, but found even more life upon its DVD release, leading to an inevitable franchising. It featured a prequel in the unusual form of a video game, the extremely satisfying console FPS Escape From Butcher Bay, an animated film, Dark Fury, and a theatrically released sequel, The Chronicles Of Riddick. It was there that writer/director David Twohy’s ambitions got the better of him, taking a character that had been so satisfying in a small-scale, darkly comic storyline and thrust him into a grandiose, utterly incomprehensible space opera replete with galaxy-spanning repercussions, pseudo-science, magical elemental beings, and an utterly ridiculous army called the Necromongers (!) who looked like heroin-addled castoffs from the set of Krull. The film made decent returns, but received cripplingly negative reviews (rightfully so), and now sits with a dismal 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Unsurprisingly, the once-promising character seemed dead in the water. But give Twohy and star Vin Diesel credit for never abandoning their cause or their rather vociferous fans, and nine years later, the sparsely-titled Riddick is upon us. Dumping the unfathomably pompous trappings of Chronicles, Riddick instead attempts to recapture what made the first film so intriguing in the first place. After a brief bit of voiceover and a couple of minutes of clunkily expository flashback, we see how Riddick was betrayed after becoming Grand High Wiggle Waggle of the Noogie-Muffins, presumably for refusing to wear enough eye shadow. He is dumped on a barren planet filled with a variety of nasty, deadly creatures, forced to survive using only his wits and his pecs, until a pair of warring groups of mercenaries arrive to claim the bounty that still exists on his head. Once the awkwardly set-up bridge between the two films is done away with, Riddick begins in earnest. How you judge it will be an interesting experience, because while it’s got a few solid elements that gamely try to make it enjoyable, but then it also has a couple of horrible aspects that ultimately destroyed any goodwill the film managed to build.
Riddick wisely eschews all of the goofy mythology and idiotic operatic elements of its predecessor, and instead returns to its roots. It’s violent, gory, vicious and often surprisingly gripping. Twohy does a solid job of building a knotty tension between what essentially becomes the four deadly elements that will inevitably all clash simultaneously — the two mercenary groups, one lead by the vulgar and pigheaded Santana (Jordi Mollà), and the other lead by a more noble, but still-sinister character with a link to Riddick’s past (played by Matt Nable) and his second-in-command, Doll (Katee Sackhoff). The other two elements are the savage creatures that are slowly creeping towards the camp they’ve set, and of course Riddick himself. All of this combines into a wild and often wickedly entertaining version of Ten Little Indians, as people are picked off by any one of the various deadly options. It’s a far cry from great cinema, but it does effectively allow us to relive what made the first film so satisfying, even though it does so by essentially aping the majority of its plot points.
Character-wise, there’s little to work with, but the cast of B- to Q-level actors all gamely seem to be enjoying themselves. Diesel is, of course, made for this role. It’s comic booky to the extreme, and Diesel’s throaty declarations of sinister intent and morbid philosophizing all work as well as one can hope. It’s a role and a performance reminiscent of Wesley Snipes’s Blade, a character that only works if you allow yourself to be taken by the overall silliness and pulpiness. The same goes for the rest of the cast/cannon fodder — there’s little in the way of development or nuance, but much like its story, Riddick’s characters also correct the mistakes of Chronicles in that they are occasionally actually fun. Amid all the darkness and fury and violence, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to it that prevents it from taking itself too seriously, which is part of the initial charm of the original.
That said, there are two glaring, brutal problems with Riddick that essentially derailed the entire venture and left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth. The first was already mentioned, and that’s that it hews so closely to the first film that it’s practically a remake more than it is a sequel. All of Pitch Black is there — Riddick escaping and hunting, a group in conflict, a scary and unknown army of toothy terrors in the night, a quest to recover the fuel cells for the ship so they can get off the planet, a sudden change of heart/redemptive arc. It’s missing a holy man, a child, an antiquities dealer, and not much else. This is disappointing and distracting, as if Twohy really only has one story to tell, and realized that since his grander plans fell through, he’d just retell the first one. And that’s not fair to the viewers. While there is great joy to be found in watching these factioning groups tear each other apart, there’s also the acrid taste of repetition burning in the back of the throat throughout the entire affair.
But that’s not the worst problem. The worst problem, unquestionably, is the way the film deals with women, which is quite frankly unconscionably awful. There are six female characters in the film - the first four are shown, naked and mute, in the gauzy flashback scene as the concubines of Riddick back when he was the Grand Master Ding Dong of the Necco-Monkeys. The next one is a prisoner on Santana’s ship, and it is not-so-subtly alluded to that she is essentially there to be occasionally raped by the captain when he gets bored. She sobbingly begs for mercy, is released, and then shot dead as she runs away, to be left lying in the dirt bleeding while Riddick calmly watches from the shadows as the life drains from her eyes. The final female character is, of course, Katee Sackhoff’s Doll (I repeat, her name is Doll, because IRONY, RIGHT?). The character is an unrelenting badass, a sniper and fighter and all-around tough chick, and that’s terrific. Except that in her first interaction with Santana, he sexually harasses her. She tells him that she’s a lesbian (so thanks for going with that old standby, Twohy), and then kicks his ass.
This is good, right? A strong, tough female character who takes no shit? Except that a couple of scenes later, he once again makes a crude, degrading pass at her. And yes, she kicks his ass again. Which, as distasteful as it was, should really have been the end of it. Except that a couple of scenes later, he flat-out tries to rape her. While Riddick, who has been spying on the mercenary group, lays in hiding and watches. The rape is not successful, but it’s also worth noting that immediately prior to that, Doll had her very own version of the naked shower scene, that also featured Riddick watching her. And then, because the degradation of the character wasn’t quite complete, when Riddick is captured and is telling everyone how he’s going to kill them all, he makes a delightful reference to her breasts, and follows up with how she’s going to beg him to go “balls deep” in her before all is said and done. This is our protagonist, folks. As most of us know, if something happens in a film, generally it should happen for a reason. We know that Santana is a bad guy, because it’s practically stamped on his dirty, sweaty forehead. We know he’s a worse guy because he keeps his own personal rape-slave on his ship. So all we need to know has been established. The rest is simply repugnant, misogynistic garbage. It serves no purpose other than to degrade the only remaining female character, even if it’s done under the auspices of empowerment and showing her toughness. You want to show her toughness? Have her start a fight. Have her fix an engine, save an animal, shoot a bad guy. Have her be tough independently. Have her be tough just because she’s f*cking tough, just like the rest of them. Don’t make having to fight off a rapist and endure being leered at and insulted by the man we’re supposed to be rooting for — anti-hero or not — be the reason she’s established as strong.
So there’s the pickle. Riddick is capable of being a fun, gruesomely delicious slice of sci-fi wackiness, with monsters and gunfights and lots of gray area when it comes to its good guys and bad guys. Unfortunately, it rips off its original almost wholesale (and fills in its blanks by swiping from Aliens), giving us too few new ideas and too many re-purposed old ones. Worse yet is its abysmal treatment of women, something that I’m stunned made it past the first draft, let alone into the final product. It effectively derailed the entire film, preventing me from becoming fully engrossed because I was too busy fuming at its rampant sexism and tasteless humor. It’s a pointless plot-point, designed for some warped version of titillation, and it ultimately ruins what could have been a decent, if derivative little B-movie.