Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: Riddick

The new third Riddick movie (titled Riddick, as if it's an album or something) is in my view a step backward for the franchise, despite its effectiveness at pitting scary monsters against rough space thugs. I'm a real fan of the Riddick character and both of the previous films, but this new one is problematic, and the essence of its problems is that, in trying to be more like the first film and less like the second, the character's growth is stunted, and the stakes of the story with it.

Riddick finds our weird-eyed hero left for dead on a nameless planet after being betrayed by his Necromonger "friends" from the end of the previous film (including Karl Urban, the only other actor to reprise a franchise role here, and only in one scene). Chiding himself for going soft, Riddick spends the first half-hour or so getting back in touch with his animal side in what feels like an alien Grizzly Adams episode. I applaud this interesting and different stylistic choice, but I sensed some impatience among my fellow audience members.

Soon enough, Riddick finds an emergency beacon, which brings two teams of mercs down in search of the sizable bounty on everybody's favorite invincible space convict. One by one he reduces their numbers, as we knew he would, and eventually achieves a tense alliance with a few of the survivors, as we also knew he would.

I liked the second film for its scope and audacity; this one has far less of both, because it stays on one (admittedly wild and vicious) planet for its entire running time, and pits Riddick against beasties and mercs just like we've seen before. I liked the first film for its tension and surprises; again, this one has far less of both, because we know too early the limits of both the beasties and the mercs, and we know Riddick will survive regardless of how hopeless his situation looks—because he's already survived like four hopeless situations (including one at the beginning of this very movie), and besides, the filmmakers clearly won't let this franchise die.

Not that I want them to. Word is the fourth Riddick movie (and I'm just going to assume it will happen, even if it takes nine more Fast & Furiouses to pay for it) will involve Riddick going to his homeworld. That'll probably be cool, especially if it develops the character a bit. But why couldn't some of that have been done here? He's homesick enough to write the name of his homeworld on his cave wall; surely a few more flashbacks, maybe another mystical vision a la the second movie's director's cut, maybe even some inkling of what Riddick did to get such a bounty in the first place, would have helped reduce the nearly constant sense of "been there, done that."

Perhaps Riddick's director's cut will be the largest one yet. I'm not really counting on it, though, because at no point in the theatrical version did I get a sense that the movie had ambitions to be more than it was (as you sometimes feel during movies like Prometheus). It's almost as if Riddick wanted to ignore the existence of both preceding films, but included the Necromonger flashback just because it had to.

I mean, I get it. The internet loves to hate on the second movie, with almost the same ferocity as it demonstrates toward the Star Wars prequels. So the natural inclination is to get back to the badass roots of the character, considering how much the second one veered into space fantasy (and occasional moments of dopiness). Yet the second one also did new things with the character and his universe. If it fell short in the asskickery department—and that itself is debatable—it at least created opportunities for future surprises and maybe even more asskickery. I for one certainly expected Riddick 3 to involve some sort of Necromonger civil war…and how much ass, I ask you, would that have kicked? Lots of ass. Tons of ass. And that's not just my inherent world-building bias talking. My point is, the filmmakers weren't forced by anyone other than themselves to make a choice between Pitch Black-like action and Chronicles-like scale. It must be possible to do both.

In any case, what Riddick does with its concept is fairly effective. The creature design is interesting and threatening, and (in a franchise first) the mercs have pretty distinctive personalities. The bad guys are admirably detestable and there's a few great moments of wry humor—both elements this franchise has been pretty consistent about. Most of the action is engaging and occasionally exciting (though visually, it's often murkier than most action sequences in the other two). There's blood and gore and blades and speederbikes and boobs—yet it all just adds up to more of the same. And I don't think this is a limitation of the character: we know Riddick has some depth (at least, those of us who've seen the previous movies do), and just because he's a constantly on-the-run criminal doesn't mean every movie has to be the same. To put it another way, I started thinking about James Bond toward the end—and not only because Riddick meets a lesbian and converts her, which, ugh, but let's move on—and as laughably repetitive as the Bond franchise is, it occasionally finds ways to either expand the character himself or put him in radically different situations. The Bond outings where they don't do either seem to be the ones nobody likes. Vin Diesel and David Twohy should consider this if it's their intention to turn Riddick into a sort of space Bond for the purposes of establishing an endless franchise.

So as a sci-fi action flick, Riddick is by no means a failure; it's fun, well-acted, and well-paced, and should serve as an example to the makers of countless lesser films with titles like Alien Infestation or Maniac Cyborg or Bloodletting Beyond the Stars. But as a sequel? If they set out to disappoint the few people who will admit to a fondness for The Chronicles of Riddick, mission accomplished.

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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