I admit going into the movie with slightly lower expectations. It often seems that Hollywood cuts one talented writer for every 10% increase in special effects budget. This movie was the exception. Oh, the special effects were brilliant. It was a pleasant break from the dystopian roaring-twenties architecture of the Necromungers from the most recent film to return to the obviously expansive wilderness that awaits in this vision of space.
The movie opened with only a bit of necessary flashback before treating the audience to a highlights wilderness survival montage. It wasn’t unlike watching My Side of the Mountain starring Conan the Barbarian. The visual effects team did a fantastic job with animated creatures, rugged landscapes, and rolling storms that could have been lifted straight from a Montana sky. The volcanic moon drug my eye away from the ground every time it was in the sky, very pretty. Seeing Riddick weak and alone, rising to health and then to mastery of his environment was a deft use of storytelling a cut above the earlier stories. The series depends on a nearly superhuman villain with a heart of gold, and the introduction masterfully wins our sympathy as well as teaching us the rules of yet another savage wilderness.
As a critic, I will say that there is at least a passing nod to the idea that there are actual food chains on planets, instead of endless worlds with only apex predators at the top of empty biological pyramids. Yes, I’m basing this on the appearance of eels that don’t eat Riddick in the first five minutes, but it’s the first sign of plausibility in this weak point for the franchise writers.
The casting is very well done. The staple elements that made me enjoy Pitch Black are all present. This time the religious faithful is combined with the young/innocent character in the rookie mercenary Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk). The franchise has never skimped on its strong, scene-stealing actresses, and this time Claudia Black from Stargate SGU and Farscape is replaced by Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Gallactica fame, a move sure to appeal to the original nerdy male fan-base. Once again there is a crew of amoral mercs, this time offset by a team of honorable men. MMA superstar Dave Bautista plays an excellent physical counterpart to Riddick, and the inevitable fight between them is a beautiful thing.
The action scenes remain a strong point in this soul-searching science fiction/horror mash-up. Vin Diesel’s acrobatic past as a break-dancer continues to offer a uniquely agile fighting style to someone of his mass, but the film isn’t Hong Kong ridiculous. The franchise has already established that Riddick is a member of a unique race of killers, and so there is story reason for his abilities.
A lot of the fun of this film comes from the reversal of the horror stereotype, where now the protagonist is the person hunting the increasingly freaked out and isolated party through the night. Riddick’s mind games are clever.
This movie takes the franchise into the realm of R-rated fiction. Lawless men on the edges of civilization stand and fall accordingly, and with one woman in the mix there are some predictable setups. That being said, Katee Sackhoff has made a career out of playing strong women, and she brings all of that to the screen to balance it out. There is a lesser mirror of Riddick in the hot-chick-who-can-kick-your-butt motif, and it is underplayed, if anything.
It’s difficult to know whom to label a ‘bad guy’ in the Riddick stories, and at the same time it is not. The inglorious nature of mercenary work combines with Riddick’s murderous background to create something of a level playing field. In a world where everyone is a ‘bad guy’ every character’s true nature shows in their decisions when it truly matters. That is, in fact, a continuing theme between Riddick and a man from his past (ably played by Matt Nable). As for the unabashedly amoral, there is a delightful villain in the form of Jordi Molla’s character Santana. Solid performances are turned in by the supporting cast, many of whom just don’t get the screen time their acting abilities deserve (veteran Native American actor Raul Trujillo foremost among them).
If you’re looking for some pretty acting, pretty actors, nice fights, and a world worth sinking your teeth into, Riddick is a good choice.