With whispers of a fourth instalment still in the works, Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at the Riddick trilogy…
Before Vin Diesel headlined a car based franchise which has seen him recently become mercilessly memed, he starred in a low budget Sci-fi creature feature that became a cult hit. That film was Pitch Black, David Twohy’s conception, which proved very popular. The way the franchise has subsequently evolved has been as interesting as it has inconsistent. The follow up film, coming in the wake of a Matrix and Lord of the Rings inspired cinema landscape, was a huge budget picture but would ultimately bomb at the box office. The third film then stripped back the expansive universe and big budget theatrics in order to try and recapture the focused intensity of the original. It proved a little more successful and enough to suggest a fourth picture might be feasible.
Step forward 8 years and we still await the next instalment of the Riddick franchise. At the same time, a property Diesel has actively taken under his wing, along with Twohy, has been expanded into anime and most successfully into the video game arena with Escape From Butcher Bay and Assault of Dark Athena. Butcher Bay in particular was an excellent game at the time, which expanded on Riddick’s character and background more successfully than any of the film sequels.
Just how much desire is out there from audiences to see another Riddick is debatable, but the kind of platforms and studios available to make it happen are far wider now. A platform like Netflix could be a particularly useful place for the next Riddick to be made and the audience would certainly be there for the home viewing experience, even if it might not necessarily be there in theatres. Time will tell, but for now, let’s take a look back at the first three films:
B movie creature features done right. It’s a joyous experience. Aliens was a great example of doing things right. Humans out on an alien planet, finding themselves besieged by the inhabitant (and deadly) aliens. There have been plenty of lower budget offerings ranging in quality that’s for sure. Golden nuggets include Screamers, as well as 2000’s, Pitch Black. From writer/director, David Twohy, Pitch Black really seemed to bely its budget. It also, despite not having a big name star attached, also captured a good audience before gaining cult status through its subsequent video run. For a time, it was one of those films that people would keep asking whether you’d seen it.
The film starts with a bang. A commercial carrier ship is hit by an meteor storm. It’s visceral, intense, excellently realised and manages to effectively use the CGI without the seams showing too much. It’s also a telling, key character moment for our protagonist…and no, our protagonist is not Richard B. Riddick. It’s Carolyn Fry, the second in command who is first to wake to the cluster fuck of a situation the ship is now in. They crash land on a nearby planet, but only after she tries and fails to eject the rear stasis quarters and the travellers who are blissfully unaware. She has a moment of frantic panic and opts for self-preservation (but the detachment mechanism fails). A bounty hunter (and addict), Johns (Cole Hauser) is the only one aware of this, a knowledge he holds over her.
After the frenetic start we’re then hit with an air of mystery on the dry desert planet that has a light Oxygen rate and persistent heat from two suns. It seems to never get dark. Prior human settlers on the planet have seemingly vanished leaving limited supplies and vehicle as well as a transport ship needing power (which they need to shift from one base to another). So far so intriguing and in this mix they then have another issue. The prisoner Johns was housing, a renowned psychotic murderer, Riddick, has escaped. Wary of what he might do, they soon realise something worse might just exist on the planet…savage creatures below ground who exist in the dark. Thankfully as they’re on a planet with twin suns, staying above ground should see them through…until it becomes apparent a long-standing/possibly permanent eclipse is due shortly. There’s an air of contrivance to the set up for sure, but the concept itself is effective, and how you get there allows for a stretch in logic when it comes to sci-fi.
Once things go dark, Riddick (oh yeah, he can see in the dark…) might just be the key to getting them across deadly terrain, with thousands of creatures just waiting to devour them. Fry inevitably redeems herself for the opening, whilst Johns proves to be morally obtuse. It’s a great film and effectively exciting and well paced. Riddick, this antagonistic anti-hero, played with charismatic presence by Vin Diesel, ultimately stands as the most memorable character in the film. This also came at a point in his career where Diesel had been slowly making a name for himself as a promising young character actor. In support as Riddick, he steals the film at a canter, but certainly the character was very effective in this secondary, antagonist role.
The Chronicles of Riddick
So there’s a degree of success for Pitch Black, much of which rested on the presence of Riddick/Diesel. The following year he would find himself as antagonist again with The Fast and the Furious, a hugely popular action film tapping into a young adult market who evidently had an interest in street racing and car modding. Essentially it was Point Break again, with Paul Walker the pretty boy instead of Keanu Reeves, and Vin Diesel taking up the mantle of Patrick Swayze to become the engaging protagonist. That he did, proving to be one of few characters in the film who have a semblance of multi-dimension. It was apparent Diesel had charisma, and that leading man status was just around the corner. That came with xXx, an extreme sports action film which targeted much of the same audience as his car film.
Diesel was big. That meant two things. It meant studios trusted his power as a leading man, but it also meant he was gaining a certain degree of creative power and with that came the opportunity to bring Riddick back to screen. The Chronicles of Riddick takes the titular character away from simple creature horror, to an ambitious attempt at building a new cinematic Universe. The original plan was to create something akin to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or recent Star Wars prequels). We have Riddick as a hunted man who ends up caught in the middle of warring factions, and on a world targeted by the destructive, unstoppable Necromongers, beings somewhere between dead and alive who are destroying planets.
As it happens, Riddick may well be more than just a nomadic space criminal. He has a hidden lineage and destiny being the ‘last’ Furyan (A race assumed wiped out by the Necromongers) in the universe. Twohy opens up all manner of questions and ideas. It’s heady, overly ambitious (at the time) and erratic. The film has interesting subplots which aren’t resolved (the idea being that subsequent epics were going to expand on those). This includes the idea of the Underverse, a state of existence parallel to this. In retrospect, the Underverse thing might have made a more interesting central idea and been better as a launching point for the Chronicles.
Despite bombing at the box office and being greeted with largely dire reviews, this isn’t without its charms. Twohy perhaps, feels out of his comfort zone (at this budget scale), whilst some stylistic choices are too derivative of that era. That being said, it has these interesting ideas and some great design. The idea of dealing with the planetary issues of the places Riddick is visiting, goes back to Pitch Black. Here, on a prison planet you have a world which, depending on the placement in relation to its sun, is either uninhabitably hot, or cold. So escaping the underground prison is deemed ‘almost’ impossible. That marks an interesting diversion, albeit somewhat narratively erratic. Interestingly though, these kind of jumps between threads have become popular in the last 10 years and par for the course in Marvel et al. Whilst Riddick might split into almost three different types of movie, it has subsequently found no shortage of reappraisal by fans, particularly in an era where messy films are widely accepted. It’s a melting pot of lots of ideas thrown in which historically would have proved frustrating, but now seem to keep audiences attentive. It’s still not a great movie, and not as lithely efficient as Pitch Black (nor is Riddick as effective as a protagonist as he is on the outside looking in) but it’s getting more love now.
The failure of Chronicles inevitably put paid to any further big budget adventures. It meant the expanding Universe reached its elastic limit all too quickly, and snapped back. So Riddick opens with a quick tidying scene (connected to the previous) which finds Riddick banished on a near uninhabitable Alien planet having been usurped as King (having claimed the Throne at the end of the last film). The scorching planet, permanently doused in a slightly discomforting yellow tinge, also has its own breed of killer Alien predators. It’s a distinct throw back right to the simplicity of the original. Then throw in a band of Mercs who follow a beacon to the planet. Among said Mercs we also have Dave Bautista in an early role and Katee Sackhoff.
Opening to middling reviews (certainly a step up from the previous film) and unspectacular if tidy box office, Riddick is an odd one. If Chronicles of Riddick has actually aged quite well, Riddick feels unnecessarily weighted down by unstable footing. It’s caught between ultimately wanting to be grander but not being able to, whilst never quite embracing a return to the simplicity of Pitch Black. It’s slowly been a little forgotten in time, simply because it retreads a lot of what Pitch Black did better, whilst resting so centrally on Diesel brings with it a few other issues. Riddick hasn’t yet, as protagonist, been fully moulded into an interesting enough character. As that antagonist with moral ambiguity he was loaded with presence and charisma. Further, in 2000 we had a Diesel on the rise, driven by a will to make his scenes count, to attempt to magnetise the gaze upon him. In 2013, Diesel was back on board the Fast franchise, which masked a number of regrettable choices outside of the world of NOS powered Honda Civics. There’s a sense sometimes, that he’s resting on the charisma he became known for, without passionately utilising it. Even here, returning to a character that made him, that he’s had a distinct passion to expand and revisit, it feels like he’s going through the motions a little. Perhaps come the production there felt like a sense that the ground was just too familiar, that he might have rather been doing something more expansive, delving into Furya, or the Underverse more (the fourth film may well visit one or both or those topics).
Additionally, the amount of weight bogging the film down inevitably extends to a run time which feels at least 15 minutes too long, without engaging enough ideas (or set pieces) to sustain it. That it’s taken so long to continue the adventures of Riddick suggests the process of greenlighting a fourth has been difficult, but one would imagine, settling on where to take him is also proving difficult.
What are your thoughts on the Riddick franchise? Which is the best? Do you want to see a fourth Riddick film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.