Fumbling in the Dark: Try as it Might, Riddick Can't Recapture the Brutal, Bloody Magic of Pitch Black

Based on the many folks who are hailing Riddick as a return to the formula that made 2000's Pitch Black such a success, it's clear that I remember that film very differently than most people. To me, Pitch Black was a satisfyingly nasty sci-fi horror flick that worked because its hero was just as mysterious—and sometimes just as scary—as the monsters that surrounded him. It was a tight, gloomy creature feature that had little time for back story or heroic posturing because everyone was too busy trying, and usually failing, to not get eaten.

The famously awful 2004 sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, kept Pitch Black writer/director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel but ditched everything else that worked about the original movie. Gone were the scares and suspense that worked so well the first time out; instead, the film took the budding franchise into epic space-fantasy territory. Riddick was dragged into the light, and he did not hold up well under such close scrutiny.

And now there's Riddick, the third feature film in the series. (Twohy scripted an animated short in 2004 called The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury.) The latest installment is certainly a big step in the right direction—backward—but it doesn't shake off quite enough of Chronicles' space-opera silliness to truly qualify as the reset that some are touting. Case in point: Diesel spends much of the film being upstaged by a nicely-rendered cartoon dog.

Riddick has a cartoon dog because he's marooned on an ugly, hostile planet full of monsters and he's very lonely. The movie's first act is almost entirely without dialogue, unless you count Riddick's noir-ish voiceover about being betrayed (possibly by naked space concubines from that time he was made king), blindsided, left for dead, etc. He realizes he's become soft and must find his feral inner killer if he is to survive and make his way to a more gentrified section of the galaxy. This involves taking off all his clothes, adopting and taming an adorable baby space hyena, and teasing a giant mud scorpion until it bites him.

Unfortunately for Riddick, trouble's a-brewing. Not only is some weather about the happen, but two squads of bounty hunters have landed on the planet to find him. One is a redneck, Dog the Bounty Hunter-type outfit led by the despicable Santana (Jordi Mollà; we know he's despicable because he's very, very rapey). The other is a classier bunch that includes Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who has personal reasons for wanting to find and kill Riddick, and Dahl (genre regular Katee Sackoff), whose defining character traits are that she's a lesbian and likes to beat up rapey guys. Riddick and the mercs take turns hunting each other until they all have to team up to fight some monsters.

If you can get past the long stretches of nothing happening and the boneheaded dialogue ("Butch up!" "That's your department, lesbo"), there are B-movie pleasures to be found here. The mostly digital effects—even Riddick's astro-hyena sidekick—are quite good, and it's crisply shot by cinematographer David Eggby who, given that his resume includes both the original Mad Max and 2002's live action Scooby-Doo, was born to shoot a movie about a violent anti-hero who braves a hostile environment with his cartoon dog. Twohy is at his best with small-scale genre fare such as the underrated alien invasion flick The Arrival and the underseen haunted submarine movie Below, so he is, for the most part, back in his element here.

But while Twohy is a reliable action director who can deftly balance suspense and self-aware silliness, he's absolutely terrible when it comes to world-building. As a franchise, it's become apparent that the Riddick series never had much of a chance. The character was great as a one-off oddity, but once he gets cleaned up, given a back story, and humanized, he's pretty dull.

Self-described knucklehead Diesel inhabits the character nicely, but Richard Riddick came along a couple of decades too late. He'd have been perfectly at home on the video-store shelf as a sort of low-rent Stallone/Schwarzenegger heir apparent, but as a 21st-century action hero, he's anachronistic and almost quaint. I understand why the filmmakers felt the need to make him more sympathetic and vulnerable, but I liked him much better when I didn't like him at all.