After thirteen years and three films, it’s still hard to know what to think about Richard B. Riddick. No one calls him Dick. His luminescent mother-of-pearl cat’s eyes allow him to see in the dark, when they’re not protected by an iconic pair of black welding goggles. He is very talented at killing people and animals, especially with melee weapons or hand-to-hand. He’s not based on any literary or comic-book character. Judging by his conversational abilities, he may be brain damaged or developmentally disabled. He is extremely strong. He is played by Vin Diesel.
In Pitch Black (2000), Riddick, a convict, crash-lands on a planet with his guardian bounty hunter and a dozen civilians who had been in cryo-sleep on an interstellar voyage. The planet is infested with flying, hammerheaded flesh eaters who only live underground unless you’re unlucky enough that it’s every twenty-two years and all three of the planet’s suns are about to be totally eclipsed. The film’s tagline is “fight evil with evil,” so the “good” guys uncuff Riddick to defend them from the ravenous monsters. He takes advantage of his infrared vision, and pronounces the occasional badass monosyllable or epigram. Hack, slash, blast, get chewed on. Riddick and two others escape the planet alive.
Then there’s The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which stepped away from the small-galaxy, human-centric, Alien-esque aesthetic of the first film for full-blown space opera. Riddick, the Furyan hero of prophecy, is destined to overthrow the mighty Necromonger king. Grunt, shoot, stab, take goggles on and off lavishly. Judi Dench plays an “Air Elemental” who can turn invisible and swish around through space. With the Grand Necromonger Army overrunning the galaxy planet by planet, “evil” must again fight “evil,” even though Riddick is really a giant teddy bear and the Necromongers are pompous pretenders to villainy. The Necromongers have a code which says “You keep what you kill,” so when the Necromonger king, who can also worm his way through space, chooses (in a pinch) to be impaled by Riddick rather than cleaved in two by his ambitious lieutenant Vaako, Riddick becomes lord of the Necromongers, and they all bow before him. The film ends with a rather interesting question: what would an outlaw do with a dark army?
But in Riddick (2013), we don’t get an answer. Instead we get an essential remake of Pitch Black, complete with the lone planet, the stranded crew, the flesh-eating monsters that don’t like sunny weather. All the grandiose elements of space opera are gone as unexpectedly as they were introduced. And while it’s not uncommon for different films in a franchise to take different directions, it’s worth noting that all three films were at least co-written and directed by David Twohy. Also, if you recognize Karl Urban reprising his role as Vaako, it’s because he’s also starring in Star Trek sequels as Dr. McCoy.
Riddick wakes up in a pile of rubble, nearly dead. He claws his way to water, fending off wild dogs, then kidnaps one of their puppies to raise as his own. For a while it’s all dog-training and domestic bliss: bounty hunters and superpredators seem worlds away. In flashback we see that Vaako left Riddick on this planet for dead, keeping what he (quite reasonably) thought he had killed. Now Riddick’s only way off-world is to activate an emergency beacon at an unmanned mercenary co-operative convenience store and motel. The beacon scans and identifies Riddick, and soon a crew of bounty hunters swoops in for his head, followed by another ship with more mysterious interests. As the two crews try to outposture each other, Riddick steals the fuel cells from their ships. He’s willing to let them all squeeze in to one as long as he gets to leave in the other. Then it starts to rain and the monsters come out. Flex, pivot, stab, degoggle, you know the drill.
Still, Riddick is the best Riddick movie yet. It’s popularity has improved production values tremendously. It is starting to discover the pleasures and possibilities of a blockbuster franchise. If it could follow in the footsteps of that other Vin Diesel picture frame, the Fast and Furious, so much the better.
But you have to wonder…who is Riddick? Will we ever know anything about him?