The Riddick Trilogy: What the Hell Happened?

They say your brain shuts down in the sequel.

There’s a commonly offered film criticism that’s usually phrased “it drags in the second act.” This is such a frequently heard critique that it itself has been subjected to analysis and debate, with film critics Film Crit Hulk and Lindsey Ellis debating on the frequency and meaning of the term. The reason its so common is that the second act tends to be where screenwriters dump a lot of their exposition and montages. This is where Tony Stark builds a new Iron Man suit, or Rocky exercises in an old timey way. It’s not an end all be all way of determining a film’s, but it’s a good way to sort the good films from the great. The Riddick trilogy takes this to an absurd extreme by making an entire sequel a second act drag in a movie trilogy so bizarre it’s worth reexamination.

The first installment, Pitch Black (2000), is a great little horror movie. Several people get stranded on a desert planet when their space ship crashes. There are flesh eating monsters that only come out at night, and it just so happens to be the beginning of a once every few decades eclipse. Riddick, who can see at night, is a criminal of some sort who was captured by bounty hunter Johns, who only left Riddick alive because he’s worth twice as much that way compared to dead. The two reach an uneasy peace so they can navigate everyone to safety. It’s fun, with enough gimmicks and decent acting moments to make it memorable and the first good horror film of the millennium. The sequel goes off completely off the rails.

Four years later The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) was released as a summer blockbuster. It cost nearly a hundred million dollars more than the modest twenty-five million dollar budget of its predecessor, and added Dame Judy Dench and Karl Urban to Vin Diesel, who reprises his role as the now titular character, and the always under appreciated Keith David, who returns for a cameo. It was advertised pretty heavily, and even got a tie in video game released the same year on Xbox. This was meant to take a B horror movie with a great fan base, and punch it up to an epic action thriller. If that sounds absurd on its face, consider the success of Aliens (1986).

The movie starts out simply enough: Riddick is once again being chased by bounty hunters. He defeats them but eventually runs into a massive army of space ghost warriors who have a strict “you keep what you kill” political system. They get the better of him briefly, and he’s sent to a prison planet where the sun is so hot it kills every living thing on the surface. Riddick escapes the prison, and leads some other inmates in a print to beat the sunrise to find a ship and leave the planet for good. It’s the best sequence in the movie, and a nice little twist on the gimmick of the first film where Riddick was fleeing from darkness. Ironically, the second act is the only highlight of the entire film because in the third the bottom drops out completely.

Riddick goes back to the ghost warrior army and eventually kills their king, which because of their absurd political system, makes him the king. The movie ends with Riddick sitting on a throne and this legion of extremely powerful ghost soldiers completely at his command. What started as a fun survival horror movie with a nice little criminal element, has now become an action political thriller where the criminal is one of the most powerful people in the universe. The film made nearly double what Pitch Black made but its bloated budget meant it actually lost a substantial amount of money; it was received very poorly, and Vin Diesel was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Awards, losing to George W. Bush from Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet, somehow it still got a sequel.

Riddick (2013) came almost a decade later, and was released the year before Vin Diesel would regain a lot of cultural clout for his portrayal of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Diesel said it took so long to make because he and the director were so “precise” about the film. Universal Studios wanted nothing to do with the project, leaving the lead actor to literally mortgage his house to finish production. Fans, who were rightly skeptical after the previous film, did become somewhat intrigued when it was revealed that, like Pitch Black but unlike Chronicles it would receive an R rating.

The plot starts off with Riddick immediately giving up his leadership position of the space ghost warrior army. He ends up on a strange planet where he has to get through a long muddy river filled with giant scorpion looking creatures, and then fight some bounty hunters. Eventually, a rain storm causes more of the scorpion creatures to wake up from hibernation and the bounty hunters, including the dad of Johns from the first film, must like their predecessors, reach an uneasy peace with Riddick, even though this time he’s worth twice as much dead as he is alive. They fight through hordes of scorpions until finally making their escape off the planet after Riddick makes peace with Johns Sr. for killing his son.

The back to basics shift worked. The movie cost about the same as the first film, and made nearly as much as the second, making it the most profitable of the three. Vin Diesel got to keep his house. It also had comparable ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and similar sites to the first film. The movie is far cheesier than the first one, and at times its hard to remember that Vin Diesel once gave a chilling line of dialogue as his character slowly died in Saving Private Ryan (1998) as he basically does the movie trailer voice throughout every scene, but this doesn’t really hurt it. In fact, it might be the lack of self-seriousness that helps it transition from horror movie to action so easily.

In 2014 Vin Diesel announced a sequel, stating that Universal would once again develop it and let them keep the R rating. In 2019, he claimed to have a script for Riddick 4 Furya, boring the number in the title schtick from the Fast and Furious series where he plays basically the exact same character. Diesel truly seems to love this role and this character, which is perhaps why it never occurred to him or direct David Twohy that maybe having him go from a criminal tossed into a scary planet to god emperor of space ghost warriors was maybe not a great idea. The film series drags severely in its second act, but it does seem to learn its lesson and stick in the landing in the third.

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