For the simplicity of its premise and the modest production values, Pitch Black was much more than the sum of its parts. Boasting award winning cinematography as the three different stars each tinted the landscape in different dazzling hues before the terrifying eclipse led to the rolling night of bloodshed, the nyctophobic nightmare raised the question of which was more deadly: the ravening cannibalistic reptiles or the convicted murderer who survived the crash, Richard B Riddick.
They say most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side. No wonder I’m still awake.
Opening the film with his hypersleep narrative, Riddick was more than the escaped prisoner being taken back to slam; he was deadly, but he was not violent, bearing no grudge against those he was marooned with, wishing no more than to be left alone with his anger. He proved himself not only to be a man possessed of greater strength, agility than the others, but also an insight into the creatures, and his growing bond with the diminishing survivors seemed to surprise even him.
All the characters were more than they appeared to be: William Johns, who acted as though he represents law, when in fact he was a drug addicted bounty hunter; Abu ‘Iam’ al-Walid, a man who refused to lose his faith even as his children died around him, Carolyn Fry, who during the crash was willing to let her passengers die to save herself and subsequently would do anything to recant a sin not even committed, and of course Jack, the teenaged survivor fascinated with Riddick who specialised in misdirection.
If Pitch Black was Alien, a fully realised dirty tech universe of tired individuals fighting for survival on the edge of charted space when confronted with a species of unlimited killing capacity, then The Chronicles of Riddick was David Lynch’s Dune, epic in scope, spanning planetary, political and belief systems, genocide, destiny and prophecy.
That step was too great for some to whom ambition is frightening, the intricately designed costumes and weapons of the Necromongers and the grand scale of Helion Prime, Crematoria and the Basilica worlds away from the wreckage of the Hunter-Gratzner on the unnamed planet lit by three merciless suns.
So now it’s back to all the brightness, and everything I hate.
The box office disappointment of The Chronicles of Riddick did more damage than just to writer/director David Twohy and star/producer Vin Diesel. Like the failure of Dune fifteen years before, it was a hard blow to imaginative and challenging science fiction, supporting the belief that it was not a viable cinematic proposition, leading to a decade of cinema as designed by Michael Bay, and worse, it cemented the mindset that a sequel cannot stray from the path of its original in any significant way; again, witness Transformers.
By many standards, when Pitch Black’s global gross was $53 million, for any sequel to a modest hit to double its predecessor’s haul and take $110 million could be considered a success, and certainly Chronicles of Riddick has been seen by countless more viewers via disc and televised broadcast.
The awareness is there, but has Richard Riddick become a home rather than cinematic character? The first two films were designed for cinema, the darkness of the auditorium necessary to carry the depth of the eclipse to the audience, the widest screen possible necessary to convey the scale of the piece. This leads to the question: Who is the intended audience for Riddick?
Those who have followed the character through his adventures – which also include the prequel games Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena and the animated bridging story Dark Fury, all considered canon – will wish to see the whole story reflected, and certainly the audience for the expanded universe is greater than that for the isolated tale of Pitch Black.
There are even those who hoped that the third tale would be as different to the first two as they were to each other, that each successive instalment would be a wholly new aspect of the universe and the character, in the same way The Ballad of Halo Jones was a journey with no destination other than “out.” Certainly if Riddick offers nothing more than a new round of “Who’s the better killer?” it will be a disappointment to both the casual and faithful.
Don’t know about this new crew of yours. They seem a bit skittish. Probably shouldn’t tell them what happened to the last crew.
High above a desert plain, predatory reptiles float on thermals, seeking prey below. An unnamed planet of burnt sand and towering rocks, there has been a civilisation here long ago, but now all that is left is a well established and merciless food chain, and on the menu there is a new item, an injured man in battered Necromonger armour, crawling in desperate search of uncontaminated water.
It was said from the outset that Riddick would be a return to the style of Pitch Black, and indeed it is; pared down and stark, already in the thick of the story and in peril, and with a voiceover of rust and gravel reminding us that for a man who was left for dead on the day he was born, this is nothing new for Richard B Riddick. Still, “There are bad days, and there are legendary bad days.”
A too brief flashback shows the frosty relationship between Riddick, Lord Marshal of the Necromongers, and Commander Vaako, the only man who can locate the remains of Furya, and a deal is struck: Vaako can have the throne he has craved in return for the information.
The death cult of the Necromongers has worn heavily on Riddick; he is tired, slow, distracted, having allowed himself to become consumed by their decadence, more lost than when incarcerated or in exile. The epithet he uses to describe himself is civilised. When he is betrayed by Vaako’s right hand man Krone and left for dead, Riddick realises he should have seen it coming: “Death is what they do for a living.” Curiously, it is ambiguous whether the trap was conceived by Vaako or Krone; under Necromonger tradition, as the hand who slew Riddick, it would be Krone who would inherit the throne.
Yet in his new exile, a man alone save for the company of the native jackal he has raised from a pup, we see another side to Riddick, and he is a man who is in a good place. Inevitably things must change, and his realisation that the coming monsoons will revive the predatory species slumbering beneath the sands, he reluctantly broadcasts his presence, inviting those who would claim the price on his head to take their chance.
The arrival of two rival groups of mercs signals open season on Furyan hunting; Santana (experienced Catalan actor, writer and director Jordi Mollà) is arrogant and volatile, too concerned with the pissing contest he forces upon his rivals to focus on the job, while Johns’ crew are unlike any mercs seen in the series so far, efficient, confident and operating with more honour than is usual in their trade. But all this is ancillary to Riddick, who just wants passage off the planet.
You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?
The greatest fear for this sequel was that with the return to the style and budgetary consideration of Pitch Black the studio would push for what would in effect be a remake of that film, but playing to the crowd would ultimately undermine the character; time spent in the company of Riddick should never be safe. The greatest hope was that it would be as different again from Pitch Black and Chronicles as those films were from each other, and within the limits of what was possible within the financial constraints, this is what David Twohy and Vin Diesel have given us.
While the first was a blend of science fiction and horror, the second a vast mythological epic, Riddick is a thriller, a waiting game, pieces set out on a board and moved with precision, looking for advantage, punctuated by sudden eliminations. While the trailers showed the monsters, they truly only emerge in the final scenes, while the true focus of the film is the mercs.
Like the survivors of the Hunter-Gratzner, it is these mismatched and damaged characters who carry the film: Diaz (Dave Bautista, soon to be seen in Guardians of the Galaxy), the man who refuses to shoot an animal, through sharpshooter Dahl (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff), a woman who takes nonsense from no-one, Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), who has aspects of both Jack and Imam in that he is the youngest of the team and a man of deep faith but isn’t required to fill the void of either of those characters, and Boss Johns (Australian actor and writer Matthew Nable) himself.
While a standalone film which can be viewed with no previous knowledge, it is still tied with what has gone before, never more so than in the personal interest Boss Johns has in Riddick, last survivor of the Hunter-Gratzner, lost ten years before in the M-344/G system, among the passengers, Marshal William J Johns. He knows it is likely that his son is dead, but his only hope of finding out how lies with Riddick, a man who is worth more to everyone else dead than alive.
With Riddick offscreen for much of the middle, the deployment of violence recalls that of Vincenzo Natali in Cube, where very early sudden deaths are followed by extended interludes of brooding tension, the audience knowing that something horrible will inevitably happen, but never sure quite when, the pendulum swinging between humour and gore
Without the Necromonger presence, the style of technology has returned to that of the first film, a solid and dependable mechanical style that matches that of Alien and Firefly, two universes already tenuously linked. Twohy paints the screen in the deep colours and shadows that have come to be the trademark of the series, and while an occasional digital background doesn’t blend with the live action as well as it could, for the most part this new world is suitably convincing.
There are those who declared the story of Riddick over upon the release of Chronicles, but like the man himself, the evidence proves otherwise, and for those who believed in the last Furyan, their faith has been justified. The dead man is stalking once more and, it is to be hoped, may be seen again in less than a decade.