Back in 2000 I was lucky enough to see a preview of Pitch Black about six months before it went on general release. Director David Twohy succeeded in creating a sci-fi action adventure with elements of horror that was both engaging and containing some original ideas, most importantly he did it on a relatively low budget. The cast consisted of largely unknown actors, Vin Diesel was at the time best know for a small part in Saving Private Ryan or as the voice of The Iron Giant, the rest of the cast were vaguely recognisable from TV. The reason the movie worked so well was a combination of factors. With just enough exposition to help us understand the setting, the movie got on with its business from the start introducing an array of interesting characters with believable if lightly sketched back stories, the key all these characters were flawed in some way. The heroes weren’t very heroic and the villains had redeeming features. The creatures they found themselves up against were both original and well conceived. The lack of stars made it impossible to tell who would survive and who wouldn’t. It was fresh and original and offered something we hadn’t seen since Alien more than two decades before. Unfortunately all the great work was undone by a terrible sequel. The Chronicles of Riddick was the right thing to do in theory, take the character from Pitch Black and put him in a new scenario telling a new story and exploring the character further. Sadly it just didn’t work, the idea was too big and grand for the execution and most seriously it changed the character too much, that and the fact the film was dull as hell. Costing twice as much to make as Pitch Black and Riddick put together, it was a self indulgent folly.
It therefore came as a surprise that Diesel and Twohy were re-teaming for a third instalment. Happily the plot contrives to put Riddick back in a similar environment to the first movie and it returns to a relatively low budget. Betrayed by the Necromongers (see The Chronicles of Riddick if you really want to know who they are. The new film will still make sense if you skip that instalment) and left for dead on a planet that turns out to be “Not Furya” (Furya, being Riddick’s lost and forgotten home planet). This first act is a risk as it is light on dialogue other than a dour voiceover, but it really works and is possibly the best part of the film. As Riddick rediscovers himself as the character we fist met he finds a way off the planet by luring bounty hunters to catch him. As this unfolds we get an interesting second and third act culminating in something reminiscent of but just different enough from Pitch Black.
The film has its problems notably Katee Sackhoff as Dahl. She is the most interesting new character in the movie and looks at times like she will be as important to the plot as Radha Mitchell in Pitch Black. Unfortunately the character is underused and at time only exists for titillation or comedy. She is also the subject of some misjudged dialogue where the filmmakers can not decide if Riddick is the sociopath killer we were first told or a roguish anti hero. Then there is a possibly unnecessary connection to Pitch Black that becomes distracting as the actor involved is about twenty years too young to play this character. These are small complaints as anyone watching this is here to see Riddick and not the supporting players.
The end result is a film that is far from the great original film but a vast improvement and a return to form in comparison to the misjudged first sequel. It is stage two of Vin Diesel returning to the characters that made him successful. In 2009 he returned to The Fast and the Furious franchise after sitting out the first two sequels (except for an after credits cameo). The final instalment of this renaissance is due in a couple of years with XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. As for Riddick, as mentioned it has its problems but also has its moments, fans of either of the first two movies will probably like it, it will also hopefully introduce a new audience to the character who will go on to see Pitch Black.