Vin Diesel’s Passion Project Remains a Refreshing Sci-Fi Thriller
The world wasn’t ready for more Riddick. That didn’t stop Diesel.
It’s easy to forget that Vin Diesel’s entire life’s work wasn’t always making Fast & Furious movies. In the early aughts, Diesel gambled his fortunes on making an epic Dune-ish sci-fi franchise, teaming up with writer and director David Twohy to make two movies featuring the improbably compelling space badass Richard B. Riddick. At a time when Diesel was too good to do more than cameo in Tokyo Drift, he was doing his damnest to make Riddick’s world into the biggest thing ever.
Sadly, the collected Chronicles of Richard never really grabbed the public’s imagination, and so by 2013, nine years after The Chronicles of Riddick hit theaters, Diesel and Twohy attempted a soft reboot. The result was a movie that’s much more fun to watch than it has any right to be. Released on September 6, 2013, Riddick may be the worst of the three Riddick movies, but watching it today feels like a breath of fresh-ish air.
Because Riddick is the third entry in a franchise where every film has a jarringly different tone, you might think its opening would be confusing. Surprisingly, it’s not. Vin Diesel’s snarling voiceover tells us this battle for survival on a desolate alien planet is old hat, saying, “This ain’t nothing new,” as he clutches a faux-pterodactyl by the throat. If you’re not already in, what is there to say? The Riddick movies live by how much you’re willing to accept Vin Diesel’s charmingly earnest attempt to fuse 1950s-style survivalist fiction with the Alien 3 knockoff vibe of late ’90s sci-fi horror.
But how did Riddick reach this desolate planet full of zebra coyotes and slime scorpions? Wasn’t he the king of the Necromongers at the end of the previous film? In a hilariously minimalist flashback, we learn that Riddick got himself exiled because he wants a vacation from being the lord of Necromongers. Constant orgies were too boring for Riddick, because that’s just how cool he is. Karl Urban sees this as an opportunity to betray Riddick for reasons you don’t have to care about.
This quick backstory is essentially Diesel and Twohy admitting the attempt to turn their franchise into a big epic fantasy in the second film wasn’t such a good idea, and that we’re better off just getting Riddick back into survival mode. Partly because it’s cooler, but also because it’s cheaper.
That said, if you were to watch a random scene in Riddick, you wouldn’t say it looks cheap. The CGI creatures hold up well, and the gritty space mercenary aesthetic is realistic enough. In terms of production design, the people of this universe could be swapped out for any scene in the Rebel Moon trailer, and you wouldn’t notice. Intentionally or not, Riddick embraces its generically gritty sci-fi vibe, which works far better than it should.
Again, the charm of Riddick is that it doesn’t care, which is why when you realize the entire movie is just about a bunch of mercenaries trying to catch Riddick, you aren’t underwhelmed; you’re relieved. Yes, there are some gross space monsters called Mud Demons lurking around, but the rugged space bounty hunters versus Riddick is what makes the movie work. The stakes are largely limited to these characters and their immediate situation. A particular standout here is Katee Sackhoff as Dahl, caught between her Battlestar Galactica golden era and her more recent renaissance in The Mandalorian. If you’re doing a faux-Alien vibe, and you need a smart-mouthed sci-fi merc, you hire Katee Sackhoff.
Because director David Twohy had briefly worked on an early version of Alien 3, it’s probably best to view Riddick as a Rosetta Stone for its sci-fi subgenre. In Riddick, you’ll get elements of Battlestar, touches of what The Expanse would attempt a few years later, and the entire history of 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s print science fiction, complete with a healthy dose of Dune vibes. In an alternate universe, Vin Diesel would have made an excellent Duncan Idaho.
But what makes Riddick an especially refreshing watch in 2023 is that it doesn’t feel cynical in the way major franchises have become. As camp and wonderful as the Fast movies are today, there’s a perfunctory feeling to them. But with all the Riddick movies, particularly this underrated third installment, you can tell this is Diesel’s passion project.
Supposedly, Twohy and Diesel are gearing up to make a fourth Riddick film, and as of early 2023, Riddick: Furya is in development. If you rewatch Riddick today, you’ll root for the next one to make it across the finish line. They’re ridiculous, but they offer a look into Diesel’s heart and soul.