It's a funny ol' galaxy, crammed with scorched planets and things that go crunch in the night. Among the latter is a bald-headed dude with glowing eyes, a "Furyan" named Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel). In David Twohy's latest installment of the Diesel-powered franchise, titled simply "Riddick," the Furyan finds himself, once more, battling hot suns, long nights, and alien monsters.
"Riddick" follows the events of the 2004 film "The Chronicles of Riddick," explaining to us in narrated flashback how our anti-hero has arrived on this broiling backwater world, clad in battle armor, with a badly broken leg. (Political life didn't suit him.) But the new chapter is much more directly a sequel to 2000's original adventure, "Pitch Black," which served as Diesel's breakout role. Where the second film expanded the universe in which Riddick lives, introducing a complex interstellar geopolitical situation (not to mention strange alien forms of life, like Dame Judy Dench as an "Air Elemental" and the barely-sketched-in backstory of Riddick and Furya itself, a planet wiped out thanks to a despot's fear of a fatal prophecy), this third outing shrinks the arena to a similar size as that in which "Pitch Black" took place: A group of human beings, on a hostile world, who are at each other's throats whenever they're not forced to band together for defense against nasty local critters.
The intent seems to be to set aside the geopolitical intricacies of the middle film in favor of a straight-up action romp. The first part of the film concerns Riddick settling in on his new planet, facing down alien dingoes and even more alien crocodile / scorpion-type serpents that live in muddy watering holes. Months go by, during which his leg heals, and Riddick builds himself a cozy shelter and takes the lay of the land; he also raises an alien dingo from pup-hood to full-fledged man's best friend, making of the pup his very own outer-space "dire wolf." The movie feels, in these early passages, like a tip of the hat to the classic "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," only Friday has sharper teeth. Then a humongous raincloud rolls over the planet's amber sky, and the crocodiles rise from their ponds, able to roam the land at will in the rain. It's time to get the hell out of Dodge; the rest of the movie is essentially all about the quest to escape darkness and the hunger of relentless monstrosities -- the anxiety of our age.
In the tradition of the B-movie, those anxieties are present but buried under lots of (hinted at) sex and (explicit) violence. In terms of narrative sophistication, this is a step backwards: "The Chronicles of Riddick" served as a pointed, and somewhat satirical, comment on the ascendency of religion in the realm of politics; there's none of that here. The closest "Riddick" gets to any kind of overt social or political commentary is the presence of a tough lesbian character (snarkily named Dahl.... "doll," get it?) who announces, "I don't fuck guys. I fuck 'em up when they need it."
Dahl, played by Katee Sackhoff, isn't asking, but she's not shy about telling, and she'd be right at home in a platoon of space marines (as indeed, this film would be comfortable in hosting such a cadre, being more or less a haircut of the granddaddy of man v. alien beastie flicks, "Aliens"). But Dahl isn't a marine: She's a bounty hunter, and she belongs to one of a pair of ships that arrives when Riddick trips a rescue beacon. One merc crew, led by a guy named Santana (Jordi Mollà) and his hulking cousin, Diaz (Dave Bautista), wants to reap Riddick's head and collect their reward -- in fact, the head is all they need, since it's double points if they bring him in dead.
The other crew is led by a guy with a direct connection to the first film; he cagily avoids giving a name until he can deploy it with maximum effect, but he's played by Matt Nable. Sackoff's Dahl is his smart, fearless first officer. The rest of the players, from both crews, are essentially redshirts, and they meet a variety of fates, some of them at Riddick's hands and some of them at the jaws of the swarming beasties. One exception: a young guy named Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), a Bible-toting Christian who echoes the Muslim character Imam (David Keith) from the earlier movies.
The problem is this: "Riddick" is nothing more than a couple of hours of loud, bloody mayhem, what passes these days for cinematic fun. In this it succeeds, but there's hollowness at its center because there's nothing in there to chew on. The characters are so flat and the action so diagrammed that even Riddick sees every twist and turn coming; his endless detailed prognostications of what's about to happen (and they all come true) might seem spooky to the people trapped in the room with him (are Furyans psychic on top of everything else?), but his prophecies are nothing special to us in the audience because we see it all coming, too. It would appear that Riddick doesn't just see in the dark; he's seen all the same movies we have while dwelling in the dark.