THERE ARE SUPPOSEDLY only a few stories out there: man against nature, man against self, man against society, and man against man. Not content with any of those, 2000's low-budget sci-fi flick Pitch Black mashed up all four. The result was a low-fi, clever chunk of violent pulp, starring Vin Diesel as Riddick, a conflicted convict on a harsh desert planet. And if that wasn't enough, come nightfall, nocturnal monsters attacked Riddick and his captors. Pitch Black is great! You should see it!
Smelling money in nerds' pockets, Universal ordered a sequel—and gave Diesel and writer/director David Twohy a lot more money. The result was a bland, bewildering blockbuster—2004's The Chronicles of Riddick—that felt less like the down and dirty Pitch Black and more like an outlandish dream of Dungeons & Dragons devotee Diesel come to life: baroque and boring and impermeable, it was awful enough to bury Riddick.
Literally, it turns out: When Riddick begins, its titular, growling character is crushed under a pile of rocks in yet another desert, with only a single limp hand visible. Riddick promptly makes a grand entrance—his hand strangling an alien pterodactyl that's stupid enough to nibble at his fingers—and soon he's exploring another arid extraterrestrial shithole, outsmarting slimy alien monsters, making tools out of bones, glowering as he performs bloody surgery on his own leg. It's like Jeremiah Johnson! In space! And best of all, Riddick even befriends a space puppy. And he and the space puppy become BFFs! For its first half hour, Riddick is a sparse, gripping, and nearly wordless sci-fi western—a fantastic reminder of both Pitch Black and Diesel's charms. (Also, I cannot stress this enough: SPACE PUPPY.)
Alas, it doesn't last: Bounty hunters soon show up to kill Riddick, and while it's initially fun to watch Diesel pick them off, one by one—they're all stupid, and Riddick is smart—things head downhill fast. CG monsters start to attack, again, and bounty hunters spend long stretches bickering and preening, and not even Diesel's smirking grumble can return Riddick to the muscular, macho fun of its first act.
BUT EVEN WORSE: Guess who one of the bounty hunters is? Starbuck! Awesome, right? Okay, not Starbuck exactly, but the actress who played her on Battlestar Galactica. Katee Sackhoff (Sackhoff! Where've you been? Everybody missed you!) plays Dahl, Riddick's only female character of note, and while her character starts out strong—matter-of-factly stating, "I don't fuck guys," outwitting and/or beating the shit out of her far less competent bounty-hunter brethren, and making it seem like she might be someone who can actually go toe-to-toe with Riddick—Dahl is quickly reduced to someone who does little more than stand around (sometimes topless!) while all the guys in the movie threaten to rape her. It's problematic any time a film has one female character and she's reduced to either a damsel or rape bait; compounding the shittiness here, though, is that... dammit, Dahl looks and sounds just like Starbuck. Starbuck! A character who was the opposite of this!
On its own, Riddick's treatment of Dahl (to say nothing of Riddick's treatment of Dahl) is problematic. (SPOILER! In the film's final scenes, Riddick miraculously cures Dahl of her lesbianism.) Within the larger, not-always-female-friendly genres that Riddick inhabits, though, it doesn't just feel problematic—it feels slack-jawed and regressive. And it's why Riddick, which starts out so well, leaves a grimy and sour aftertaste.