David Twohy is on something of a roll. His last film, the psychological thriller A Perfect Getaway, arrived to little fanfare in 2009 but was one of the better recent examples of the genre and easily his most accomplished work to date. For his follow-up, Twohy logs another chapter in his Riddick franchise, a sci-fi saga that began with Pitch Black (2000), continued with The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), and returns once more with Riddick. It was a pragmatic decision. The franchise’s star, Vin Diesel, has never been more popular or influential, and brand familiarity is guaranteed to get at least a few butts in seats. But Twohy deserves material that better suits his growing stature as an unashamed genre stylist.
Like A Perfect Getaway, Riddick is essentially a series of short films rolled into a single feature. During the first third of the film our titular antihero is stranded on a barren, monster-filled planet after being double-crossed by former allies. For roughly 30 minutes Diesel is alone, adjusting to the planet’s harsh climate, battling its many baddies, and contemplating his life to date. Eventually the perspective shifts from Riddick, whose survivalist cum existentialist musings suggested a Bradbury-esque take on The Naked Prey, to two rival groups of opportunistic bounty hunters who arrive on the planet, guns blazing. Riddick and “the mercs,” as he calls them, play cat and mouse until a roving storm unleashes the planet’s deadliest creatures. The perspective shifts once again as the film’s third sequence finds the former adversaries teaming up to survive.
In an age when movies are often chided for lacking the vaguely defined quality of believability, Riddick seems designed to prove that no movie of any stripe should be bound to any notion of “realism.” Twohy has never been the type of director who hides the stitching. His best films, in all their bells, whistles, and genre-laden gimmickry, show their hands in ways that can seem lazy and deficient, but the knowing manner with which Twohy unfurls them suggests the opposite. Whether it’s the three-pronged narrative in Riddick or the drastic color shift in A Perfect Getaway, he’s eager to demonstrate the way movies—specifically mainstream movies—work to influence spectatorship. The classic Hollywood genre stylists sought thematic continuity and seamless construction, but Twohy, a hyperconstructionist and something of a neoclassicist, pulls the curtain aside to reveal movie machinery in all its nuts and bolts.
But rather than deconstruct, parody, or otherwise exploit the machinery—in the way Paul Verhoeven or John Carpenter might—he instead literalizes and externalizes it, placing it on the surface so as to fortify the material. Twohy’s films are not autocritiques. There’s no recontextualization, no intertextuality, no irony. This is meat-and-potatoes genre filmmaking. When the bounty hunter Santana (Jordi Molla) claims he’s come to the planet so that he can take Riddick’s head, he really means it—as is evidenced by the box he holds in his hand, the perfect size for Diesel’s big bald mug.
This is intended to be funny. Twohy, in a script he wrote with Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, finds humor in such blunt platitudes. But he also finds distinct purpose. The film’s dialogue—everything from Diesel’s noirish voiceover to the digestible one-liners—is calibrated perfectly; it’s silly enough to be affable, but it’s also relatively sincere and completely plausible coming out of the mouths of his cast of roughnecks.
Smart as it is, Riddick doesn’t avoid tedium. The tonal shifts are jarring and possess none of the quicksilver grace of A Perfect Getaway, whose formal precision perfectly complemented its eccentric story. While he does some interesting things with the camera—he might be the only director alive who can make a canted angle look interesting, if not beautiful—there’s a sort of dramatic inertia despite all the action. Twohy’s going through the motions (that’s the point, after all), but he doesn’t seem to be having as much fun as before.