Richard B. Riddick, the protagonist of David Twohy’s 2000 sleeper Pitch Black, has spawned an unlikely franchise. Like a cross between Donald E. Westlake’s Parker and a panther (with a little Conan The Barbarian thrown in for good measure), Riddick roams a vast sci-fi universe of bounty hunters and backstabbers, surviving on predatory instinct.
The first 30 minutes of Riddick find Twohy’s antihero—played, as always, by Vin Diesel—dragging himself across a desolate digital matte landscape, sleeping in caves and beating back scavengers with shards of animal bone. Aside from a flashback and some typically noir-ish narration, this opening stretch of the film is wordless; visually and tonally, it brings to mind Paul W.S. Anderson’s underrated Kurt Russell space Western Soldier.
Left for dead on a hostile planet, Diesel reverts to a nocturnal animal. After months of hunting, he comes across an abandoned mercenary outpost and activates its distress beacon, setting a trap with himself as the bait. At exactly the 30-minute mark, Twohy, a reliably surefooted storyteller, executes a complete change in perspective. As rival space crews—lead by Jordi Mollà and Matt Nable—arrive, Diesel turns from protagonist to bump-in-the-night monster, remaining largely offscreen for the middle third of the film. His presence is felt through gruesome traps and menacing graffiti on the outpost walls. At one point, a bounty hunter’s flashlight catches him dragging a mangled body back to his lair like fresh prey.
Twohy’s best work—from Pitch Black and A Perfect Getaway to the underrated WWII horror movie Below—displays a love for self-contained genre stories, and Riddick is no exception; despite being the third feature in a series that also includes an animated movie and two games, it’s essentially a stand-alone film, a survival story that pits a group of trigger-happy opportunists against a man who refuses to pretend that he’s anything more than an animal. Pitched somewhere between hard-boiled space pulp (a lesbian character saying “I don’t fuck guys, but occasionally I fuck ’em up” is typical of Twohy’s banter) and black comedy, it’s a largely amoral movie, though its amorality is less an attitude than a method for telling a good yarn. (A lengthy sequence where the bounty hunters try to use logic to figure out whether Diesel might have booby-trapped their storage locker is an object lesson in how to use unlikable characters to build comic suspense.)
What matters above all, however, is that Twohy has the pulpy visual chops to match his storytelling. Images of Diesel drunkenly sitting on a metal throne, fighting a tentacled monster in a cave, or scampering up a jutting rock during a rainstorm play like Tor paperback covers brought to life. In an era of high-falutin’ tentpole sci-fi, there’s something to be said for a filmmaker still devoted to crafting plain old genre pleasures.