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New films: Riddick and The Sacramento Film & Music Festival

Directed by David Twohy

2000’s “Pitch Black” was a lean, mean, fighting machine – both in terms of the character it introduced and in terms of being a low budget movie that delivered a punch as powerfully as Riddick himself did. With almost no plot to speak of, it dumped a group of space travelers on a hostile world and then went all Darwinian. It was all character development and seemed to have to potential to spawn numerous similar Riddick sequels with our cheesy-voiceover-narrating, seeing-in-the-dark protagonist fighting off whatever new set of creatures and circumstances the creative team could come up with.

Instead, in 2004, we were given “The Chronicles of Riddick” that was sufficiently dissimilar that it was surprising it came from the same writer/director. Rather than being a simple survivalist story, we were being told a story of almost epic proportions (at least that seemed to be the goal), of a planet-conquering force of “Necromongers” who either convert new worlds to their religion or destroy them and move on.

We also got a little backstory on Riddick, including convenient suggestions that the Necromongers had destroyed his long forgotten home world of Furya, and the addition of Dame Judi Dench as a shifty “Elemental,” able to move around the room in a blur while being moody and smart (a talent oddly shared by the Necromonger Lord Marshall). It was all very grand and overblown and probably didn’t satisfy very many people outside of the art department. In short, it forgot its simple roots and attempted to become something else entirely. Sure, there was a gritty prison break movie embedded within the bedazzled grand spectacle, but rather than saving the project it all just felt disjointed. It was as if “Mr. Bean” had suddenly moved into “Downton Abbey,” simply because both were English.

The second film was enough of a bust financially, especially given the huge boost in budget from the first, that Universal swore the series was dead. Reportedly, when the studio approached Vin Diesel to play a small role in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” he made a deal to act in that film in return for the rights to the Riddick franchise, rather than being paid a salary.

So – fast forward almost a decade and Diesel and Twohy have gone back to what made the character and the premise appealing in the first place – one man against whatever gets thrown at him, whether that be people, nasty space critters, or more than a touch of inclement weather. But in doing so they faced the basic problem of revisiting an old project – does one ‘reboot,’ write a sequel, a prequel, or some kind of Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower revision of history?

The result, in some ways, is Riddickulously good. Not that it’s a fantastic movie, in a full spectrum of movie-making sense, but it very satisfyingly manages to move forwards in a true sequel fashion, acknowledging both past chapters, and also tying into both in a meaningful way. That’s a pretty good trick with such different ground to cover – and it brings it all back into a more “Pitch Black”-like environment. The title, “Riddick,” is simple and to the point – although I might have gone with something fun like “Fast and Furyan.”

This time around, Riddick has been abandoned on another fairly desolate planet, with ample opportunities to die by injury or becoming dinner. His only way off is to lure bounty hunters, a group of folks he still has great contempt for, as they tend to show up in ships. This completes the scenario, with Riddick, a bunch of people who don’t like him, and a bunch of circumstances that show him to be the most capable man in the shipping container space station.

There’s just enough carnage to have a who-dies-next? drinking game, without incurring too much drunkenness, and enough banter to feel fresher than, for example, the tired “Die Hard” franchise. But part of the fun of the character is that Riddick is also a thinker – he’s a whirlwind of fists and blades when he needs to be but he also has a long game, with patience and plotting when that makes more sense.

If you liked “Pitch Black” and lamented the direction of “The Chronicles of Riddick,” as box office numbers would suggest was a common reaction, this is a return to form for both Riddick and Diesel/Twohy and bodes well for more of the same. It’s also an interesting exercise in the business of filmmaking after a summer of big budget disappointments – this is a largely self-financed, independently owned, modestly budgeted film that has more in common in those terms with projects like “Magic Mike” or “This is the End” than with many special effects laden sci-fi projects. Expect to see more Riddick and more of this business model.


Sac Film & Music Fest

On Wednesday, September 11th, the 14th Annual Sacramento Film & Music Festival opens with the premiere screening of the locally made feature film “Stolen Moments.” It’s a neat movie on multiple levels, not least of which is that it’s a film project that features several local actors more typically associated with live theater and, as such, bridges both of those arts communities. The opening night includes catering by Panda Express (first come first served), the presentation of the Festival’s annual Film Arts Service Award, and an introduction by Jack Gallagher.

The Festival continues on Thursday with a two-track program, with two feature films on one screen and two panel discussions running parallel. The feature films are “Of By For,” a documentary about the extremely partisan state of current US politics, and “I’m Harry Clarke,” a comedy about the election campaign of a less than stellar politician (and made by filmmakers who won a narrative feature award in a prior year’s Festival). The first of the panel discussions is associated with the screening of a short documentary “The Trouble With Bread” that focuses on the rising prevalence of gluten intolerance and the manner in which the production of bread and other, related products has changed over time. The second panel relates to the digital distribution of film and related creative content.

All screenings take place at the Crest Theatre and the Festival continues through Sunday, August 15th. Most individual screenings are $10 but discounted Passes good for all screenings are available at the Crest Box Office for $30 (if you mention this column) or $20 for students. I’ll describe the second half of the Festival lineup in next week’s column but for more details, screening times, and ticket links, visit www.sacfilm.com.


About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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