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The Riddick trilogy has one thing no other sci-fi franchise can match

Vin Diesel’s sci-fi movies, now on Netflix, aren’t all wins — but they’re all unpredictable passion projects

Riddick (Vin Diesel), bloody and armored and with glowing eyes, glowers from his throne in The Chronicles of Riddick Image: Universal Pictures

With all three live-action Riddick movies now on Netflix, and Riddick 4 currently in the works, there’s no better time to talk about Vin Diesel’s other major franchise.

In the early 2000s, few actors were being groomed for franchise superstardom the way Vin Diesel was. Within three years, he played the lead in three would-be series-launchers: the mysterious, brutal Richard B. Riddick in the sci-fi/horror film Pitch Black; the musclebound everyman Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious; and as the nü-metal-infused James Bond archetype Xander Cage in XXX. All three movies experienced various degrees of success, with XXX making big money but falling apart by the sequel, and Fast and the Furious becoming one of the highest-grossing series of all time.

Pitch Black’s success, on the other hand, led to two sequels of varying quality and genre, with a fourth Riddick movie now in development. (Plus a little-loved animated interlude from Aeon Flux director Peter Chung: 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury.) But the Riddick series is by far the most interesting of Diesel’s franchises. In fact, its approach to storytelling is still a refreshing outlier among most franchise narratives, even if the whole thing is, at best, deeply inconsistent. The three films’ arrival on Netflix provides a prime opportunity to look back at a trilogy that has an experimental energy no other sci-fi franchise can match. Driven by the passion of its leading man and its director, the series is admirably unpredictable in an industry usually driven by numbing regularity.

A young woman in goggles and sci-fi survival gear stands with her back to the camera, silhouetted against a dry desert horizon, a vast planet with two rings, and a descending sun producing a butt-ton of lens flare in Pitch Black Image: Universal Pictures

The late ’90s and early ’00s were ripe for sci-fi cinema: The Matrix, Equilibrium, and even mega-budget fare like Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and Spider-Man definitely range in tone and scope, but have a lot in common. Mostly, they’re all deeply sincere on a conceptual level. Whether it’s the relationship between the online and real worlds of The Matrix, the goofy dedication to gun kata in Equilibrium, or the aw-shucks comic book emotions of Spider-Man, all of these movies wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Pitch Black shares this, too, even if it is remarkably stripped-down in retrospect. While only establishing the barest details about the new universe it introduces, it firmly establishes the coolness of its lead, Riddick, who will go from feared criminal to savior over the course of the film. Harkening back to films like John Carpenter’s Escape From New York — stories built on simple, atmospheric narratives and awesome antiheroes — it lives and dies based on just how involved a given viewer is with the idea that Riddick fucking owns. And here more than any other film in the series, Riddick does indeed own. Often bathed in shadow and speaking with gruff directness that thankfully never descends into forced one-liners, Riddick is appropriately badass.

It helps that the plot is one of the most reliable in Hollywood: Captured bad guy is offered a chance at freedom if he works with some good guys, thus turning into more of a good guy himself. Escaping a downed ship and surviving a planet that’s fraught with terrifying creatures gives Diesel and director David Twohy plenty of opportunities to show off Diesel’s action-star potential. Combine this with the movie’s horror leanings (there are some nice bits of gore and suspenseful sequences, even though the film’s CGI is dated), and you have an impressive film that can be enjoyed even without the context of the sequels to follow.

Opinions about the Riddick series as a whole are most likely to vary because of those sequels. Thanks to Pitch Black’s box office and Diesel’s increasing fame, the film was granted a follow-up, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick — which drops the rating to a PG-13 rather than Pitch Black’s R. Chronicles is an exercise in world-building that seems fairly needless, viewed immediately after the first film’s restraint. Not content with just letting Riddick do rad stuff again, Twohy and his co-writers instead give the audience a lesson in lore and backstory. Riddick is now one of the last survivors of an ancient warrior race (and potentially the answer to a prophecy), and he must help stop a universe-conquering cult/army known as the Necromongers. Venturing across multiple planets with a mix of returning and new characters, Riddick evolves from reluctant criminal to full-on superhero: Luke Skywalker in a muscle tank.

Riddick (Vin Diesel), dripping with blood and wearing grey steel armor, sits on a throne with his head resting on his hand in The Chronicles of Riddick Image: Universal Pictures

It’s an abrupt shift: In Pitch Black, the closest thing we get to consistent sci-fi motifs are some alien creatures and Riddick’s genetically altered eyes. Suddenly, in Chronicles, he’s racing around lavish sets, being referred to with mythological reverence, and doing battle with a horde of dudes in big, plastic suits of armor. Riddick himself gets the requisite franchise glow-up, too: He speaks almost entirely in T-shirt-ready quotes now, his quirky, cruel streak in Pitch Black morphing into an action-figure countenance.

Knowing Vin Diesel’s public love of Dungeons & Dragons and his habit of grabbing for the creative reins of his franchises, it’s no surprise that he was behind infusing Chronicles with broad fantasy elements. And the fact that it’s a passion project is likely the only reason Chronicles doesn’t descend into green-screen delirium, and maintains at least a little bit of the charm of the first film. It’s the exact opposite of most franchise trajectories, ones that leave the actors and creatives feeling like bit players in a world that they made popular, while the studios build around them.

Franchises also tend to play it safe, focusing on successful trends rather than experimenting with tones, genres, or approaches. It’s what’s led to the Fast and the Furious films continually chasing the high of the revelatory Fast Five, just with increasingly ludicrous set pieces. It’s also what made Diesel’s eventual reprisal of Xander Cage in 2017’s XXX: Return of Xander Cage feel so relatively lightweight. Nothing feels like it’s changed much in the 15-year gap between the first XXX and the sequel. The template was set well in advance, and the most intensive labor to be done was figuring out how far the cars will jump.

That isn’t the case with 2013’s Riddick, the third film in the series, which attempts to reconcile Pitch Black’s thorny barbarity and Chronicles’ sci-fi grandeur. Here, we see that Riddick now runs the Necromongers, a role he’s uncomfortable with. So he makes a deal to leave it all behind and go find his home. On the way, he’s betrayed and dumped on an isolated desert planet, where he does battle with the local supernatural wildlife and eventually teams up with/murders some mercenaries.

Riddick (Vin Diesel) holds a jagged, blood-covered blade to the throat of a man in metal armor covered with rotary-saw blades in 2013’s Riddick Photo: Universal Pictures

In short, it’s a pseudo-reboot of Pitch Black, but with the added knowledge that was revealed in Chronicles. The movie leaves viewers alone with Riddick in a hostile environment for an extended period, allowing him to become a bit more feral than the enlightened champion from the end of the previous film. And its R rating means Riddick can tear through adversaries with aplomb, rather than stabbing at dudes wearing outer-space shoulder pads. But the third film isn’t as visually inspired as Pitch Black, and the mishmash of dull browns and grays in the sets bleeds into the constant CGI.

Once again, the constant in the series is Diesel’s enthusiasm (he was willing to lose his house to fund the film), even when Riddick’s dusty machismo and plainspoken brusqueness start to feel pretty corny on the third time through. It’s hard to find another series that expanded so much, only to cut off every possible loose end in favor of a back-to-basics story. Chaotic box-office returns certainly helped trim the potential scope of the Riddick series, where its contemporary franchises, from the Matrix movies to Star Wars and the Spider-Man series, were all marked by an explosive increase in on-screen stuff to be digested.

With the fourth Riddick movie currently in preproduction, it’s hard to guess where Diesel’s character will end up next. The film’s proposed title, Riddick 4: Furya, hints that we may be in line for another Chronicles-style expansion of the scope and the mythos. The Furyans were Riddick’s warrior race, as revealed in Chronicles, and Furya was where Riddick was heading at the beginning of Riddick before his crewmates made the foolish decision to try to kill him.

Given the history of the franchise, though, this film could take a wide variety of approaches. Which is part of what’s fun about the Riddick films. They don’t follow the typical arc for a sci-fi series, much less the arc of the other series that made Vin Diesel so prominent in the action-movie world. Instead, thanks to his input and Twohy’s, we got three films that differ wildly from one another. It’s unclear whether anyone cares as much about Riddick as Vin Diesel. But if that means we have one action franchise where no film ever coasts on the success of the last one, so much the better.