Initially I set out to compile a list of specific movies to watch after you’ve seen Riddick, in the same fashion as I’ve done for other new releases. But in an attempt to pick out titles worth recommending, I couldn’t choose. The thing about Riddick is that it’s not too directly derivative of any individual precursors. While the original movie in the franchise, Pitch Black, could mostly be traced back to 3:10 to Yuma given its central setup involving a prisoner transport plot, Riddick is more of a typical Western with tropes found in too many examples to mention.
Part of the problem might be that it’s kind of all over the place. In the first act we follow Riddick (Vin Diesel) through a solo outing on a desolate planet. He faces trials of survival against monsters, making the early section more like a Harryhausen movie than a cowboy flick, though I guess that means a nod to Jim O’Connolly’s The Valley of Gwangi is in order, and going back further The Beast of Hollow Mountain, which features effects by Harryhausen mentor Willis O’Brien. Both of these deal with dinosaurs in the Old West. There’s also Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, which is a prequel revealing how the subterranean Graboids (or “dirt dragons”) were around as far back as 1889.
Also in the beginning Riddick captures, befriends and trains a wild dog-like creature to be his loyal sidekick. I was reminded of Two Socks, the wild wolf who warms up to Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. Of course, heroes with dogs in legitimate Westerns and future-set sci-fi movies that feel like Westerns is a common trope. With the latter, you’ve got the dog in The Road Warrior, different adaptations of I Am Legend/The Last Man On Earth. Two John Wayne period Westerns come to mind, too: in Hondo his canine companion detects Indians and gets in the way of bad guys, which of course gets the animal nearly shot; and in Big Jake he has a dog named Dog, who in one scene is shot as Wayne is hit by a sniper, not unlike a scene in Riddick. Here, though, the pup survives — albeit only to later be hacked to death off screen.
Another really common trope in Westerns is the idea of holding down a fort while an overwhelming enemy is outside the gates. In Riddick, we’ve got the title character holed up in an outpost along with two teams of mercenaries while thousands of aliens (resembling the Isz from Sam Keith’s The Maxx comic) try to get at them. In the classics, the hordes laying siege outside are Indians or the Mexican army or a gang of outlaws. See Rio Bravo, The Wild Bunch and anything involving the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand. Riddick‘s siege briefly has a very Night of the Living Dead feel to it, which makes it akin to the Rio Bravo-and-Romero-inspired Assault on Precinct 13.
Most relevant to Riddick, however, is the Leone/Eastwood Westerns. Diesel’s character may as well be a man with no name, and the involvement with bounty hunters and the idea of common enemies are consistent parts of the Dollars Trilogy. I’d say For a Few Dollars More is closest in premise to Riddick. The new movie has two separate groups looking for the title outlaw, one motivated by the reward and the other by one man’s search for answers about his son’s death, which he believes was at the hand of Riddick (during the events of Pitch Black). And in the Leone classic, there are two men after a fugitive gang leader; Eastwood being the side driven by money and Van Cleef the one out for revenge. Both films have the two sides butting heads before teaming up.
There’s also an element of different levels of good/bad mercenary in that film’s follow-up, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. And then there’s the later Eastwood Western The Outlaw Josey Wales, which has the star’s character evading both bounty hunters and Union soldiers. We could go on and on, though, about movies in which there are multiple sets of antagonists in pursuit of the single protagonist, whether legitimate period Westerns or present day or science fiction works modeled on similar conventions.
Finally, the anticlimactic ending of Riddick is a play on the familiar Western trope of the heroes being saved suddenly at the last moment by the cavalry. Stagecoach would be the most famous example.
As a hodgepodge of all these familiar Western elements set in a galaxy far, far away, Riddick works. It might help if you’re into Westerns, though, as that ending could otherwise be a letdown. It’s neat to see so much combined here, and it’s always interesting how well Western-influenced sci-fi movies — aka Space Westerns — work (as seen with Star Wars, Firefly/Serenity, Westworld, Avatar, Outland and Battle Beyond the Stars), even if they’re occasionally sort of cheesy. Whereas the inverse, sci-fi Westerns (as in Cowboys & Aliens and Wild Wild West), tend to be unsuccessful disasters. Time travel films can be an exception, though, as Back to the Future Part III and episodes of such sci-fi series as Star Trek and Doctor Who are acceptable mash-ups.
Riddick does come close to being more like a sci-fi Western at times. The hover-hogs or whatever they’re technically called in the film are such an obvious mechanical substitute for horses that they could almost qualify as steampunk. And the singular setting with all the action occurring on one frontier-like planet makes the locations interchangeable for the American West, meaning they could have just set it on Earth in the late 19th century, having all the players land on our world, in the past. Fortunately that wasn’t the case.
Now, I wonder if there are are any Western plot conventions and tropes still untouched for David Twohy to cobble together for a fourth movie. Any ideas?