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Non-Review Review: Riddick

Riddick is remarkably candid about the trouble with The Chronicles of Riddick. Somewhere,” Riddick tells us in his introductory monologue, “I lost my way.” The movie sees Riddick trying to get back to his roots – literally and figuratively. He abandons the trappings of The Chronicles of Riddick, casting Karl Urban aside after little more than a cameo and a convoluted back story. He longs to return home.And, in a way, he does.

Eschewing the scale of The Chronicles of Riddick, the movie finds Riddick and the crews of two ships locked in combat on the surface of a planet, discovering that the elements are against them – and the monsters hiding therein. The movie is acutely aware of how tightly it’s mirroring Pitch Black. At one point, before an alien onslaught begins, one co-star asks how many survivors emerged from the crash at the start of Pitch Black. “As many as are in this room,” Riddick replies, underscoring the similarities.

However, Riddick is strongest when it tries to recapture the mood of Pitch Black, rather than trying to connect more directly with its predecessors. The decision to hang the back story of the film on a minor character from a movie released a decade ago feels like a miscalculation, and the movie’s introduction suffers from an indecisiveness about whether it’s breaking free of or following on from its direct predecessor.

Apocalypse how?

Apocalypse how?

Riddick is a very flawed piece of film. It suffers from a large number of problems, many of which are carried over from its troubled predecessor. Riddick is a fascinating character, and there’s a reason that he was the break out character of Pitch Black. He’s a mysterious rogue who plays by his own rules, but is ruthlessly capable of surviving in a harsh and hostile universe. Vin Diesel has tremendous physical presence, and a gift for posing menacingly, and the character’s distinctive eyes allow him to stand out from the crowd.

There is, however, a catch. Despite what we might like to think, Riddick wasn’t really the protagonist of Pitch Black. He might be the character we all remember from the film, and he might be the most fun to watch, but part of what made Pitch Black work was the fact that it never felt the need to cast Riddick in the role of hero. Instead, he was an ambiguous character who was a tough read for Rhada Mitchell’s young space pilot. Despite later attempts to rebrand the film as The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black, Riddick was an intriguing co-star.

A Diesel vehicle...

A Diesel vehicle…

Promoting a character like that to the centre stage was always going to cause problems. Riddick fixes quite a lot of the problems haunting The Chronicles of Riddick, but it fails to overcome one of the bigger issues with the film. Riddick isn’t hero material. It might be fun to imagine Star Wars as a saga driven by Han Solo, but he’s much more interesting as a quirky rogue than the character driving the narrative. Riddick is most interesting as a grim anti-hero who we aren’t entirely sure about, rather than a main character we’re expected to trust implicitly and completely.

One of the largest problems with Riddick is how candidly it lays Riddick open to the audience. We get lots of long-winded cynical monologues about life and the universe. Riddick’s philosophical musings are best when they’re kept short and sweet. Rather than an extended introductory dialogue about how the universe wrote him off the moment he was born, Riddick is much more effective advising a religious team member, “Leave God out of this. He wants no part of what comes next.”

A baptism of... er... water, I guess...

A baptism of… er… water, I guess…

The moment the movie asks us to feel sympathy for Riddick – maybe even to pity him – his appeal is eroded away. I’m not suggesting that character development is a bad thing, but Vin Diesel is much more convincing when he’s dodging special effects or intimidating co-stars than when he’s trying to make the audience feel some measure of empathy for the anti-hero. Like the movie itself, Riddick is a lot better when he’s stripped down to basics.

That said, there is a lot to like about Riddick. Despite an overly convoluted flashback history introducing the story, the movie’s opening half-hour is surprisingly effective. “Time to set the clock to zero,” he tells the audience as the movie casts aside the pantomime intergalactic politics for some good old man-versus-nature pulp sci-fi charm. Trapped on a planet with hostile alien lifeforms, Riddick is forced to use all his cunning to survive. It feels like a feature taken from the back pages of a trashy sci-fi magazine, complete with suitably seedy illustrations of the menacing creations.

The other iron throne...

The other iron throne…

At its best, Riddick channels that raw pulpy vibe well. The special effects aren’t always convincing, but that’s entirely the point. Riddick seems to play like a tribute to trashy b-movies of yesteryear. Indeed, the movie’s structure is almost episodic, creating the sense that you could almost split the movie into chunks and air it at the start of larger and more impressive films. This week: Riddick tames an alien world! Next week: bounty hunters arrive! The week after: an uneasy alliance! It’s all bitty and granular, and it doesn’t flow particularly well, but that’s the point.

Riddick is at its best when it embraces that vibe wholeheartedly. It shamelessly riffs on Pitch Black in its final act, but it works surprisingly well, offering an impressive approximation of the mood of that earlier film. Nothing too grand or too epic or too incredibly, just good old-fashioned science-fiction laser-gun-related fun on sets that look beautiful while seeming entirely unreal and a set design stylised to remind the viewer that this is all a giant sci-fi movie.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

At the same time, the movie’s obvious b-movie affectations bring problems. The most obvious is the movie’s attitude towards women. Only two female characters appear, and both are threatened with sexual violence in order to affirm just how nasty the bad guys are. Katee Sackhoff has great fun as the sniper Dahl, but it’s a shame that the movie makes a point to undermine her so early. (The fact that the final edit of the scene is relatively ambiguous doesn’t help, with the movie refusing to commit one way or another as to how the scene ultimately played out.)

It feels like very tacky and tasteless shorthand, a convenient way for the movie to signpost the “bad” characters. To be fair, it’s exactly in keeping with the classic pulp fiction tropes that Riddick is trying to emulate, but that doesn’t excuse it. Playing into that sort of cliché as blind homage is rather simplistic and shallow, at best indifferent and at worst wilfully exploitative.

His neck on the line...

His neck on the line…

It’s a shame, because Dahl is actually a pretty great character. It’s nice to have a gay character not explicitly defined by their orientation, and even better to have a credible action heroine. Riddick undermines all that potential and promise with a single ill-advised scene, turning her into a damsel in distress and making her another reason to hate the movie’s nominal bad guy.

There are other problems. The supporting character, outside of Dahl and Johns, are somewhat hazily defined. Dave Batista’s character suddenly develops a particular personality trait as soon as the movie needs him too, without any build-up or foreshadowing. Indeed, the rest of the film seems to be hinting at quite a different characterisation for the character, but the movie clearly needs him to perform a given function at the climax, and so he suddenly does.

It doesn't sit well...

It doesn’t sit well…

Riddick also struggles a bit with its relationship to its predecessors. It seems the film might have worked better with a completely clean break from The Chronicles of Riddick and even Pitch Black. The convoluted introduction to the film really weakens an otherwise impressively pulpy and accessible “back to basics” opening arc. The decision to hinge the movie’s emotional arc on a minor character from a film over a decade ago feels a little unnecessarily confusing. I understand the need for an emotional anchor to the movie’s plot, but that anchor loses a lot of its value if half the audience can’t even remember the guy.

Riddick is much stronger than The Chronicles of Riddick, even as it struggles with its own central problems. Riddick himself seems to be part of the movie’s difficulties, making an intriguing side character but a somewhat leaden protagonist. It plays best as affectionate homage to cheesy old-school science-fiction, albeit one with very serious problems.

8 Responses

  1. It seems like the only reason for this movie to exist is so that Vin Diesel can continue to keep the money-bags flowing. That’s how Chronicles felt, and that’s how this movie seems. Good review Darren.

    • Definitely not. It has been long waiting for another riddick film and hope there will be more. Chronicles were not financially a success and in this film diesel does not have a fixed pay.

      • Yep. I do suspect that this might be something of a pet project for Diesel, a personal preference. After all, it’s easy to imagine that the Fast and/or Furious films put him in a position where he doesn’t want for money.

        I wasn’t unqualified in my love of Riddick, but I do hope that you enjoy it.

    • Thanks. Being honest, I’m less sceptical. Part of me suspects that Diesel is doing it because he has some affection for the character, somewhat akin to Tom Cruise’s love of the character Ethan Hunt. It’s an excuse for geeky sci-fi stuff, and to try to capture past glories, so I can see the appeal.

      • Vin and Twohy adore Riddick. For all the failings, you can see how much they love the character.

        Seeing Vin talk about it in the special features of the first films makes it beyond clear. Most actors in his pay grade don’t care and don’t take the time and energy AFTER the fact. There is something different there, some deeper love of the character and universe.

        I think that is what transcends the confusing and sometimes overly convoluted storylines is that love, that connection that very few actors want to take the time to make.

        After the box office failures of the first 2 films, there’s no other explanation. That said, while the movies flopped in theaters, they gained cult status on home release and I am pretty sure they made more money there by and large.

      • Yep, I can definitely see that. And Pitch Black is probably one of the best cult movies of the past decade so, the kind of home video classic that really warms your heart – proof that the proper gem can make the books balance despite handicaps out of the gate.

  2. This is, BAR NONE, one of the most enjoyable reviews I’ve read in what, forever?

    I normally just check out the synopsis reviews on metacritic, but since they weren’t up I decided to check out IMDB’s “Critic Reviews” and I’m very glad I did, because I found you.

    I enjoyed PB, I enjoyed Dark Fury (I still can’t find my damn DVD of it!) and hell, I “enjoyed” Chronicles, even if it was terrible in so many ways. I knew it was terrible whole watching it, and the plot/character changes were unforgivable. Anyone who has seen it knows what I’m talking about. Changing the actress who played Chronicles’ Kyra was disappointing, though it did seem as though Vin wanted Griffith in the role, but she wasn’t able to meet the physical demands required, so what else could be asked?

    But while I agree that Riddick shouldn’t be the main plot point, I also think that he deserved something in the middle. Not pity, but something that will show his struggles while keeping him at least mildly ambiguous. A bit more empathy from 1 and a whole lot less stupidity and complexity from 2 would make him a perfect character. He doesn’t need to be entirely heartless, look at The Man with No Name, in both the Leone trilogy but even more so in Yojimbo/Sanjuro. They were focused on the protagonist and his very laid back attitude that was VERY Han Solo… In fact, if you watch Hidden Fortress, you’ll clearly see so many future Star Wars tropes, primarily Han, R2/C3PO, Leia, Jabba and Darth, but Mifune dons the Han style attitude there, too.

    What I’m unsuccessfully trying to say is that a movie can be driven by an anti-hero, even one who is as ambiguous as Riddick. The problem is that it takes a director as skilled as Kurosawa or Leone (who stole the entire everything from Kurosawa’s films) or even a video game like Red Dead Redemption to really make it work. As much as I enjoy Twohy and Diesel, they don’t have the strength to work that successfully.

    That said, while I probably will skip going to the theater to see this, I will sure as hell be picking it up when it hits home video (why is that so hard to change? Video? DVD? Blu? What do we say when there are so many options?) and they will hopefully design a nice 3 pack on blu, and I can finally say goodbye to my HDDVD copies (can you imagine if they won the format wars? Stupid Microsoft had to gum that whole thing up, wait is this tropic thunder or something?) and embrace the awesome-ness of Pitch Black, and the relative mediocrity of the other 2.

    I’ll still say, it’s better than the Matrix sequels. Ugh.

    Anyway, moral of the story is that you’ve created a new fan, Darren. I’ve got another review site I’ll be watching. Aces, sir. Aces.

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