You aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?
Less than a year after The Matrix caused a sci-fi frenzy, Universal dumped its low-budget space flick Pitch Black into the desert of February film releases and left it to die. But like its feral anti-hero, the film survived, earning over twice its production budget and building a strong fan base.
The movie’s breakout character, Riddick, was a charismatic barbarian with a messy code of ethics and a wicked tongue. When he wasn’t spouting tough-guy dialog and shaving his head with a piece of shrapnel and axle grease, he was waxing poetic in voice-over narration. The result was a clever, layered character who was played to perfection by a relatively unknown Vin Diesel. The role got him into the Fast and the Furious franchise which launched a year later, propelling him into stardom.
The film itself is a lean, mean endeavor. On the surface it’s a basic “crash and survive” adventure tale, but underneath David Twohy honed a wonderful script about guilt and second chances, basing his story on work from Jim and Ken Wheat, a sci-fi writing duo who worked within the Star Wars and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
Early on it’s clear Twohy (who also directed) is great at two important (yet often neglected) elements of great genre storytelling: he writes colorful, layered characters and puts them in rich, unique settings.
From the opening scenes where Radha Mitchell’s space pilot, Fry, attempts to jettison all of her sleeping passengers in an attempt to save the ship, it’s clear there’s more going on than the average adventure flick. When she’s thwarted by the other pilot and still manages to land the ship safely, the character drama ratchets to intense levels as the survivors laud her with praise for saving their necks, totally unaware she tried to kill all of them.
It’s a gutsy way to open the movie. Expectations are low, with audiences needing only screams and blood to justify the ticket price. By setting the bar so high so early, Twohy forced himself to dig deep for the payoff, and it resulted in a wonderful, richly rewarding ending.
When asked about his film Cabin in the Woods and why he and co-writer Joss Whedon decided to reveal early on that the entire scenario was controlled by a scientific facility, Goddard replied:
“Put all your cards on the table right away, and then that will force you to come up with new cards.”
Judging by the fantastic ending to Cabin in the Woods — which manages to genuinely surprise its audience without coming completely out of left field — his comment is true. Still, it’s often the harder road, so Twohy’s opening sequence to Pitch Black is commendable in a sci-fi market that so often saves character reveals to create a forced sense of mystery (I’m looking at you Oblivion, John Carter, and Star Trek Into Darkness).
Another element that sets this film apart is the production design. The art department created an extraordinary world on a tiny budget, from the sarcophagus filled with contraband booze and ancient weapons (again the theme of dark secrets) to the strange bone trees rising from the skeletons of alien behemoths, to the Lovecraftian demons that lurk under the soil, the Riddick universe was quickly established as wild and imaginative, yet strangely realistic.
The crowning moment of Pitch Black is not the awesome monsters, it’s a scene between Fry and Riddick in the warm glow of a waiting escape shuttle, debating whether to face the darkness and rescue the other survivors… or escape now and save their own necks.
It’s here that all the deft character work pays off. Fry’s motivation is clear; she feels guilty for her previous actions and wants to save the remaining crew, but needs Riddick’s animalistic fighting skills in order to survive the mission. But when Riddick has the opportunity to fly the ship away, he decides instead to debate Fry on the merits of heroism. There are lots of scenes like this at the ends of films and few of them feel realistic and justified. Why would the characters stop for a chat in the middle of all that mayhem?
The thing is, Riddick isn’t screwing with Fry just to be melodramatic, he’s testing her like a child testing boundaries. It’s here that Riddick’s backstory comes into play. Abandoned in a dumpster, raised in the prison system, hounded by immoral mercenaries masquerading as officers of the law, Riddick is pushing back against Fry’s moral outrage. He knows she almost jettisoned her entire crew, so why the change of heart? When he finally pushes her to the limit, making her admit she knows she will fail to save the crew but must try anyway, he utters a single word: “interesting.”
This is more than a cocky one-liner, it’s the first time Riddick has seen a true adult. In this moment, Pitch Black coalesces into a bloody, brutal coming-of-age story.
Of course he decides to help her, and the final line of the movie sums up his entire character arc. As the survivors fly off into space, someone asks Riddick what they will do if they are found by the authorities, who will want to arrest him.
He replies with a shrug, “tell them Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.”
I’ll kill you with my teacup.
Pitch Black did fairly well in theaters but incredibly well on DVD. This, coupled with Vin Diesel’s rising star power from a certain car racing franchise, paved the way for a very strange sequel.
But where do you go when at the end of the last film, your lead character changed from vicious badass to moral defender?
Twohy’s answer was to focus on the greater universe, taking his 105 million dollar budget (compared to Pitch Black’s 23 million) and showing the various planets and cultures surrounding the original story.
The result was a standalone adventure with strangely pluralized title The Chronicles of Riddick, a riotous, mildly-campy space romp that lacked the thematic focus of the original, but kept the fun dialog and fantastic production design.
Generally considered a flop, the film has its defenders (of which I am one). A great article from Little White Lies highlights the fact that in the three years between the two films, sci-fi audiences were subjected to terrible Star Wars prequels, a lame duck final Star Trek movie, Tim Burton’s infamous Planet of the Apes reboot, and Disney’s Treasure Planet. All of thse films culled from pre-established stories dating from 1977 all the way back to 1883. This alone makes Twohy’s brand new, diverse, original sci-fi world worthy of an audience. Despite unavoidable comparisons to the far better Pitch Black, taken on its own merits The Chronicles of Riddick is genuinely a good movie.
The opening sequence puts us in familiar territory: Riddick is on the run from mercenaries on a hostile planet. As he leaps across bottomless chasms that are threaded through maze-like ridges of rock, it’s clear that Twohy’s knack for world-building has returned for the sequel. The ships that chase Riddick have external harnesses holding armed men, fully exposed to the elements. This immediately tells us that these ships are not designed for space travel, indicating there must be a larger ship standing by in orbit. Simple details like this harken back to the glory days of Star Wars, when a single laser sword pulled from a basket in an old man’s hut created the sense of a greater universe far better than showing thousands of laser swords in every single shot.
Where Chronicles loses most people is with the Necromongers, a race of death-worshiping mystics that strut around in cumbersome armor and spout clunky dialog.
The Necromongers may be campy but they are also clever and unique to a sci-fi franchise, diving headlong into the supernatural. Their ship design is mesmerizing, enormous monoliths adorned with Mt. Rushmore-style faces that plunge from deep space and embed themselves deep into a planet’s crust.
The Necromonger mythology also works to subvert the usual blockbuster’s adherence to the Joseph Campbell monomyth. Riddick may be the so-called “chosen one”, but he is the chosen one for a sinister, world-devouring death cult, which works well for a hero who likes to drink human blood and chase it with peppermint schnapps.
This video has a lot more to say on the subject. It’s not only insightful, but it also has a puppet so you should watch it.
After setting up the Necromongers and the fact they want Riddick dead, the movie resets itself on the prison planet of Crematoria. It’s here where some of the film’s best moments take place, as Riddick befriends a super cool lizard cat, kills an inmate with a teacup, and literally outruns sunshine.
The entire Crematoria segment feels a bit forced within the entire scope of the story, but as a self-contained section it’s top notch adventure. I know this sounds like I’m making justifications for the movie… and I am. But it’s something that I think gets lost when deconstructing story. Sometimes a scene or moment or, hell, an entire storyline, can be out of place. It can compromise the integrity of the whole.
But if it’s fun, sometimes you just gotta say fuckit.
The film’s third act is filled with more pouty Necromonger monologues and weird-ass visuals, but boasts a game-changing twist: Riddick inadvertently becomes the leader of the Necromongers. It’s this final moment that might be the nail in the coffin for fans and critics alike, since it changes the main character from feral underdog to empire leader.
The Chronicles of Riddick is so vastly different from Pitch Black in scope and tone that it went the way of Weezer’s Pinkerton album. It was doomed to fail before it started, finding that sweet spot of hypocrisy with a voracious movie audience that clamors for something original yet often rejects new things.
Many critics missed the point, like Benjamin Strong’s review for the Village Voice which spent a whopping one paragraph dissecting the movie and the rest of its creative energy on a stupid pun for the title. Another somewhat embarrassing review from Salon used trendy, catch-all criticisms (such as accusing the film of confusing “MTV style” editing, which is nonsense), attacked Vin Diesel personally for his career choices that had nothing to do with the Riddick films, and blatantly missed the mark by claiming The Chronicles of Riddick re-hashed tropes from The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, when in fact the movie defies and deconstructs those tropes.
While it’s clear The Chronicles of Riddick lacked the narrative focus and thematic punch of the first film, it’s still a grand, clever adventure with more thrills than the average blockbuster.
Admittedly, this dude was a little weird.
Three down… you see where I’m going with this?
Nine years after The Chronicles of Riddick, Twohy got his third chance with the Riddick character. Whether it was the critical backlash of the previous film, or the smaller budget, he returned to the familiar Pitch Black set up of “crash and survive” but maintained the overall narrative thread from Chronicles.
Riddick is a great little flick that thrills and chills to varying degrees of success. Large sections border on brilliant, while others feel merely adequate. As per usual, the visuals are stunning and the dialog is snappy, and ultimately the film feels like a sort of apology for making the Riddick character too civilized.
The story begins after Riddick is betrayed, kicked out of the Necromonger clan, and left for dead in a barren wasteland of rock. The first third is almost a standalone short film. It follows Riddick as he fights off a pack of wild dogs, treats his wounds, encounters a new deadly space critter, and journeys out of the wasteland to the fertile fields beyond.
This journey literally takes him months of story time, and it’s rare to see a genre flick take so much time to set up its tale. Slow but never boring, it’s easily the best part of the film, and a credit to Vin Diesel’s acting skills and the VFX team that made his CGI canine companion a realistic, endearing character instead of a cutsie gimmick.
Riddick also goes a cool job of combining the deeper meaning of Pitch Black with the in-your-face pulpiness of Chronicles.
Early in the film we see a flashback of Riddick in his Necromonger glory days, sitting dejected on a throne while four naked concubines beckon him to their orgy. The once virile Riddick spares them the barest of glances before he resumes his brooding.
It’s not exactly subtle, but if this impotence metaphor wasn’t clear enough, a few scenes later Riddick encounters this film’s space creature, a yonic, sharp-toothed mouth mounted between two legs, counter-balanced by a long, fanged tail. Dependent on water to survive, the creature lurks in shallow pools, raising its poisonous tail out of the water to strike. The sexual metaphors continue as an impending rain storm threatens to loosen the soil and birth thousands of these monsters.
The action finally kicks off when Riddick discovers a mercenary way station and sets off a distress beacon.
Two sets of mercenaries descend on the location, and Twohy immediately delineates between the two teams, making one evil and the other good. While the narrative paints in some pretty broad strokes — the “bad” mercenaries kill an innocent woman for fun within ten minutes of landing, for example — this clear cut delineation allows for Riddick to slaughter enough people to attain the R-rating that fans wanted while keeping the “hero” part of his his anti-hero mantle. Love it or hate it, at least they acknowledged the character work from the previous films.
Despite a few repetitive moments (the movie boasts not one, not two, but three stand-off sequences, all in a row), the movie thrives on clever kills and the weird chemistry between Riddick and the lone female mercenary named Dahl (sound it out). Played by Katee Sackhoff, Dahl states early on that she’s a lesbian, yet reacts with mild interest whenever Riddick lays verbal claim to her body.
By the time Dahl straddles Riddick with a seductive smile, the message from Twohy and Diesel is loud and clear: Riddick got his balls back. That may lack the dramatic nuance of Pitch Black (and raise a few eyebrows about the tired male fantasy of converting lesbians), but it’s great to see a summer flick that isn’t totally steralized for mass audience appeal and a PG-13 rating.
The film’s final act is the very definition of mediocre (the classic definition of “in the middle”, not the recent, bizarre definition of “worst thing ever made according to this one guy on Twitter”). It depends far too much on Pitch Black‘s finale and loses sight of its thematic through line, but Riddick still boasts some deftly handled action and general badassery. It’s final moments may lack the dramatic heights of Pitch Black, but it still soars far above the recent batch of lackluster genre flicks.
Since its creation, the Riddick franchise has struggled for life. From the first film’s harsh indie production in the Australian outback, to the harsher critical backlash against the sequel, to the the financing troubles of this third picture, the trilogy is the ultimate cinematic underdog. Vin Diesel even went so far as to leverage his own house as collateral with the financing company for Riddick, making him effectively homeless if they failed to finish the movie.
It’s a special sort of story that incites that kind of moxy from its creators, and despite the franchise’s detractors, the films have had consistently lucrative box-office (despite popular opinion, The Chronicles of Riddick was not the financial disaster it was made out to be), proving it’s the audience that has the final say.
Over the course of three movies, Twohy and gang have created a clever, visceral science-fiction experience that’s unlike anything else out there. It ranges from inspired drama to bawdy escapism, but it does it all with flair and fine craftsmanship. It’s a franchise that should have been dead long ago, but keeps fighting for life, and with any luck our summers will be filled with many more flawed and fantastic Riddick adventures.
- the new Riddick (jayrout14.wordpress.com)
- Film Review- ‘Riddick’ (****) (filmfanperspective.wordpress.com)
- There’s a third Riddick game in development (destructoid.com)
- Vin Diesel Almost Leveraged His House For This (huffingtonpost.com)