It’s an Animal Thing: Why Riddick is a Franchise with Teeth

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.

MSDPIBL EC001
Everyone standing behind him … not so much.

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 to great visual 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 herself, it’s clear there’s more going on than the average adventure flick. When she’s thwarted by the other pilot and lands the ship safely, the character drama ratchets to intense levels as the survivors laud her with praise for saving their necks.

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.

PitchBlackCritterIt’s no George Lucas space pig, but it will do.

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 save their own necks.

It’s here that all the deft character work pays off. Fry’s motivation is clear; she needs Riddick’s animalistic fighting skills 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 dramatic, 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 will fail so save her crew but has to 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.

Pitch_Black_vin_dieselJust like the works of Judy Blume.

The final line sums up the entire character arc. As the survivors fly off into space, someone asks Riddick what they will do if they are found by mercenaries. Riddick 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 well in theaters and incredibly well on DVD. This, coupled with Vin Diesel’s rising star power, paved the way for the sequel.

But where do you go when your lead character has 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, collectively culling from pre-established stories dating from 1977 to 1883. This alone makes Twohy’s diverse, original sci-fi world worthy of an audience, but 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 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, tell us that the ship is not designed for space travel, indicating there must be a larger ship standing by. Simple details like this harken back to the glory days of Star Wars, when a simple laser sword pulled from a basket created a 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.

NecroSo, how do I look … why are you laughing?

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 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.

Riddick_hellhound_Kitty!

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.

The film’s third act is filled with more pouty Necromonger monologues and weird-ass visuals, but boasts a clever and 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), 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.

Lenser

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 or smaller budget, he returned to the familiar Pitch Black set up of “crash and survive” though maintained the narrative thread from Chronicles.

Currently in theaters, 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 the overall  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. Almost a standalone film, the first third follows Riddick as he fights off a pack of wild dogs, treats his wounds, encounters a new deadly space critter, and finds a way to defeat it and journey out of the wasteland to the fertile fields beyond.

This journey takes months 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, enduring character instead of a cutsie gimmick.

riddick-3-concept-art-01It’s kind of like Old Yeller in space (spoiler).

It’s during this section where 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.

If this impotence metaphor wasn’t clear enough, a few scenes later Riddick encounters this film’s space creature, a 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 wicked, poisonous tail out of the water to strike. The sexual metaphors continue as an impending rain storm threatens to loosen the soil and release thousands of these monsters.

Riddick-monster2It’s like Jurassic Park, but with penises instead of velociraptors.

The main story 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 wisely 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.

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 stares with mild interest whenever Riddick lays verbal claim to her body.

riddick_katee_sackhoff_vin_dieselPure chemistry.

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 white-washed for mass audience appeal and a PG-13 rating.

While the film’s third 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”), depending far too much on Pitch Black‘s finale and losing sight of its thematic through line, 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.

riddick BIKE-14Richard B. Riddick
(Baldius Heroeclyes)

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 fanbase that has the final say.

Over the course of three movies, Twohy has 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 more flawed and fantastic Riddick adventures.

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11 thoughts on “It’s an Animal Thing: Why Riddick is a Franchise with Teeth

  1. When they get to Fast & Furious 9, I\’m hoping they do a crsoosver movie. After installing some experimental NOS in his car, Vin Diesel breaks the space/time barrier and ends up on a distant planet where he meets someone who bears a striking resemblence. Vin Diesel and Vin Diesel star in Fast & Furious 9/Chronicles of Riddick 4. This of course will pave the way for the ultimate sequel which I\’m calling F&F X/CoR V/XXX III.

  2. Pingback: Length Matters: A Response to Total Film’s “Fifty Movies That are Longer Than They Should Be” | medium cowboy

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