Man vs. Empire: The Chronicles of Riddick


Detour: The Chronicles of Riddick

The Chronicles of Riddick is, of course, yet another detour off our roadmap of the Top 50 Science Fiction Films of All Time.  Still, it’s quite a bit of fun…

2004

Director:  David Twohy

Cast:  Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Thandie Newton, Judi Dench, Karl Urban, Alexa Davalos, Linus Roache, Nick Chinlund, Keith David

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, a hot white star).  As action movies go, this one has a lot going for it.  As science fiction movies go, it’s a little weak.  But it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the action never stops, and some of the performers are better than merely good, which makes up for a relatively silly story.

Introduction

Okay, so you’ve got Vin Diesel, somewhere between $105 and $120 million dollars, and an idea for an epic science fiction story set in the same universe as the sleeper science fiction horror hit Pitch Black featuring the anti-hero from that movie.  Just for kicks, throw in some amazing actors with substantial theater chops like the incomparable Dame Judi Dench and the superlative Colm Feore, as well as fan favorites Karl Urban, Thandie Newton, and Keith David.

How could this possibly go wrong?

Go wrong it does, and it’s a gloriously stupid action film which makes the most of its settings from a visual perspective and ignores their potential for a thoughtful film.  It’s big, dumb, and violent, a celebration of man’s viciousness and his (and her) killer instincts, but it’s also a fun ride, and I enjoyed the movie.

It didn’t do so well at the box office, mind you.  It grossed about $57 million domestically, and given its costs, that isn’t good.  When the world-wide take is added in, it may have been a break-even sort of thing, but the DVD sales for the movie have been good—so good, in fact, that Twohy and Diesel are hot to make a sequel, and the film has spawned a game and an animated direct-to-DVD film.  On the other hand, critical response was almost uniformly negative.

As I mentioned in the side bar when I first decided to review this film, I consider it something of a must-see for science fiction fans, and I was stunned to learn that one of the Wretched Excess Crew hadn’t seen the movie.  It was Mark, in case you were wondering, who has a penchant for horror movies, better taste in movies than I’ll ever have, and a discerning, critical eye.  I was honestly expecting him to be partially stunned and partially enthralled, and that didn’t quite work out—he felt like it wasn’t dumb enough.  That reinforces my perception that this is a movie without any real redeeming features once you get past the action and the visuals.

I should mention that I watched and am reviewing the director’s cut, one of three versions of the film.  The director’s cut includes Riddick‘s visions of Furya, his homeworld, and a slightly different ending, as well as some moments with a female bounty hunter, which are not present in the theatrical or television releases (though the television release does have footage not included in the theatrical release).

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  A brutal culture of conquerors, the Necromongers, believe that they are destined to reach and live in the Underverse, “a constellation of dark new worlds,” and a place where, in the Necromonger religion—and perhaps in reality—death has no meaning.  The armies and armada of the Necromongers reach Helion Prime, a world which shares its sunlight with a cluster of other worlds in the system (no, I’m not sure what that means, either, and I’ve seen the movie—it seems to be more than an acknowledgement that the planets of the Helion system share the same sun), where one of the Elementals, a culture of calculating foreseers with either enhanced abilities or undetectable technology decide to intervene in the conflict to save themselves, since they believe that their world is next on the Necromonger assault plan.

That intervention takes the form of hiring a bounty hunter to capture Riddick, the last of the Furyans, and the person that the Elemental Aereon believes will be the one to kill the Lord Marshal and end the Necromonger threat.  The sprawling plot begins with Riddick’s capture of the bounty hunter Toombs and theft of his ship, and then proceeds to Helion, then to Crematoria, and finally back to Helion for a climactic finish.  Along the way we meet Lord Vaako, a Necromonger who longs for advancement and who is manipulated by his equally ambitious wife, as well as Kira, a girl who looked up to Riddick like a brother after their experiences in the previous film Pitch Black.  We also hear a bit of the backstory, learning that the current Lord Marshal led a brutal assault on Furya, attempting to kill each male Furyan, because a seer had prophesized that the Lord Marshal would be killed by a Furyan.

Impressions

Visually, there’s little like this movie in the annals of science fiction—and yet, at the same time, the gothic and overly-ornamented style of the film does call to mind both the Di Laurentis-Lynch Dune film and the SyFy Channel’s miniseries of the same name—though I might have called those films baroque as opposed to gothic.  The dark metal buildings are decorated with ornate statues, and everywhere you look, there’s another surprising aspect to the buildings, the ships, the costuming—most of it centered on the Necromonger craft and armor.  That said, the planets each have their own style as well, from the somewhat austere forms of the Helion cities to the frozen wastes of B.V.6 to the alternately frozen and then burning landscape of Crematoria.  It’s obvious that they spent a lot of money trying to get the look of the film right, and they succeeded admirably.  It’s a gorgeous film.

The effects are, in general, pretty good, and they’re woven into the film seamlessly.  Almost every “wow” moment feels like it belongs there, and wasn’t just put there to look good or impressive—though the story was clearly distorted to fit those things in, a point I’ll return to later in the review.  About the only failure anywhere in the effects category comes on the prison world of Crematoria, where there are some prison dog-things, or possibly tiger-things, which look very, very fake.  I found the shimmer in the air under moving ships interesting, and truly enjoyed the sunrise on Crematoria and the visualization of the soul which shows up near the beginning and the end of the film.

The music is probably supposed to sound inspiring, and it has a certain sweeping grandeur, but it also has a been-there-done-that aspect to it; it’s just another orchestral science fiction theme, as it were, and not one by John Williams.  It is dark, and it does convey a martial tone, though, so it gets the job done without being particularly memorable.

Before I address the performances, it’s probably necessary that I mention the dialogue.  Frankly, it’s terrible.  Consider this one:

Dame Vaako:     I’ve always wondered, can an air Elemental fly? Now do me a favor. Calculate the odds of you getting off this planet alive… and now cut them in half.
Aereon:  No, we can’t fly. But we do glide very well.

Or this:

Riddick:  You said it’s all circling the drain, the whole universe. Right?
Imam:  That’s right.
Riddick:  Had to end sometime.

Or this:

Riddick:  Been a long time since I smelled beautiful.

So…you might be getting the impression that I’m not impressed by the script and the dialogue.  You’re right, and that has an impact on the performers—it’s tough for an actor to sell drivel like this.  And as a result, only Judi Dench’s character Aereon really shines, though to be fair Dench’s should-be-patented no-nonsense clipped delivery—oh so very upper crust British, thank you very much—works perfectly with her character.  But as for the rest of the performers…well, they do the best they can with what they’ve got, with few standouts in the group.

Colm Feore doesn’t have much to work with, and that’s a shame, because he’s a very good actor and you don’t get to see his true potential in this movie.  Alexa Davalos does a remarkably good job—she gets to be mad at, and simultaneously hero-worship, Riddick, and she delivers one of the film’s few really solid performances.  Karl Urban turns in a nice performance, though his character, a sort of cut-rate Lord MacBeth, is not very well-drawn.  Thandie Newton, a beautiful woman who normally does a great job with her roles, struggles here in the part of the conniving, scheming Dame Vaako, at some points doing a creditable job and at others failing to deliver a convincing performance.  Finally, the hapless Toombs is portrayed by Nick Chinlund with a wry aplomb.  Strangely, he and Diesel exhibit a comfortableness with one another which comes through loud and clear on the screen, in spite of the fact that they’re enemies—it feels almost like they’re frenemies instead, or that under different circumstances they would get along quite well.

That just leaves Vin Diesel to consider.  The Riddick character is a cold-blooded killer who’s been chased around the universe and who always puts himself first.  That’s not much of a character, from an actor’s perspective.  He’s quick with a quip or a wry comment, and the character is rather intelligent—manipulating bounty hunters, for example, to get what he wants—as well as arrogant.  Diesel pulls off the intelligent and arrogant parts without much trouble, but doesn’t really come off as a cold-blooded killer who cares only about himself, which is not entirely his fault—Riddick is more properly an antihero than he is genuinely evil, at least in this film.  Diesel shines in the action sequences, and while a good portion of the movie calls for ridiculously superhuman performance from the Riddick character, Diesel makes you feel like that’s just the kind of stuff Riddick does all the time.

The film opens with an interesting premise, that the Necromongers are a race of evil conquerors, and that sometimes, in order to fight evil, you need “a different kind of evil”—that evil, of course, being the killer Riddick.  Riddick’s actions in the movie, however, are far from evil, especially when compared to those in the predecessor film Pitch Black.  We only see Riddick kill when he needs to defend himself or others, and not even for the sake of vengeance.  The primary motivation for him to journey to Helion Prime in the first place is to get a bounty taken off his head, and he leaves that world to ride to the rescue of Jack/Kira, one of the survivors from Pitch Black who engaged in hero worship of Riddick, and who is imprisoned on Crematoria.  He leaves Crematoria and goes back to Helion Prime, coincidentally bringing down the Necromonger Lord Marshal, to save Kira once again.  In other words, he’s not very evil.

I have called the movie a big dumb action movie, but that’s not entirely fair.  There’s a lot going on in the film.  You have the Necromongers on their quest to the Underverse, killing or converting all who stand in their way.  You have Aereon of the Elementals, who finds a way to aim Riddick squarely at the Necromongers, and who may be aware of the various connections Riddick has with the other players (she certainly knows that he’s one of the few remaining Furyans).  Riddick himself turns out to be quite the manipulator, basically conning the bounty hunter Toombs into taking him exactly where he wants to go.  Then there’s the ambitious Lord Vaako, who wants to be the next Lord Marshal, and his wife Dame Vaako, who isn’t above shoving the current Lord Marshal out of the way.  The only people in the film who are exactly what they appear to be and lack significant ulterior motives or craftiness are the other survivors of Pitch Black, Imam and Jack/Kyra.

I suspect it’s actually hard to keep track of everything that’s going on, as intense as the action tends to get, and realize that there’s a method to all of the ongoing madness, on the first viewing.

Thematically, it’s possible to load this movie up with all sorts of interpretations.  Are the Necromongers a corrupt version of the Catholic Church (possibly leading a crusade against the Muslims, a conclusion bolstered by the name of the character Imam)?  Is Riddick a Christ-figure, who comes back from the dead to take his place at the head of that church?  Is the message of the movie that it takes evil to destroy evil?  Or perhaps that in battling evil, we are doomed to become it?

I don’t feel like any of that’s actually in there.  I think that a good 90% of the film is there because it looked or sounded cool to the people who put it there.  Don’t get me wrong—film is a visual and auditory art form, and it can be character driven, so doing things because they look or sound cool or neat can be a good thing in movies.  The problem here is that the script and the story seem to have taken a back seat to the wow factor, and that distorted the picture.  There were things that simply didn’t need to be in the movie, or obscured the plotlines, but were probably in the movie for the look of the thing.  Some of those things were simply silly (death by teacup, for example).  To put it another way, “cool” is all very well and good when it flows naturally from the story, and not as valuable when it takes precedence over the story.

The other major problem with the film is its lack of emotional depth.  The protagonist, Riddick, doesn’t really care about stopping the Necromongers.  He does care about saving Jack/Kyra, but that really seems to be the only thing he cares about, and as an emotional hook, it shows up fairly late—the Necromongers have already landed on Helion Prime, and Aereon’s schemes (presumably assisted by the rulers of Helion Prime and by Imam, since they seem to be in the mess up to their eyebrows) have already drawn Riddick there before we learn of it.  The viewer’s major reason to care about Helion Prime at all—Imam, a man who loves his family, treats Riddick well and warmly, and reminds him of Jack’s existence—is killed off about thirty minutes into the film.  It’s as if the script goes out of its way to create emotional distance between the film and the viewer.

I will touch briefly on the science in this science fiction epic.  There is none.  There’s not even an attempt to put in the science, or even to make any of this seem believable.

Wrap-up

From the foregoing section, you might think I hated this movie, and yet I gave it a Class F rating.  Well, the fact of the matter is that in spite of all its flaws, I like this movie.  It’s fun.  It’s not deep, and it’s not symbolic, and you probably won’t form an intense emotional attachment to the events on-screen.  But the action is virtually non-stop, Vin Diesel seems to be a very likeable sort of guy, and the underlying universe, with its Necromongers and Elementals and Furyans and “holy half dead” and Underverses and whatnot, is interesting.  It’s a violent, brutal place full of schemers, mind you, and I’d hate to live there, but it’s an amazing place to watch.  At the end of the day, that’s what makes for a fun movie.

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One Response to “Man vs. Empire: The Chronicles of Riddick”

  1. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. First, thanks for the compliment. I will endeavor to live up to it.

    Anyway. Riddick. Riddick, Riddick, Riddick… I think my real problem with the movie, in retrospect, is that I wanted the script to be as over-the-top as the visuals. Given that, I might have loved it. But there’s too much icy-veined bad-assery and not enough “He’s the Holy Half-Dead who has seen the Underverse and returned with powers you can’t imagine.” Too much brooding and not enough “You shoulda taken the money, Toombs.” In other words, if this film had been directed by John Carpenter in 1985, it might be one of my life-long favorites. As it is, I think it’s only half-successful, and maybe not in the way the filmmakers intended.

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