“Survival is his Revenge”*
Directed by David Twohy
Starring Vin Diesel and Katee Sackhoff
First, there was Pitch Black, an ambitious little indy scifi film with scary monsters facing off against a human in the dark, with the implication that this human was more scary, more monstrous, than they were. It featured intriguing concepts and conflicts, and launched the careers of David Twohy and Vin Diesel into the big leagues.
And then came Chronicles of Riddick, in which our monstrous deuteragonist became Space Conan and anyone else who survived the first movie got killed off.
With Chronicles’ less than stellar performance, the third movie in the franchise – simply entitled Riddick – went back to basics. Injured and abandoned by the Necromongers on a desert planet (yay destiny!), Riddick battles his way past mud scorpions and hyaena-jackals to a merc station, from which he hopes to steal a ship belonging to one of the crews who will try to claim the bounty on his head.
Enter Santana (Jordi Molla) and his merry crew of psychopaths and rapists, and a second, more professional crew including Dahl (Sackhoff), token tough gal. Riddick plays cat and mouse to try to force the two crews to leave a ship for him, then gets captured, then teams up with the surviving mercs to escape from a trap which he created and then complicated by a procession of dumb-fuck double-crosses by Santana’s crew.
What’s wrong with it?
Pitch Black had three female characters, and all of them were interesting, strong in their way, and flawed. So were the male characters, even Riddick, who ultimately found that even his invincible stone-cold facade was eventually shattered by the courage that Carolyn Fry (who was the hero of the film, rather than Riddick, before he became the franchise) found throughout the course of the story.
Riddick worked in the first movie because of his relationships with Fry and Jack. In the third movie, he’s mostly working off a CGI dog (although the early scenes with no-one else are actually some of the better ones). He also worked because as powerful and apparently necessary as he was, he wasn’t the hero. The hero was the woman who seemed least likely to fill that role, who started out a coward and grew into someone who would die for others. It was epic.
And that brings us back to female characters. Pitch Black had three solid female roles; Riddick has two female characters, both of them awful.
The first one is a female prisoner, implied to have been repeatedly raped by Santana and his crew, and then murdered after about five lines of dialogue as a means of proving that the really bad guys are worse than any of the other psychopaths in the film. She is never even given a name, but dies within five feet of Riddick as if she is supposed to have an emotional impact equivalent to that of Carolyn Fry.
The second is Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who is tough. And that’s about it. She gets to punch the rapist guy a few times to prove it, and shoot Riddick with tranquilisers. At worst, she’s a lesbian who turns straight for Riddick ’cause he’s just that manly; at best, she’s an asexual loon who is turned on by extreme psychopathy. I tend towards the latter interpretation, but it’s still not very good.
The male characters are not much better, consisting of a number of essentially indistinguishable support roles – I straight up can not remember which if any of these disposable stereotypes survives – and Santana, whose sole purpose seems to be to cross the morality event horizon so often that it makes you think that Riddick isn’t so bad really, and when you’re supposed to support the protagonist because they just kill people, maim, sexually harass and spy on women in the shower, rather than gratuitously murdering dogs or attempting actual rape, it’s a poor showing.
What’s right with it?
The film is technically impressive, and there is some meat to the early survival sections of the narrative; at least once they’re done with completely ditching the second film.
Diesel turns in a decent performance, but Matthew Nable wins out in the acting stakes, bringing a weighty dignity to the role of Boss Johns which is frankly more than the material deserves. The film also gets points for its resolution which, although somewhat signposted, does run against the obvious prediction.
How bad is it really?
For most of its length, when it’s not being a soul-sucking offense to good taste with its poor female characters, explicit ‘banter’ and gratuitous violence, the film is just kind of humdrum. A bunch of people die nastily, but we don’t care enough for it to have any impact.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Alone on the desert world, Riddick tames a hyaena-jackal to experiment with innoculating against the scorpion venom, slowly building a rapport with the animal. It may just be the best bit because it doesn’t have any of the desperately poor dialogue.
What’s up with…?
- The proliferation of Deathworlds in this galaxy? If God created Arrakis to test the faithful, he must have created this corner of the universe to seriously fuck off the doubting.
- Santana’s prisoner? Did we really need that to convince us that Santana was a bad-un? For a moment I thought she might be some sort of bad ass who would team up with Riddick and provide the movie’s counterpoint to his growling cynicism, but it turned out that they had neither plans for her nor any feeling that there needed to be a counterpoint.
Production values – David Twohy is a little too fond of using filters to break his films into ‘zones’, either of time or of space. In this instance, burning orange for the desert and blue-black beneath the storm. Other than that, however, the production is pretty top notch, with hero-jackal having at least as much personality as some of the humans in the film. 6
Dialogue and performances – The bulk of the performances in the film are pretty terrible, with a special note for Katee Sackhoff, whose approach to playing a violent psychopath is just to grin lopsidedly at everything as though it was super funny. In defence of the players, however, there really isn’t much to be done with the material, which is mostly just technobabble or horrible, gut-churning innuendo and single entendre. 17
Plot and execution – The plot of Riddick is impressive, because it is as simple as Pitch Black‘s, and yet somehow is still mangled all to hell as though it were too complex for its running time. 16
Randomness – The film is, for the most part, internally consistent. However, where it fails is in aligning with the preceeding chapters, ignoring Riddick’s redemption/rebirth story from the first film and deliberately undoing the destiny/transcendence bit from the second (although the extended version shows that this film was merely an interlude before going back to the Necromongers and the Underverse.
Waste of potential – Pitch Black was an excellent film; a scifi horror action movie that hit all its cues and even passes the Bechdel test. How the same team go from that to this offensive pile of crap I do not know. 19
* Actually, revenge is pretty much his revenge.