12 September 2013

BACK IN BLACK

I sincerely doubt that Riddick counts as "long-awaited" - in order to await something, you have to assume that there's a real possibility that it's probably going to exist, and I don't see how even the most devoted fan of the Riddick films could have imagined that during the back half of the '00s - so let us instead call it a "long-delayed" third film in the Chronicles of Riddick series (Trilogy? But if this film could come out after nine years, and be cheap enough that turning a profit is a mathematic near-certainty, is there any plausible reason to cut it off at just three?). And let us further say that this long-delayed third film is, to all intents and purposes, a remake of the first film, 2000's Pitch Black, differentiated from that film largely in that it has to devote a considerable part of the first act to walking back from the second film, 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick, in order to get the setting back to someplace reasonably contained and simple after the sprawling mythology and political wrangling that made that movie such a grand epic, if you are a member of its enthusiastic fanbase, or such an incoherent slurry of fantasy tropes, if you are normal.

This is a good thing, I mean to say, even though "this sequel feels, at times, like a beat-for-beat retread of its successor!" is virtually never meant to be a statement of praise. Certainly, Riddick isn't going to replace anybody's memories of Pitch Black, though the narrative emphases and character dynamics are different enough - violently so in the latter case - to make the new film its own thing, and not just a retrenchment to the safe and familiar. Part of me hoped that, given how the first two movies were examples two entirely different and essentially incompatible subgenres of science fiction, linked only in that they centered on the same character, that Riddick would go equally as far from both of them, but the results are probably better this way.

Some time after The Chronicles of Riddick - ten years after Pitch Black and so, presumably, five years after the first sequel, but that doesn't seem at all plausible based on what we see - Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel, for whom we can safely call this a passion project, the thing he wanted to do with all his Fast and Furious clout) has gone from being Lord Marshal of the Necromongers, the race/religion of death cultists, to weather-wracked survivalist trapped on a savage desert planet by the machinations of his treacherous second-in-command, Lord Vaako (Karl Urban, reprising the role in a flashback cameo). The film's first act is, in its way, the boldest part of the whole: virtually dialogue-free, postponing any narrative context as long as it possibly can, just following Riddick as he scrambles through a desert environment, evading the planet's remarkably savage bestiary of striped, doglike predators, and a giant scorpion-shaped beast living in a brackish pool that straddles the only path from the desolate mountains where Riddick finds himself and the relatively lush plains below. It's a perfectly involving one-man show let down only somewhat by shaky CGI and intrusive editing (but then, intrusive editing is a hallmark of the franchise), and it captures for the first time in any of these films the idea that nominally underpins all of them: that Riddick is basically an animal himself, savage and merciless and deeply, darkly cunning.

A long while later, Riddick has managed to thrive somewhat on this planet (having raised a pet alien dog, in a deeply useless waste of screen time), when a storm begins to roll in - the first he has seen since being stranded. And something he sees in it with his augmented vision freaks him out enough that he goes to a way station left on the planet for the use of bounty hunters, triggers an emergency beacon, and brings down two different teams of mercenaries to his location, one group a bit rundown, led by the unhinged Santana (Jordi Mollà), the other far more well-equipped and polished, led by a man whose name is delayed for long enough that it qualifies as a surprise, so we'll stick with the nickname Santana gives him, Too Late (Matt Nable). Riddick disappears for a stretch, as these men and their followers - eleven all told, though only Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), the sole female, Diaz (Dave Bautista), and absurdly innocent newbie Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk) end up having a specific enough purpose that it's worth naming them - bumble around attempting to figure out what's going on, as the shadowy, unseen Riddick effortlessly outwits all of them. Eventually, he makes himself known, and suggests that capturing him isn't nearly as important as getting off-planet before the huge storm barreling down hits the mercenaries' camp in about 24 hours. He doesn't explain why, but it's clear from his bearing that whatever is coming with that storm, it's deadly and hard to stop. Spoiler alert: beasties.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest problem with Riddick - more than the simple fact that it's content to retread Pitch Black in so many ways - is that huge gap in the middle where Riddick himself is just a shadowy threat to the bounty hunters. It's meant to mimic the first third of the earlier movie, I suppose, but there are two key differences between Riddick and Pitch Black, in that regard, one of which is that Pitch Black was able to play coy about its characters - arguably, until the final five minutes of the movie, Riddick wasn't even the protagonist, and he could be an unseen danger in a way that too much domestication as a character over two movies leave it impossible for him to become now. Anyway, the opening act already told us that he was to be the main character, even aside from the other films in the series, and it's a sign of storytelling bad faith to dump him like that. The other difference is that, while Pitch Black had largely sympathetic (if ill-written and poorly-acted) characters in its ensemble, Riddick lacks a single figure worth rooting for outside of the title character, and the worst acting, across-the-board, in the franchise to date; the more time we spend with these people than with the smirking, cocksure Riddick, the less interesting the film becomes.

Happily, the film regains its footing in a pretty terrifically-executed, if generic, final sequence, in which the bounty hunters and Riddick are barricaded against an army of monster, and once again Twohy and cinematographer David Eggby (returning from Pitch Black, after sitting The Chronicles of Riddick out) get great mileage out of darkness and half-seen objects therein; it's less successful than the first movie only insofar as it feels less earned by a weaker script. But aesthetically, at least, the movie never really misses a trick: the parched daylight scenes on the planet work, the effects work better, relative to the budget, than in the last movie, and once again, Twohy manages the fine trick of implying without stating, building a world out of half-expressed details instead of stating everything for us in hectoring, expository detail. Like the notion that bounty hunters have some kind of overseeing agency that populates the galaxy with supply depots on planets where bounty might need to be hunt; it's contrived, sort of, but it's also rather imaginative and speaks to a deeper world than the one the film needed. Sure, Riddick is a rehashed gimmick that has been done better, but that's not to say that in this particular case, it's not being re-done with care and consideration, and that's enough to make it feel sturdier than a quick inventory of its merits would lead you to expect.

6/10

Reviews in this series
Pitch Black (Twohy, 2000)
The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy, 2004)
Riddick (Twohy, 2013)

2 comments:

Jeremy said...

This was much better than Chronicles of Riddick, and honestly, that's all I wanted. Faint praise I know, but there it is. Embrace your sci-fi B-movie roots, Riddick.

David Greenwood said...

Why on earth would Twohy and Diesel bother with this? Pitch Black was a fine movie to begin with. If Chronicles was a misstep, then just pretend it never happened. Hell put a cheeky disclaimer on the front and say "Remember Highlander II: The Quickening? Yeah, our part two was sorta like that. Moving on...". I can't think of any reason I would want to see a lesser retread of a film that hasn't aged very badly, and honestly isn't even that freakin' old! It's like that remake of The Thing that came out a year or two ago. I just... I don't even.