11 September 2013

FULL OF SOUND AND FURYAN, SIGNIFYING NOTHING

The chief appeal of Pitch Black, easily, is that its concept is so sparse: thuggish dude sees in the dark, monsters live in the dark, dude kills monsters. It's not high art, but it gets the job done well, and the movie's simplicity formed a good canvas for David Twohy to lightly scratch in the implication of a busier universe than the one we saw in that film, which was mostly concerned with running, screaming, dying, and some damn pretty lighting.

Simplicity, alas has not been the watchword of geek-friendly genre filmmaking in the 21st Century, so when the time came for Twohy to make the somewhat-undemanded sequel to his snarling little sci-fi/horror/action treat, he doubled-down on the world-building and the sprawling narrative and ponderous scope, and thus humanity was blessed to receive, in 2004, The Chronicles of Riddick, surely one of the most off-kilter sequels that ever was. Heck, that's already clear from the title: the word "chronicle" has a certain implication to the English-speaker's ear that indicates a certain solemnity and historicity, and possibly medievalism: Holinshed's Chronicles, The Chronicles of Narnia. That's not the word's fault, mind you, and The Chronicles of Riddick is, in fact, denotatively accurate: it is a new chapter in the life of Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), now revealed to be the defining character in a series of stories

The surprise, though, is that it's connotatively accurate as well: that the sequel to a grubby but wholly effective Alien knock-off should, in fact, have the epic scale, the fascination with empires and armies, and even the sword-and-sorcery fantasy embellishments that "chronicles" suggests. And just in case any viewer might doubt that, the film's very first shot immediately wipes out any possibility that this will be a tonally contiguous sequel: it's a sweeping helicopter shot (that is, it would be a helicopter shot, if the whole thing wasn't CGI) that swooshes 270° around a skyscraper-sized statue with three faces glowering balefully at a vast sci-fi city, as Dame Judi Dench (whose presence is the absolute strangest part of a movie almost completely made out of strangeness) explains the film's backstory using such words as "Underverse" and "Necromongers", and other things that sound like a feeble attempt to make homebrew D&D. The other thing we've already learned is that The Chronicles of Riddick had enough of a budget to afford lots of digital effects, but not enough of a budget for those effects to be very good; or perhaps it's merely that "good enough" in 2004 is no longer remotely good enough. Either way, where Pitch Black had to be judicious enough with its effects that only the creatures look particular dated after a decade and change, The Chronicles of Riddick looks frequently cheap and junky, except for some landscape shots that are sufficiently unreal in conception and execution that they look somewhat like a matte painting, in a way that benefits the movie's overall sense of fantastic abstraction.

Indeed, if I wanted to come up with one single diagnosis for everything that goes off the rails with The Chronicles of Riddick, it's that Twohy had too much freedom to chase too many notions into too many blind alleys. The defining characteristic of his directing style in Pitch Black - total commitment and enthusiasm for the genre he was working in - remains firmly intact, but enthusiasm only goes so far, and in this case that's not nearly far enough. Basically, Pitch Black boasts a scenario (monsters, dark, body count) that is perfectly tuned to disguise all of Twohy's shortcomings as writer and director, and Diesel's as action star; The Chronicles of Riddick, in turn, is perfectly tuned to accentuate all those same shortcomings. In the circumscribed world of the first film, crappy dialogue being mouthed by one-dimensional characters barely registers, since we know they're only there to be killed. With its emphasis on political and military intrigues and a complex narrative universe that demands comparison to classic sci-fi on the sprawling scale of Dune or the work of Isaac Asimov, The Chronicles of Riddick absolutely cannot survive the same kind of cardboard figures, but that's all Twohy has to offer; and so we see the ridiculous, dispiriting spectacle of gifted actors like Dench and Thandie Newton trying to find their way around hokey, overbaked pulp dialogue, and looking hopelessly lost while they're doing it (Newton, in particular, appears genuinely terrified most of the time). At the same time, the one thing that Diesel does absolutely perfectly as an actor, sarcastic superiority and bored contempt for his opponents, has been almost entirely written out of Riddick's character this time, in favor of an awestruck Chosen One narrative that Diesel is thoroughly ill-suited to play.

Still, you can't fault the thing for ambition. The plot is complicated as hell, complicated enough that I'm happiest not bothering to parse it out too much, but basically Riddick, years after the events on that desert planet, once again has a bounty on his head, and in an attempt to kill whoever put it there, ends up on the planet New Mecca, which made a lot more sense in the last film, where "futuristic Islam" was a sane concept, but less so in this film, with its outright fantasy world spiritual systems. After a largely trivial appearance by Keith David's imam from Pitch Black, Riddick ends up on the bad side of the Necromongers, an imperialistic death-cult led by the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), with the armies generally under the charge of Commander Vaako (Karl Urban, giving far and away the most stable and effective performance in the movie) and his wife (Newton). Riddick, in due course, is revealed to be the Last Son of Furya, and sent to the prison planet Crematoria, and once he escapes, he heads to the capital ship to defeat the Lord Marshal and rescue his old friend, Kyra (Alexa Davalos), who spent Pitch Black pretending to be a boy named Jack.

That's the massively streamlined version of a story that makes absolutely no sense in its theatrical cut and still feels awfully messy in Twohy's director's cut, which adds mostly to Riddick's backstory, the worst part of the film to start with: it blunts the alleged "fight evil with evil" motif of the franchise and ends up making Riddick seem so cuddly that he's not even an anti-hero anymore, just a straight-up hero. Frankly, the whole thing is nonsensical, united only by its urgent sense of being Grandiose and Epic, and the best part, not coincidentally, is the prison sequence, the least epic part of the movie, and the only part that primarily rests on Diesel being a laconic bad-ass (it also neatly inverts Pitch Black: instead of the horrifying onrush of night, the setpiece here is about the deadly arrival of sunlight and the several-hundred degree air temperatures it brings). The whole thing turning into a "fight the evil empire" adventure would almost work if the Lord Marshal was any kind of credible villain, but he's established so vaguely - and played by Feore even more vaguely still, hardly leaving a ripple as he sinks from consciousness - that the conflict never feels like it's between Riddick anything more specific than "not-Riddick".

Basically, the only thing that works here is the setting, a loopy collection of impressively pulpish locations by production designer Holger Gross that feel like an extremely old kind of science-fiction, more like the dreamworlds of Lord Dunsany than anything taking its marching orders from Star Wars. I would not remotely go so far as to say that the film's design redeems it from its terrible writing and the general confusion in the rest of the visuals and editing; but whereas most of the film is hokey and dumb, the production design is hokey and charming, and that's enough to keep the film barely worth looking at, even when the plot happening on the sets is inexplicable and tedious.

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

5 comments:

Rick Rische said...

I saw this with a friend and, after it was over, we looked at each other and I said "well the sound design was nice."

Chris Johnson said...

This is one of those movies I keep returning to, every time thinking, "surely it's going to be more enjoyable this time".

And...it is! :)

Look, the movie's basically Conan...InnnnnSpaaaaace! I mean, right down to the last shot, with Riddick on the throne. You can almost hear Mako: "but that's another story".

I would love to see that story. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we're going to the Underverse in "Riddick". But at least there's Katee Sackhof.

Chris Johnson said...

Oh, this is Fr. Chris, btw. I decided that "Pipe Dream" (a monicker chosen years ago, much earlier in my misspent life) was no longer viable.

:)

Tim said...

Rick- That pretty much says it all.

Chris- "Conan in Space" is perfect. Throughout the whole review, I kept trying to avoid comparing it to John Carter; the takeaway here, I think, is that Twohy had early 20th Century action heroes on his mind, and I wonder why the film didn't commit more to that as an aesthetic choice.

Zeno101 said...

First off, I cannot agree more on the "escaping prison before sunrise" as being the best part of the movie. Though I still have a soft spot for all the other stuff, because to be honest, I am a sucker for anything involving science fantasy and Kieth David. Hence, my love for "Gargoyles".

Now, speaking of Vin Diesel, I know it is not in line with your current aims, but one day I would be thrilled if you would review "Find Me Guilty". Diesel's performance is fascinating, and it's a Lumet film to boot.