Something that I should make abundantly clear, I don’t consider myself a critic. For the most part, I will give a movie every chance and if I enjoy the ride I can let a great deal slide. I tend to roll with a lot of punches as long as I am entertained. This is also applicable to my feeling about sequels, I love them. Sequels, to me always feel like an opportunity to know what happened after the curtain comes down and lights go up. Where did they go? How did they change? Was it happily ever after and if the previous didn’t have a happy ending, will the Phoenix rise? A critic’s job is to critique with a scrutinizing eye; I spend enough of my day scrutinizing already. If I see something I take issue with there’s nothing I can do about that, it’s a shot across the bow, however I would hardly say I go hunting for it. The whole idea of critiquing I often find antithetical to the experience and akin to going on Space Mountain trying to find flaws. That being said... Riddick
What Was I Watching?
The stealthy space-criminal ninja (who can see in the dark) returns once again to have it out with another batch of planet jumping mercenaries and vicious “fly by night” aliens. The unexpected by-product and anti hero, Richard B. Riddick (played by Vin Diesel) from the 2000 cult scifi hit, Pitch Black has come back searching for his roots and in doing so finds himself in a situation much like Pitch Black. The film is the third in the trilogy and the direct sequel to the much larger, grandiose, 2nd installment "The Chronicles Of Riddick"
The Bullet Points
From the mind of writer/director David Twohy and brought to life by Vin Diesel, Riddick has returned, but this time he is going back to his naked roots. This film spends the first 10 minutes explaining its reductionist format. Unlike its predecessor (Chronicles Of Riddick) this piece seems to want to emulate its progenitor (Pitch Black). The film as well as the film makers seemed so intent on going back to the “beginning” that in several moments you actually feel like you’re watching an early draft of Pitch Black. All this is put out in front pretty early on but if that wasn’t enough foreshadowing of the mood and design, the film goes on to provide a translation for the thought impaired. Lo and behold, immediately after abandoning his Necromonger S&M space throne Riddick stands naked, watching a setting sun proclaiming, “Time to set the clock back to zero”
What follows is a montage of emotional and physical reconditioning as Riddick regains his hunter mentality, carves a nice rock condo on a planet that makes Vulcan look like a charming island in the South Pacific, and raises a space dog. Overcoming certain predatory obstacles while traversing the planet it becomes clear that Riddick has returned to his animalistic self. However all is not well in the land of OZ as a monstrous storm threatening a great deal of bodily and terrestrial damage looms not far off. In an effort to escape this all encompassing desert monsoon Riddick finds a kind of mercenary time-share outpost where he sends out a beacon with his own facial signature making him the immediate target of two opposing ships looking to collect on Riddicks famous outstanding bounty.
Two ships set down, one crew, a band of ruffians more ruthless and cut throat than your average bear, seem only interested in the reward. While the second ship, in comparison, seems manned by a calm and collected band of ruffians. Mind you, their interest lies not with the bounty, but with some piece of information inside Riddick’s head.
Riddick’s stage is now set as he lurks on the exterior of the mercenary establishment, terrifying, slaying and once in a awhile reasoning with his guests to leave him a ship and forget they ever saw him.
What Did We See?
In so many ways, I could compare watching this movie to watching an athlete for whom you have great hopes fumble over obstacles like a drunk Dickens character crossing an icy street. The film tried so many ideas, some partially worked and others not at all. The most intriguing parts of this film are, to me, comparable to the most intriguing parts of Pitch Black; they weren’t the centralized focus.
One of the biggest follies I felt was the inadvertent sense of claustrophobia brought on by an overused green screen. One thing that I should point out and honestly do admire, is that Vin Diesel took exactly all of his earnings from one of the Fast and Furious projects so that he and director, Twohy, could purchase the franchise rights from Universal and do this as an independent film. Independently produced science fiction has led us to some interesting discoveries and bold attempts that have made audiences fall back in their seat with admiration and awe. That being combined with Diesel’s enthusiasm for the character as well as his enthusiasm that it be written and directed by the original architect gave me all the hope in the world. The problem was that they also seemed committed to doing it in the independent fashion of spending as little money as possible. The decrease in cost of software to create quality green screen effects has now become one of the more thrifty options and grasped onto by these film makers so aggressively it felt like pros imitating amateurs imitating pros. This, in a nutshell created a dramatic overuse of the green screen which was attempting to depict a vast alien landscape and ironically delivered what felt like a closed cramped set for community theater. The cheapest answer to this question 13 years ago when Pitch Black was made was to shoot the nearest available Australian desert with a post production color filter, which provided nothing overwhelming but enough of an alien world to let the movie do its thing.
Already batting with one strike we approach another problem of the film, the lofty ambitions of writer/director David Twohy. Keep in mind that Twohy was one of the architects of the screenplay for Pitch Black but not one of the story writers. He has, however, been a screenwriter for all three films and the sole screenwriter for the second and third. The first film had several masks on its presentation, one was a sparse use of dialogue and the other was evenly distributing it amongst a mainly competent cast, while the visuals of character tension did most of the work. In the fantastically more expensive sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, the movie was littered with a gigantic cast all speaking at once. More dialogue did show some cracks in the armor but ultimately the increase in cast size temporarily saved the film from its looming fate. Now arrived at our current movie of discussion, Riddick, the gloves had come off, the cast size was reduced, and Twohy could spread his wings as a writer, which led us to a desert of trite lines and oddly staged “set it up and knock it down” humor. In short, Twohy, is not a good writer. Until Riddick two films with different formulas served as a cover but when completely left to his own creative devices the audience received a stale pile of words that feel melodramatic at best and like a hole in the head at worst.
Watching this I felt like I was naturally gravitating towards the characters of Riddick, and Johns. I can really say nothing more about Riddick other than Diesel knows what he’s doing. Between his love of the character and the somewhat limited scope of Riddick himself, Diesel has found a way to live inside it and make us feel right at home in Casa de Believability. His inclusion of strange physical gestures from time to time (a prominent trait in Pitch Black) help sell the idea that this man spends most of his time alone. The other, Johns, is a the mysterious and even tempered commander of the calmer mercenary team spending most of the time telling the story with his expressions. It has become clear that I have gravitated to the characters with the least amount of dialogue.
The acting itself being nothing incredibly noteworthy with the handicap of now apparent, bad writing leads to my primary complaint of character, Dahl. Katee Sackhoff, probably most well known from her role in Battlestar Galactica as Starbuck, plays an aggressive edgy mercenary on the even tempered craft. The botching of this character seemed to have nothing to do with Sackhoff and everything to do with bad dialogue and shortsighted directing. In her performance at times you can almost hear Twohy trying to force her to overact. All of her credibility as a strong female character is eventually thrown out the door, making her feel like the creation of some erotic fan fiction from the 1950’s.
Away from the acting something that really took me by surprise was the cinematography by David Eggby, returning from Pitch Black. At times the movie has brilliant and beautiful composition that work diligently to rope viewers back into the experience of an alien world. The only problem is that these “wonder shots” are sporadic and unpredictable, giving almost the feeling that the 2nd unit was handling most of the film and occasionally Eggby would come in to rouse the audience from a slumber of science fiction mediocrity.
What Kind Of Day Has it Been?
Riddick is a film any fan of the series should see. I’ve seen it once, I’m glad I did and doubtful I will ever see it again. This isn’t due to the film being appalling or so wonderful that I only deserve one viewing, it’s the dangerous third category, forgettable. This film tried a lot and a lot was revealed in these efforts. Unfortunately all these ingredients made for a muddled revisiting of what might once have been an inspired idea, executed with unchecked film making and two dimensional dialogue that had been cleverly hidden in the previous two films.