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Entries in Riddick [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Sep112013

Riddick (2013)

The Cuddliest Killer

By virtue of its creators' daring, Riddick is an unexpectedly entertaining movie--despite not being a very good one. On some level, I can't blame the filmmakers for the second sequel in this wobbly franchise turning out the way it did: after 2000's Pitch Black helped turn Vin Diesel into a mega-star, the actor used this newfound credibility (read: bankability) to help expand director David Twohy and writers Jim and Ken Wheat's off-beat sci-fi thriller into a big-universe, blockbuster sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick.

Up-scaling the budget from $23 million to $105 million (or as high as $120 million) required the filmmakers to shave the edge off their story about a serial killer-turned-hero, turning the outer space outlaw Richard B. Riddick (Diesel) into an authority-hating mercenary who just wants to sit out an intergalactic war (or something). In short, trading an "R" rating for "PG-13" meant downgrading Hannibal Lecter to Han Solo.

Sadly, Chronicles fared poorly at the box office. Fans of the violent, bare-bones original apparently didn't give a crap about interplanetary politics or their tough-as-nails anti-hero's quest to find his long-forgotten home world. Though I haven't watched the sequel in years, I remember loving the expensive-looking, over-cooked universe and weird action set pieces; part of me places the blame for its commercial failure on a nasty Star Wars-prequels hangover.

Thanks to home video, the Riddick character gained a cult following, even spawning an animated feature and talk of a big-screen sequel. Nine years (and bazillions of dollars in Fast and the Furious sequel profits) later, Diesel and Twohy have returned with a bizarre mash-up of the first two movies. We're back to the family-unfriendly rating, dabbling in the expanded universe, and stranded on a planet filled with vicious, eyeless creatures who strike only on rainy nights.

After being exiled by the space empire he inherited at the end of the last picture, Riddick finds himself on a mountainous ball of dust, contending with all manner of indigenous life that wants to kill him--in particular, a breed of car-sized, xenomoprph-modeled scorpions. He spends the first half hour of the movie exploring the weird terrain and narrating flashbacks populated by naked women, spaceships, and Karl Urban as a sickly looking Blade Runner extra. By the time he rescues the space puppy and raises it as his own, my mind had spent way too much time wondering if the movie was more Wall-E or After Earth.

Eventually, Riddick finds an abandoned mercenary outpost and uses its emergency beacon to call for help. Two bounty hunter ships arrive: one with a scum-of-the-galaxy gang led by annoying braggart Santana (Jordi Molla); the other a preppy squad of would-be space cops led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who turns out to be the father of one of the Pitch Black crew who didn't make it. The middle hour of Riddick sees these two rival groups squaring off as their target stalks them from his secure desert hideout. He needs to hijack one of their ships to get off-world before a coming super-storm wakes up legions of monsters beneath the sand.

It feels like Twohy, who tackled the screenplay solo this time, had a lot of fun swinging for the fences, even shackled as he may have been by studio demands that he play it safe. Plot-wise, Riddick is a straight-up Aliens rip-off that feels like a more expensive retread of Pitch Black (also an Aliens rip-off). Twohy and Diesel have remarked in interviews that they have a lot of great ideas for a new franchise involving these characters, but that takes box office power; box office power necessitates giving audiences what they want; what audiences want is cool, gruesome stuff they've seen before--meaning, like first installments in superhero franchises, we'll have to wait until part two (or part four, in this case) for the heady stuff.

Fortunately for us, Twohy knows what he's up against as a filmmaker, and does his best to make Riddick at least look and feel like new territory. Because the meat of the rehash portion only takes thirty minutes to tell, he shoves all that to the back and spends an hour-and-a-half re-introducing and expanding his world, bit by bit. The first part of the movie feels like an other-worldly Animal Planet special; the second like a reality show from the future as interrupted by a slightly less grotesque Jason Voorhees; the third is Aliens with a rugged-individualism message and some rape jokes thrown in for good measure.

Yep, you read that right. The very unfortunate pock-mark on this otherwise interesting and utterly acceptable movie is Twohy's insistence on reminding us that Vin Diesel (whose early-career mystique has all but vanished) is playing a bad guy. As if the brutal killing and dismissive attitude weren't enough, he  makes several "cute" remarks about sexually assaulting Johns' second-in-command, played by Katee Sackhoff. Given the context, it's not too far a leap to suggest the filmmakers aren't on board with female empowerment (or even dignity, really), as the one substantial non-male character is given the name "Dahl". Since it's never spelled out in the movie, one might get the impression she's simply referred to as "Doll" by a group of slimy jerks who are one empty room and a gun away from having their way with her.*

To her credit, Sackhoff holds her own against the boys--most of whom end up dead anyway. But there's a weird softening of her character towards Riddick's advances, especially at the end, and I couldn't quite square that with Dahl's status as an "out" lesbian. The actress (one of two in the movie, and the only one to make it out alive) is objectified in a way that suggests someone at the top either has an issue with women or are banking on their audience not giving a shit.

Riddick is a tough film to recommend. Though it was successful at the box office last weekend, I can't see it making a lasting enough impression to warrant further installments. It's better than Pitch Black, not as good as Chronicles of Riddick, and feels so much like a placeholder for stories that will never come that it's not really worth anyone's time. I say that as someone who appreciated a lot of what the filmmakers were trying to do. In the end, Riddick is a gorgeous-looking, derivative, and mildly upsetting high note for the series to ride out on--the ultimate capper to perhaps the most expensive and enduring non-starter franchise in movie history.

*In one of the more oddly edited sequences I've seen, we cut away just as Santana forces himself on a panicked Dahl. A few minutes later, we see him with a bloody nose and a look of embarrassment, and his calm, collected "victim" cracking wise on the other side of the room. Not only do the conflict and resolution not match, they belong in two different kinds of movies.