Monday, 15 December 2014

The Unchronicle-ing

"It'll all go to shit once someone else shows up."
Riddick is an interesting film.  Not in terms of its narrative, really - though it isn't without its charms or its moments, even if these are rather front-loaded - but as a study in how to take a franchise that has thoroughly cratered and attempt to drag it back to its previous heights.

(Spoilers follow)

The desire to make Riddick interesting again is so clearly the driving force here it overwhelms everything else, including any sense of structure. Riddick is a film of three distinct parts, each of them fully bent to the cause.  The first third reminds us our antihero (did we always know his first name was Richard? More unstoppable galactic-level bad-asses should be named Richard) is essentially a force of nature, whilst dropping the last film's Necromonger plotline like the hottest of starchy tubers (this is of course a relief, though with Riddick deposed one wonders idly if the Necromongers will soon get back to utterly annihilating all life in the cosmos). The second third demonstrates the effect on others Riddick's elemental nature inspires.  The final third... well, the final third is all about swarms of thoroughly ridiculous predatory monsters brought into the narrative by meteorological conditions, because it worked once, right?

Of these three slices, only the first really works.  Almost entirely free of dialogue, it's the story of Riddick surviving a hostile alien world with only his own will to survive and an adopted dog-hyena-thing to call upon. In-between attacks by giant scorpion/snake creatures, it's defiantly minimalist and low-key in a way we don't see often in sci-fi these days, and the change of pace is well-received.  Sure, it's a little CGI-heavy, but this is a Riddick film, and a film in the twenty-first century besides; some things must simply be accepted as givens. It also contains some of the best character work the series has achieved, as we watch Riddick steal a puppy to raise purely so he can test poison severity upon it, and form a bond with it regardless.  It's common enough to show an action man's softer side, of course (see pretty much every issue of Wolverine ever), but this stays several miles on the right side of schmaltz; there's never any doubt Riddick would sacrifice his new pet the very instant he thought it was necessary.  To the extent there's anything left about the character that's still interesting, it lies here, how Riddick's sense of attachment clashes against his mile-wide streak of pragmatism.

It can't last, of course. Circumstances conspire to force Richard Riddick (Richdick to his friends) to call for a ride, and a pair of mercenary vessels arrive to bring him in dead or alive - the bounty is double for him being dead. As I've said, this feeds into the general aim of this section, which is to remind us everyone is terrified of Riddick, but there are problems here. Most obviously, seeing Riddick be terrifyingly competent on an alien planet is awesome. Listening to a bunch of bounty hunters talk about he's terrifyingly competent is boring. Show, don't tell. Secondly, by turning the focus of these mercenaries outwards towards Riddick we get close to zero characterisation from any one of them.  The film repeatedly tells us there are initially eleven souls tracking Riddick, but at the absolute best only four of them get any characterisation beyond "scummy bounty hunter" and "probably-basically-decent bounty hunter".  If this is the series trying to get back to its roots, it's worth noting that the original group of crash survivors felt like real people.  These are just cyphers waiting for Riddick to be badass by killing, or be badass by surviving whilst they die.

Here we see how long and toxic a shadow Chronicles... is casting here.  The film shies away completely from the wide-screen galactic epic of the previous film, and it's not hard to see why, but at least that film was interesting - however flawed, and boasted a truly gorgeous vision of the far future. Whether Riddick was right or not to do away with all of that, the decision seems to have been made to replace it with... nothing. The costumes of the two mercenary groups are as bland and interchangeable as the characters wearing them. There's no interiority here, no sense of a wider life beyond their arrival in Riddick's narrative. They exist only for Richard B Riddick (known as Rich B Dick to his mates) to warn, save or murder, depending on context. Even R. Johns, the only character here other than Sackhoff's to get any real characterisation - cliché though it is - is here only as an echo of the original film, being the father of the bounty hunter who originally captured Riddick, back when you could do that without a dozen men and your own spaceship.

And fair enough, we knew what we were getting. Pitch Black was billed as a sci-fi horror film about flying monsters that come out at night and eat your face off.  Riddick was billed as, well, Riddick. Riddick Does Stuff. Riddick Looks Badass While He Does Stuff. At the absolute most, it was billed a Riddick Meets Starbuck And Who Knows How That Goes (spoiler: she renounces lesbianism so he can fuck her, which... urgh). And in many ways this setup apes the original Conan film Riddick's writers seem to think their character resembles.  But even Conan didn't stay this way; the sequel Conan the Destroyer put at least a little effort into making its supporting cast work. Not much, obviously, but when your most interesting character is a stereotypical angry lesbian who beats up stereotypical leering alpha males, you have to wonder if we've spent the last thirty years swimming in a sea of testosterone.

Then the scorposnakes turn up, and the film stops even being a post-Chronicles... repair job, and just pretends it, along with everything else in the last thirteen years, never happened.  Hell, it seems convinced Pitch Black itself never happened, considering how obvious a retread this is.  But the cross-headed dragon monsters of the original were far more interesting than the misshapen brutes we see here, and more to the point the original introduced its horrors suddenly at the midpoint to allow the nightmare to unspool.  Here we see them at the start, robbing them of all mystery, and have them shoehorned in at the end (seriously, a flying monster swarm that hunt at night was implausible enough, but an aquatic monster swarm that follows storms around?) so there's no time for anything but some brief gory kills and then a catastrophic collapse, a case of monster fatigue so acute and sever you're left wondering what the point was.

Which, alas, is pretty much the feeling generated by the entire film. I will grant that on its own terms it is a more entertaining film than Chronicles..., though it lacks both that films occasional high points and its all-too-rare sense of sweeping scale. Really though, Riddick doesn't so much demonstrate the first sequel was a misstep so much as prove the character simply can't work as a protagonist. Perhaps at this point Universal can consider the experiment concluded and move on to something else.

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