Starring: Vin Diesel, Katee Sackhoff, Jordi Mollà, Matt Nable
Written by: David Twohy, Ken Wheat, Jim Wheat
Directed by: David Twohy
Way, way back in the year 2000, a little film by the name of Pitch Black was released. A low budget science-fiction thriller, it revolved around the crew and passengers of a crashed spaceship, trapped on a planet full of monstrous aliens that only came out at night, during an eclipse. It was a solid film, not particularly astounding in any respect, but taut and entertaining. It was followed in 2004 by The Chronicles of Riddick, which related the tale of Riddick’s battle against the Necromongers, a spacefaring race with mystical abilities. It was everything Pitch Black wasn’t; grandiose, epic, flabby, although I would have to admit to a slightly guilty appreciation for it.
In large part, this is due to Vin Diesel’s performance as Richard B. Riddick, notorious convict and murderer; while it is somewhat open to debate precisely how villainous he is, he is defiantly anti-heroic, but Diesel brings a certain feral charm to the role, making him if not necessarily entirely sympathetic, then at least someone you can engage with. And of course, he’s stupendously bad-ass. Seriously, in Chronicles he outruns the sun. Stupid, yes, but also rather awesome. It’s fortunate that he has this quality, as he is essentially the only surviving part of the previous film.
Chronicles of Riddick was not well received, for the reasons stated above, and it is telling that there is nearly a decade between Chronicles and Riddick. The new film attempts to rectify this by going back to basics: Riddick trapped on a hostile planet, forced to rely on only his wits and his ferocity to survive. And for the first half of the film, that’s more or less what he does. At the start, he’s badly injured, stripped of his ability to defend himself, and for probably the first time certainly on screen, we see him vulnerable. It isn’t spoiling anything to say that this doesn’t last long, in no small part because of some of the most macho surgery seen this year, but for quite a while, Riddick is almost more of a wild-life docu-drama than anything else. We see him rebuild, train and bond with a puppy (well, a space-puppy), and live what he seems to feel is the good life.
And then the plot kicks in.
This is a distinctly mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s a much simpler affair than its predecessor. On the other hand, it’s essentially the same plot as Pitch Black. Almost literally the only difference in a synopsis would be that the monsters only come out when it’s raining rather than when it’s dark. Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for a series of cool action scenes of people killing monstrous aliens, although Pacific Rim rather has that market sown up this year. However, if you’ve seen Pitch Black then you aren’t going to be surprised by anything after the halfway mark. As plots go, it’s perfectly serviceable, and there’s a nice sub-plot that calls back to earlier films, but essentially there’s nothing you haven’t seen before.
Equally, the expansion of the cast list at this stage works for and against the film. It does provide us with the film’s best sequence, with two groups of mercenaries holed up in a bunker while Riddick stalks them. It’s this sort of thing that the series has always done best; it’s an incredibly grim universe, and while Riddick is a fairly unpleasant person in many respects, he has always been slightly more likeable than at least one other member of the cast. At first, this rule holds firm. The first batch of mercenaries we meet are complete scum, and there’s an undeniable satisfaction in watching Riddick thin them out. The second bunch, though…well, while they’re not exactly well developed characters, they aren’t obviously unpleasant enough to make us root for Riddick over them. This is a problem; while it is, as I’ve said, somewhat open to debate as to how villainous Riddick is, when the people he’s hunting mostly appear to be relatively upstanding individuals, it rather undermines the whole point of the film.
Far, far worse though is the sexual attitude of the film. Of the thirteen or so cast members, discounting a brief flashback, only two are women. Not an unusual statistic in modern cinema, but of those two, the first, as played by Keri Lynn Hilson, gets literally two minutes of screentime, just long enough to establish her as a multiple rape victim but not long enough to give her a name before she is killed off to provide Riddick with a justification for killing the mercenaries (because the fact that they want to cut his head off and put it in a box wasn’t motivation enough). Then there’s Dahl (Sackhoff, and pronounced as Doll throughout), the strong, tough mercenary who emphatically declares that “I don’t fuck men.” Now, fair’s fair; given the wide variety of sexual identities present in the world, and accepting the possibility of an even more wide-ranging variety in a futuristic science-fiction universe, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean that she’s a lesbian, and it is certainly never explicitly stated. And it could be put down to Dahl trying to minimise sexual interest from her colleagues. However, it doesn’t seem to unreasonable to take her statement at its most obvious interpretation, which makes Riddick’s confident declaration that he’s going to finish his day’s work “balls deep” in her, but only after she’s asked deeply unsavoury. The fact that he succeeds is indicative of a sexual attitude that was distasteful in Goldfinger, and ought to have been consigned to the past long before then. That’s before we even consider the wholly gratuitous topless scene she has, and the fact that she suffers repeated rape attempts that, once again, serve only to highlight how unpleasant Mollà’s character is.
A film of two halves then. One is interesting and entertaining, the other is predictable and really rather sordid. Far from a must-see, but despite the above criticisms, it would be unfair to say that the film loses all semblance of quality after the halfway mark; it’s just a lot harder to sit back and enjoy the mindless entertainment.