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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Movie Review: Riddick (2013) (or, I'm Going to Mega Rant Now)

Spoiler alert:  Technically, I'm going to spoil this movie for you.  Not all of it, mind, but enough of it that you'll know the major plot elements and what not.  I say "technically" because nothing in this movie is all that surprising, except that it's horribly disappointing for any Riddick fan.  You already know the basic story; you just don't know the new characters.

What follows is not a review in the traditional sense.  There's no "structure" here.  I have so much to say about this movie that I've decided to rant my way through many of the things that I either enjoyed or hated with a passion.  So what you'll see below is a collection of thoughts, organized by titled sections.  You don't have to read it all if you don't want to -- pick and choose as you see fit.

OK.  Let's get to it.

I've seen quite a few films this year, but Riddick (2013) is the only one I'd give a Prometheus Award to.  What's a Prometheus Award?  Basically, this award should be given to every sequel or prodigal return which does everything wrong despite having every opportunity to get it very right.  Ridley Scott's Prometheus (from which the award would derive its name) is the epitome of failing to meet expectations.  You can find out why I think that here and here.

The premise of Riddick is this:
At some point after becoming Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, a reluctant-leader Riddick decides to hunt down his homeworld, Furya, which only Vaako knows about because the previous Lord Marshall deleted all the maps (except there were maps in The Chronicles of Riddick, so whatevs).  After convincing Vaako that he can have the throne all to himself if he'll just take Riddick to what remains of Furya, they head off into the night.  Riddick is betrayed by Vaako's men and left to die on a sulfur tomb planet (not Furya).  But it's Riddick, so he survives. 
While trying to survive on this hostile world (full of aliens and things), Riddick steals a strange dog-like creature puppy, raises it as his own, and then heads off to better pastures, where he discovers a mercenary supply outpost.  And then things fall apart.  Some super rainstorm is coming, and Riddick, for some reason, knows it means trouble (alien monsters!) and decides to trigger the emergency beacon at the outpost, set some traps, and then get off world.  Murder ensues.
There you go.

Now for my thoughts:
Logical Gap #1:  Riddick is Two Different People Inside His Own Head
Early in the film, Riddick tells us that he's been stuck on this sulfur tomb planet from hell because he essentially lost his animalistic instinct (or, in normal people terms, he got soft).  So he resolves himself, via internal monologue, to rediscover his animal instinct so he won't get stabbed in the back again.  OK.  Good so far.  Sounds fine to me.

Oh, wait, no.  So what Riddick's mind actually meant when he said that was this:  I want to get my animal instinct back, but really I'm just going to do what I've done since the end of Pitch Black and make attachments to other living things even though I just said doing so will get me killed.  Basically, Twohy sets up this perfectly acceptable narrative about Riddick's desire to return to his old ways, but then ignores it completely.  We never expected the character to keep his power as Lord Marshall anyway, so having Riddick return to his roots as a slick-shit killer (Toombs!) make total sense.  Only that's not what actually happens.  Instead, Riddick's first act is capturing a crazy-ear dog puppy to use as a guinea pig, but since the thing is so damned cute, he just has to raise it as his own.  And so begins Riddick's version of A Boy and His Dog.

None of this would be a problem, except that Riddick's internal monologue tells us that's exactly what he won't do.  So is it that Riddick is confused about his own terminology, or are we supposed to assume that Riddick's own mind is an unreliable narrator?  This is one of many logical inconsistencies in the film...
Emotional Buttons Not Pushed Properly
On the subject of A Boy and His Dog, it became clear to me that the dog critter thing was destined to die, and the film gives its mercenary characters numerous opportunities to do so.  We're supposed to feel suspense as the dog gets closer and closer to what is obviously set to be his death, but not because we feel for the dog (the only character worth caring about, honestly), but because it's supposed to do something to Riddick.

The problem?  Riddick has his little 15-second "I is sad about dead friend" moment, but afterwards he returns to his old self.  When he threatens Santana with death, we're supposed to think it has something to do with the fact that Santana shot the dog in the head, but the dialogue is so stilted that there's no way for us to separate "this moment" from any other moment in Riddick's life.  He always threatens death and then kills some character we're all not supposed to like anyway, but the reason we don't like Santana is the same reason everyone else doesn't like him:  he's a piece of shit.  Riddick knows this before Santana kills his dog, so what should have been a great opportunity for Riddick to go a little off the rails with crazy "you killed my dog, so I'm going to cut off half your face before I kill you" talk, he just says "you die in the first 5 seconds," giving other characters the opportunity to say "that was 5 seconds" after Riddick does kill Santana.
Basically, what we know about Riddick from the previous two films disappears in these moments.  We know he's not just a slick-shit killer (Toombs!).  He also has a kind of heart buried in all that super duper killing-ness, and occasionally it comes out or ties together in an exciting way.  Here, it all feels forced and confused precisely because the Riddick that Riddick says he's going to be and the Riddick we're actually shown aren't the same people.  So when that moment comes that we've all been expecting -- seriously, you know it's coming the moment they (Riddick and dog) become friends, so this isn't really a spoiler at all -- the emotional response is stilted.  It isn't there.  Which brings me to...

Writing, Dialogue, and Direction
The great thing about The Chronicles of Riddick was its willingness to engage in camp for the sake of the story.  There's no point at which we're supposed to completely take this world seriously anyway, so you might as well play it up with some really awesome lines of terrible.  That's what makes them so amusing, if you ask me.  Characters utter things like this:
Lord Vaako: This is your one chance. Take the Lord Marshal's offer and bow.
Riddick: I bow to no man.
Lord Vaako: He's not a man. He's the Holy Half-Dead who has seen the Underverse and returned with powers you can't imagine.
Riddick: Look. I'm not with everyone here. But I will take a piece of him. [points to Irgun]
Lord Vaako: A piece you will have.
It's punchy.  It's simple.  It's campy.  It's fun.

But in Riddick, the dialogue is so simplified, so basic, so drawn out for no good reason that what is actually a two hour movie feels like three and a half.  I can think of one great scene to illustrate this point:
Close to the climactic "the monsters are coming and we gots to get outa here" final sequence, the remaining mercenaries stand in a room around Riddick, who has been captured and put in chains.  Boss Johns sits down on Santana's box-for-heads and interrogates Riddick about his son (the Johns from Pitch Black), which would sound interesting if not for the fact that every five-word sentence uttered by any character at any point in this scene is followed by long stretches of silence.  These silences might also be interesting if the actors were doing something worth looking at, but they're just standing there staring.  That's it.  The moment should be tense.  When Riddick threatens Santana, we should see the disbelief (or terrified belief) in what Riddick is saying, played up for the audience because we all know Santana is going to die.  And that should appear not just in their faces, but in the dialogue.  Punchy, fun dialogue.  At least when Toombs captured Riddick and gave him his "what for," there was something actually going on there.  A history.  A conversation.  A very creepy conversation.  But not so here.  The whole scene drags out without supplying any useful tension, because nobody seems to know what is going on but Riddick (the audience doesn't either, really), and nobody seems to care.

The dialogue never escapes this problem in the film.  It's stilted and devoid of the brand of morbid humor and camp that made the previous two films so much fun.  The life feels like it has left the franchise here, and that's unfortunate given the potential to do something new with a franchise that, thus far, has never stuck with a single generic format.  Pitch Black was a scifi-horror flick; The Chronicles of Riddick was a kind of space opera; and Riddick intermittent scifi-horror flick with a side of post-apocalypse, revenge narrative, and bad commentary on human nature (well, Furyan nature).

Riddick feels like a film whose director has lost touch.  And that starts from the bottom up.  The script doesn't know what kind of story it's supposed to be, and the story it presents never escapes the repetition of franchise's original template.  Riddick is almost literally the same movie as Pitch Black in terms of its overarching plot, but less interesting precisely because we've already seen Pitch Black.  At the same time, it tries to be a bunch of other things, but the only story we really should care about is the repeat of Pitch Black.  And that's the problem:  there aren't any surprises for us.  We know Riddick is a slick-shit killer (Toombs!).  We know he's going to kill some people and then some monsters and get off the sulfur tomb planet.  We know this because we already saw it.  So when you have Riddick running around being a slick-shit killer (Toombs!), it's not a surprise anymore.  We know.  Now give us something else to work with.

Oh, don't get me wrong:  Riddick really tries to give us something else to work with, but really all it does is rip off A Boy and His Dog for 45 minutes in what I would describe as a snoozefest.  That's the other problem with Riddick's plot.  It may be cliche within its own franchise, and it may present us dragging dialogue and lackluster direction, but it is really just a boring damn movie.  There's no tension for Riddick.  We don't care about the mercenaries, so when they die, it doesn't matter (that's half true; we sort of care about a couple, but mostly we don't care because they're not people anyway).  Even though Riddick spends the first 10 minutes trying to survive on a hostile alien world, we soon figure out that, hey, he's actually going to be just fine and get back to slick-shit killing again (Toombs!), so there's no tension there.  When the aliens finally come, a few people die, but it happens so quickly and without any of the drawn out horror and worry we got in Pitch Black that it might as well not have happened.

This is perhaps why I am so disappointed in Riddick.  It's not good.  It's boring.  I guess it takes a special kind of awful to take a character like Riddick and make him as uninteresting or un-compelling to watch as a game of golf...but Twohy has managed that here.
Logical Gap #2:  He Done Tried to Kill You, But Nah, No Need to Notice, Bro
There are a lot of logical inconsistencies in this damned movie.  The one I'm going to talk about here completely tore me out of the movie-watching experience.

At some point during the story, Riddick had stolen some battery things from the merc ships as a kind of leverage to convince them to let him get off the planet.  When the alien scorpion things show up, the remaining mercs decide to let Riddick loose so they can retrieve the batteries.  Riddick, Boss Johns, and Diaz (one of Santana's remaining men) hop on their hovercycles and head off into the night, giving Riddick the opportunity to test out his brand new motocross tricks (err, hovercross?) for no apparent reason.  While riding on a narrow passage overlooking a canyon, Diaz bumps into Boss Johns and sends him careening off the edge; Johns barely survives and ends up sharing a hovercycle with Riddick.

And then moments later...nobody shoots Diaz or calls him out or says fuck all to him.  The guy literally just tried to kill Boss Johns and nobody seems to have noticed at all.  I'm not kidding.  NOBODY DISCUSSES IT!  Not a fucking thing is said.  Boss Johns acts like it didn't happen, and then they're all shocked and supa surprised when Diaz betrays them all and tries to steal the batteries for himself.




How the fuck does any of this make any sense at all?  HE TRIED TO KILL YOU.  Why are you surprised?

Sense this film does not make...
We've had religious characters before.  You all know that.  You saw Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  I've always loved Keith David's portrayal as Imam.  He's campy, sure, but all of the Riddick films have been, so his character always fit in as a sort of moral foil to Riddick.  But the important thing about Imam is the fact that we know enough about him to know he's a person.  He doesn't spout his religious stuff just to remind us that he's religious; it's a part of his character as a devout religious man (in Pitch Black, for example, we learn that he's on a sort of pilgrimage; his religious status grows in The Chronicles of Riddick, introducing his family and wider religious ties -- all this for a secondary character).

But in Riddick, our religious figure is Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), who apparently has some religious psychological disorder which requires that he randomly prays and/or spouts lines about angels and what not for no apparent reason other than to remind us that creepy shit is happening.  There's no explanation for his religious belief.  He's just...religious.  And we know that because he randomly says religious things.  But at no point does any of this become important.  He could easily sit there and go "oh Jesus oh Jesus oh Jesus" every time weird shit happens and you'd get the same thing:  a set of pointless lines.  The difference?  At least "oh Jesus oh Jesus oh Jesus" would make sense in the context of a series of horrifying, bloody scenarios...

So we've gone from Keith David's Imam, who feels like a truly devout religious person with a definitive, lived-in past, to Luna, who might as well have spent the movie speaking in tongues for all the use he was.  His entire character makes no sense here precisely because nobody ever explains who he is.  Why is he with this ragtag group of sorta-mercenaries?  Why did he get involved with Boss Johns?  What was he doing before he showed up here?  Why does he randomly pray or babble about angels?  I don't know.  The film never tells us.  Instead, his religious stuff is presented as some kind of nervous tick, with the same depth and usefulness for the character as a pair of moldy socks.

Well, that is if moldy socks randomly flew at the camera in the middle of shots, reminding you that there are moldy socks here...just so you know about them.  In case you wanted to know -- you didn't, but the film wants you to know anyway...just so you know...about moldy socks.
People of Color, What?
There aren't a lot of things I like about this movie, but the fact that a huge portion of the cast are people of color is one of them.  Saladin Ahmed was just talking about this very issue on Twitter recently, and I recall telling him how much I'd like to see more films with PoCs in lead roles, too.  And here we are.  Riddick (Vin Diesel, who identifies himself as a PoC) is not the only speaking role for a PoC.  There's Diaz (played by Filipino and former wrestler, David Bautista), Moss (played by African American actor Bokeem Woodbine), Lockspur (played by Native American actor Raoul Trujillo), and Falco (played by Danny Blanco Hall, who is of African descent).  Most of these characters would be considered proper supporting actors, in the sense that they receive a decent amount of dialogue, such that if they were ever portrayed as actual people (see the next section), we'd actually know something about them.  We'll get into the problems with all this in the next section (womenz), but for now, I want to marvel at the idea of a relatively high-profile SF film containing non-minor speaking roles for Filipino, black, and Native American actors.  I can't think of any other American-made SF films doing anything close to that this year.

Now, don't get me wrong here.  I'm not saying that these roles are wonderful super duper amazing or anything.  They are flawed all around.  And there is the annoying fact that almost all of the PoCs are dead at the end, despite the fact that pretty much every character is incompetent in this movie.  But they're actually in this relatively large numbers (at least half the cast is a race other than white, and several of the cast members are Spaniards, which is interesting), and a few of them do a little ass kicking (mostly with guns, but that's OK)...and it's just a good thing that needs to happen more and more (the "existing in a movie" part, not the "dies by the end" bit).

Plus, Vin Diesel is in this, so it gets special points for that (I want him to read lullabies to me so I can go to sleep at night).

Objects with Boobs (*cough* I Mean Women)
Kameron Hurley has already discussed this on Twitter, but I'd like to take a moment to hash out some of the things I think is wrong with the way women are portrayed in this movie.

First, the only characters who get naked and/or killed for no clear reason are women (Riddick gets naked in one scene, but you can't see anything because he's in shadow, so it doesn't count).  The first few women we see are shown seconds later butt naked on a bed, doing some kind of sexy bisexual temptation bed dance for Riddick.  Apparently he's un-amused because one of them is a secret lady assassin (see the plot problems above).  The second woman gets shot in the back after being released by the mercs on Riddick's sulfur tomb which the Spanish bounty hunter, Santana, can only reply, "I was becoming attached" (or something like that).  After that, it doesn't really get better.  Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who should be the most interesting female character in the whole movie, spends most of the film doing the following:
  1. Standing around looking menacing
  2. Telling people about her sexuality
  3. Shooting a big gun, but only kinda good
  4. Muttering a handful of lines that should be interesting, but really lack the umph her character deserves
  5. Showing boob or otherwise getting sexually harassed and/or assaulted by the other male characters (mostly Santana, but Riddick gets in on the action later)
Most of this might be OK if there was any indication that her character, conveniently named Dahl, was actually a character.  But she's not.  She has so little dialogue (let alone relevant dialogue) and so little on-screen time in comparison to her male counterparts that even when she's there, it's clear the reason has to do with the fact that she's a chick with guns.  At least in Battlestar Galactica, she got to play a real person.  A real "strong female character" (whatever that is).  In Riddick?  She's a caricature of a "strong female character."  She's strong, determined, and menacing, but only enough so we know she's those things.  There's no depth or emotion behind it.  It just is.

And that's the problem with all of the female characters here.  There are no real female characters.  There are just people whose job it is to look sexy on screen while holding guns or showing boob.  At no point did I sympathize with Dahl, because I knew next to nothing about her.  Even when she smacks Santana in the face for his sexual comments, it's only to reinforce her caricature as the type of strong female character you expect to solve problems with fists (except for the one time when Santana really does try to rape her -- I think -- solves that with fists too, but we never see it.  Honestly, I don't know why nobody killed Santana, since none of the other characters are presented with rational reasons for not using violence against violence).

Ultimately, Katee Sackhoff could have been replaced with anyone competent enough to scowl or expose her side boob.  Sackhoff is wasted in this movie, and that's such a damn shame!  When you put someone with that much talent into a movie, you have to give her something to work with, FFS.  But Twohy doesn't give her shit at all.  And it's frustrating as hell.

Pretty Things!
The film is gorgeous.  It's got that going for it.

I'm Done...For Now
Yeah.  I think that's enough.  There's a lot more I could say, but I have to stop myself before this becomes a 5,000-word rant from hell.

If you saw the film, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.  I'm now going to watch something good to cleanse my pallet.


Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2.5/5 (for the simple fact that they're not actually used for anything worthwhile)
Writing: 1.5/5
Visuals: 4/5 (the only good thing about the movie; clearly they spent all of their $38mil budget making this pretty, because I doubt any of that money went to writing or paying actors to do much)
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 2.5/5 (50%)
Inflated Grade: D+ (for lacking actual characters, a story we've already seen in Pitch Black, logical inconsistencies, and so many other issues)
Value: $3.50 (based on a $10.50 max)

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  1. While it is dumb and poorly-written, there's still a bunch of fun to be had with what seems to be the closing-installment to the franchise. Maybe, though. Good review Shaun.

    1. It's not the end. The film is going to make enough money to justify another low budget film. Maybe it'll be written well...but probably not.

      Thanks for the comment!