Friday, September 6, 2013

RIDDICK, Again


I appreciate that Vin Diesel likes playing Richard B. Riddick (yes, that’s his full name) and writer-director David Twohy likes making movies about this character. I also appreciate that, between 2000’s lean genre exercise Pitch Black and 2004’s cracked space opera sequel Chronicles of Riddick, the world of Riddick remains largely unexplored. If there are two things that are too often missing from sci-fi filmmaking these days it’s enthusiasm and originality. These movies are certainly all set there. I should like these movies. Diesel has charisma and Twohy, whose last feature was 2009's twisty murderers-on-the-run thriller A Perfect Getaway, knows his way around pulp. I totally get what should be fun about these movies, but I just don’t see it represented in what makes it on the screen. I can never shake the feeling that the universe remains unexplored in favor of thin little action beats that are endlessly repeated with a minimum amount of charm.

And yet I return to the Riddick universe dutifully, following Diesel and Twohy there in the hopes that this time they’ve cracked the code. The latest in the series, simply titled Riddick, continues the story of the tough, lonely Furyan. Twohy once again calls upon Diesel’s growling bass and ripped physique to play the not-quite-human being the Riddick fan wiki somewhat helpfully informs is “not necessarily superhuman” but who is nonetheless “stronger, faster, tougher, more resistant to pain, more agile.” He can see in the dark, which I guess falls under “posses acute senses.” He has “immense stamina, and [can] recover quicker and with more finality that most of the other human races.” I guess that explains why Riddick can survive a beating that would kill most anyone else. As the movie opens, he’s been tricked by a colleague for some reason and left for dead in the harsh wilderness of a deserted planet. In voice over he grimly informs us that he’s having a “bad day.”

For the duration of the film’s opening sequences, I was totally on board. There’s a tightness and a gristle to the spare survivalist sci-fi on display. Riddick fights off a pack of wolf-like creatures with lanky legs and zebra stripes, eventually winning a puppy over to his side to become his helpful pet. Other beasties, like a skull-shaped stinger snapping on the end of a slithering tail twisting on the rear of a stubby, slimy reptilian body, are definitely not potential friends. Riddick sets a broken bone in his leg and screws some armor into his shin as a makeshift cast. He makes shelter, goes hunting, and fashions some more appropriate wilderness clothing, that is when he’s not walking at night without it, silhouetted by the maroon moon. I half expected him to howl at it. There’s a largely wordless sense of despair and methodical no-nonsense survival about the film. If the film had stayed a sort of one-man sci-fi version of The Grey, it might’ve had a chance at being one of the best movies of the year.

Alas, in rides an ensemble of mercenaries to bring things down to a more easily digestible level. Riddick stumbles across and triggers an emergency beacon that beams his face across the galaxy, hoping to hijack a ride off the planet. One group, a rugged crew of nasty bounty hunters led by Jordi Mollà, arrives hoping to leave with Riddick’s head in a box and collect a reward that’s doubled if he’s brought back dead. The other group, a bunch of professionals including Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff and led by Matt Nable, is out to discover the truth about whatever happened in Pitch Black. That I couldn’t remember either generated perhaps more suspense around that plot point than the filmmakers intended. Riddick toys with the group, enflaming their fears and exacerbating tensions between the two crews in the hopes of sneaking away with one of the ships. It’s basically a cat and mouse plot with a bunch of tough mice and one very cool cat.

Once again the intriguing universe of sci-fi potential is grounded and squandered in rote thrills done generically and stale interactions between typical character types. The most anonymous people die quickly, the slimiest ones get their long-delayed comeuppances, and those who are nicest survive while Riddick himself lives to fight another day, of course. (Maybe.) The longer the movie goes, the more predictable and dull it becomes. Glimmers of suspense arrive. There’s a fun scene involving the bounty hunters debating whether or not Riddick has tampered with their own trap and thus worry that it might literally blow up in their faces. But then the moment passes to be drowned out by dialogue scripted with a tin ear, including an especially egregious bit of objectification late in the game that removed the last shred of my patience. Soon the whole thing devolves into endless sequences of shooting at creatures and hunting for spaceship parts. I suppose Riddick is only a small genre picture that doesn’t get up to much, but it’s far better the less it tries. 

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