Welcome to the fifth installment of No Sacred Cows, the column in which I, the Bearded One, play fast and loose with my own format rules. This round is no exception, as I’ve decided to offer a trifecta for your reading pleasure. As those of you who are truly in the Geek already know, Vin Diesel’s newest Riddick joint dropped just a few days ago and I felt it was time to cast a critical eye at the thrilogy as a whole. Well, not as a whole. As three movies, each with their own quirks. Pitch Black is a bit of a Classic, so I’ll be doing a traditional No Sacred Cows point out the bad parts of an otherwise excellent movie for it. Chronicles of Riddick was generally panned, so I’ll be defending it. And Riddick is too new (and not out on DVD for me to nitpick) so I’ll just be reviewing it.
First, let me say I’ve loved each installment in the Twohy-Diesel venture. They’re fun, exciting, visually stimulating, and all around bad-ass. I love Diesel and am a huge fan of minimalist actors who don’t think they have to chew scenery in order to convey emotion. Where others see, and I’m quoting Moviebob “a meat golem” or a “potato” I see a subtle and entertaining character actor… who just happens to play stoic very well. He also plays human very well, surprising considering how superhuman most of the characters Diesel plays are.
Anyway, enough about the actor, lets get to the movies.
PITCH BLACK, NOT SO SACRED
Pitch Black, released in 2000, on a budget of about 23 million was a sleeper hitter. Vin was an unknown at the time and David Twohy’s first two films (the forgettable The Arrival and the justly forgotten Timescape) had not exactly earned him any praise. By all rights, Pitch Black should have been a disposable mid-season action sci-fi flick… and it might have been, if not for Vin’s breakout role and (to a certain extent) the success of The Fast and The Furious a few months later that made him a household name. Still, this tale of survival against absolutely insane odds is a sci-fi classic and I still get a rush every time I watch it. I keep my copy in a small DVD binder next to my computer, just so I always can grab it. That same binder I keep Dune, The Last Unicorn, Hawk the Slayer, and Equilibrium in (yeah, I’ll be doing at least two of those movies in later editions of No Sacred Cows.).
That said, this movie isn’t perfect. There are a number of issues, big, small and utterly nitpicky to go over. So I’ll stop wasting time and get into it.
The intro, a transport cruising between the stars, the crew and passengers in cryosleep, works really well. It’s a great establishing shot and once the crash starts it’s exciting as hell. Also, I love internal monologues, so Riddick’s gravelly voiced analysis of the other characters gets me right in the sweet spot. But… there are a few holes, no micrometer pun intended. This ship has to be superluminal, there’s no way around it. You can’t travel between the stars at Einsteinian speeds. That said, any superluminal ship would have to have particle shielding, or even the free floating carbon dust of space would scour the hull to nothing in moments. Space is not an absolute vacuum. In fact it’s full of solar and galactic winds that have a pretty impressive amount of force behind them. So, how exactly does a pokey little comet throw a super-light tramp transport off course, out of control… and fill it full of holes? Chalk it up to a Failure of Writing I guess.
Anyway, the ship lands, crashing down in an improbable but certainly more believable way than the half battlecruiser crash in Attack of the Clones [I’m sorry, the Geek in me made me look it up, “The Invisible Hand, a modified Providence-class Carrier/Destroyer”] and those who survive survive. Including Jack, a Sweet Polly Oliver , so obvious it makes you want to smash your head against a wall. “Thanks for Saving our Dicks?” Oh my god, could you be a more transparent girl? and Mr. Johns, who (no offense to Cole Hauser) is not nearly enough of a badass to have captured Riddick in the first place. What, did he get lucky or did Riddick kill the rest of Johns’s crew while they took him down?
But characterization aside, and the rest of the characters are damn fine (especially the Imam, although his disciples are completely faceless and disposable), the other problems are a bit more glaring in the light of three suns. What are the chances of there being an outpost on this uninhabited rock? Let alone it being a short jog away from the crash site? Well, since this is an inhabitable planet (in theory) along a trade route, not too bad… but couldn’t they have dropped a line about Fry (the pilot, not the character from Futurama) aiming to land near the outpost? Because otherwise it’s the biggest deus ex machina ever, especially since the survivors pretty much head towards it completely at random. The Gods of Fate must really love Riddick.
Another failure of logic, although it sets up the scene later, why didn’t they take all the power cells with them to the outpost instead of just one? Even if Johns was planning on keeping Riddick off balance until the last possible minute, they still needed to get off planet at some point… but then again, this is me nitpicking, because at that point they really didn’t understand their peril.
But then we get back to failures of writing. The eclipse happens exactly every 22 years, to the month. Really? That would be Earth years and months, right? Or local ones? If Earth time, why would an alien star system have that kind of synchrony with the Sol System? If not, and it’s local time… ummm, the celestial body in Pitch Black is clearly a moon of the massive gas giant or they couldn’t be that close together. Would it have months? How would Fry know how long a local month is? This whole issue is making my brain hurt. Lets drop it like Twohy should have.
Still, Planet rise was completely awesome… Although in a spectacular failure of planetary physics, the planet has two sets of rings, at angles to one another. Rings can only form around the center of spin. I don’t think that the gas giant has two axes of spin so how does it have two different sets of rings? Also, why the hell doesn’t the Sandcat have batteries? Yes, The Black Moon has nearly continuous sunlight (except when it’s in eclipse, which should, at the speed the planet rose, have lasted a few hours tops, but which wikipedia says is a year long eclipse) but it’s also a desert covered in sand so it probably has sandstorms… plus, wouldn’t it have been manufactured on a planet that didn’t have 22 years of continuous sunlight? I’m just saying.
Once the first act is done and everything gets much more adrenaliny, the time for thinking is mostly passed… but a few problems remain. Yeah, it’s time for the “What the Hell do those things Eat?” questions. This planet… er, moon, is apparently nearly dead, thanks I’m sure to the the cyclic rampages of the creatures… which are apparently called Bio-Raptors… but shouldn’t the planet’s ecology have evolved to deal with them? Shouldn’t the planet be at peak eco-output right before the eclipse and the massive purge caused by a year of darkness and mass predation? Or has everything gone dormant to hide from the ravenous monsters… in which case, seriously, “WHAT THE HELL DO THOSE THINGS EAT?”
The only other life form we see on the planet that’s alive are the Deus-ex-glowbugs in the Deus-ex-hole blocked by the Deus-ex-rock. My friend (yes, I only have the one) pointed out to me that it makes sense for the only other life form that is active when the “Creatures” are active to have a defense against them (the glow)… but still, they sure show up just in the nick of time, as does the solid rock cave they live in (it has to be solid, because the Creatures can burrow through sand and dirt, but apparently not solid rock).
Anyway, one last point before I move on. How did the light cord generator break from falling over? It survived a crash from fricken space!!!!! I know, I know, because the plot demanded it, but really? Sigh, stupid panicky twit… but wouldn’t he have moved towards the light instead of away from it. Flight responses usually move us towards safety, not into the dangerous dark unknown.
Over all, Pitch Black was tight, brilliantly lit, rich, flavorful, and had good (but not perfect) writing. Is it a classic, absolutely. It’s a great monster movie with some really nice action. It is a solid, enjoyable piece of cinema and well worth a couple of hours every now and then, whenever there is popcorn or twizzlers to be eaten.
DEFENDING THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK
In 2004, four years after Pitch Black, Twohy and Diesel got back together to make Chronicles, a serious attempt to expand on both the Riddick Character and the Universe he came from. Now, claims that it ripped off Firefly but using the term “Verse” aside there are any number of complaints against Chronicles, some warranted, some less so. Of course, the biggest problem was the PG-13 rating they were forced to shoot for in order to garner the 105-120 million dollar budget. Turning an R rated property into a PG-13 one is always problematic, but even more so in this case, since the expanded Riddick Universe required more story-telling and less action. The fans of the first film were often a little confused by the sudden swerve from Aliens bughunt to Dune epic interplanetary war territory.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Chronicles however is the self-conscious terminology, that use of names that seem less than organic. A prison planet called “Crematoria” seems fine, it’s not like it had much of a tourist industry, and Helion Prime is good too, Greek names for star systems are a classic… but Furyan? Elemental Race? Come on. U.V. for a planet that’s lit only in Ultraviolet light? Sigh. But the movie also gets a lot of flack for naming the religion of the death cult baddies “Necromongers”. Now, Necro means death and Monger means “Dealer” so Deathdealer is a pretty spot on term and using older languages to describe things is pretty spot on. Telephone is a distance talker, spaceship is a ship that moves in space, and Christianity is the anity of the Anointed One. Religions are like that. They get names that tell you about them. Buddhism is the ism of Buddha or Enlightened One, Judaism is the ism of the Jews or the tribe of Juda, Islam / Muslim (which are, believe it or not, the same word just conjugated differently) is “Voluntary submission to God”. Pentacostal means “of Fifty Days”, Baptist means “washed”… this is how religions are named. Necromongers for a death cult without a godhead makes perfect sense… and has a nice ring to it. It says “We’re evil, and we’re okay with that.”
But that aside, this movie is beautiful, action packed, and the thematic, all-encompassing architecture of both Helion and Necromonger cultures, their costumes and the clashes between them are gorgeous examples of art direction. It’s atypical too, with the Light side (Helion being “Of the Sun”) being somewhat grainy and not at all pure (consumed with paranoia and fear) and the Dark side (everything about the Necromongers is Grey, not black) being lit brightly and crisply, says that this is a movie with no easy answers, no black or white. Indeed, Aereon, the Elemental, is the only figure in white in the film, the only one with absolutely unblemished morality… and she wants nothing more than to restore balance and order. And her tag line “In times like these, Evil should be fought by another kind of Evil”, is both on the nose and wholly accurate.
Also, giving Riddick human enemies to fight and human problems to overcome is a nice change of pace. Pitting RBR against monsters showed him to be a badass, but we have no measure of how dangerous the creatures of Pitch Black actually were. All the other humans were terrified survivors or a wildly unstable asshole merc with zero badass points. Having Riddick fight warriors we’ve seen in action, absolutely slaughtering their way through a trained army, heedless of losses… yeah, it gives us a yardstick. When he takes down the Necromonger champion, a man totally unfazed by having a knife sticking out of his back for at least the last few hours, in seconds no less, sells the badass… even if Riddick’s presence at that assembly makes only marginal, “I wonder what this is all about” kinda sense. But again, I can see that. I’d want to know why the invading army just rounded up a bunch of people and is now preaching to them. That might be information worth having.
And I love how everyone is on Helion Prime is talking about the Necromongers in hushed tones before the invasion. It fits the theme, the feel… I imagine that people in Poland and Hungary were doing much the same thing in the days and months before the Mongols swept in and killed everyone. Sure, it’s throw away, but it informs us of the knowledge of impending doom. We see the paranoia of the civic police or whatever the helmeted forces of Helion Prime are and how scared they are of the coming threat. And in the opening shot of the film we are both shown and told how dangerous the Necromongers are. And I love narration. Anyone who doesn’t love narration has no joy in their soul. My mother used to read stories to me when I was a kid, and after my father went blind, I’d read to him. There is a simple beauty in the act of narration, a transmission of history and culture that is so much more visceral than any other form of media. The Oral History is mankind’s first art form, and those who pooh pooh it have forgotten much.
Complaints against The Chronicles usually involve clouding the mythos, but frankly there wasn’t anywhere else to go with Riddick’s story. He was a cypher in the original, a character without a past and an uncertain future. Indeed, all the characters in Pitch Black were cyphers. They were thrown together by circumstance and never really had the time to share backstories with us nor we the time to listen. For Chronicles to tell a story it would have to expand the setting to give us more of a framework. It couldn’t just be another Pitch Black, with running and screaming and dying. Riddick is a murderous near-savage sociopath, a survivor who wants nothing more than to be left alone. He needs a reason to be drawn back into the company of men and the reluctant hero is a classical trope for good reasons. Is the backstory that Riddick is the last of his kind, a race slaughtered to the last child by a warlord too afraid of prophecy to let them survive, over done? Yes, absolutely. Self-fulfilling prophecy and “the last of his kind” are tropes older than fiction, but that fact makes them the building blocks of mythology, which is what, by and large, Twohy and Diesel were going for.
Sure, the film did poorly in the box office, recouping only about 98% of its budget worldwide, after a disastrous showing in the US… but it’s recouped its losses and then some on DVD and it’s a fine film. Is it a great film? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I doubt it’s even in the top 100 sci-fi films of all time… but it’s a good, solid sci-fi epic and really not one to be missed.
And one final word before I move on to part three, Jack might have been an annoying (and somewhat creepy) little twit in the first movie, but daaaaamn, she growed up nice. Shame they killed her. Bastards.
RIDDICK, A REVIEW
The third and latest film in the franchise is a stripped down return to form. They have very consciously removed the “Chronicles” part, leaving a movie that is lean on story but rich on both action and character. As I said in my defense of The Chronicles, they could not have made another Pitch Black to follow Pitch Black and just as surely they could not have made another Chronicles to follow Chronicles. They needed to strip away the trappings from Riddick and get him back to basics, back to his role as hunter. He has always been a reluctant hero… now it’s time for him to serve his self and discover his origins… but not yet. That’s a Chronicles thing, better served for the fourth film. For now, we need Riddick lean, mean, and… this time, calling the shots.
The film opens, and remains for a good thirty minutes or so, focused on that stripping away, that getting back to basics. We witness Riddick’s temptation by the Necromongers, who entice him with pleasures of the flesh and temporal power, and when that fails, they (in the form of Carl Urban’s creepy as hell Lord Vaako) lure him out of the way with promises of taking him to Furya. Only to betray him of course. There are little things here, mocking notes which must be deliberate. The Menace of the Necromongers has been dispelled, and they are shown to be a little silly, a little over the top and stupid. They cry out “Threshold, take us to the threshold”, more of a desperate sports chant than the war cry of a victorious army. And with Riddick out of the way and without their unkillable half-dead marshall, this leaves us to hope that, under Lord Vaako’s self-centered and hedonistic guidance, they will self destruct spectacularly.
The five years, give or take, that Riddick spends alone on his new world, healing his injuries and hunting the various nasties, is a really special piece of film-making. Riddick is a stoic, a hardcase, and unlike Tom Hanks in Castaway, he doesn’t go crazy from the isolation. He works through it. The silence is refreshing, a studied change of pace, broken only by Riddick’s monologue of survival. And the cute jackal beast he tames and raises, showing that Riddick is less a monster and more just a survivor with very, very poor social skills. He’s not a murderer by choice, but simply because his past has made him one.
His escape from the desert lowlands, past the den of the water-dwelling “Mud Demons”, which is and of itself a really cool sequence and gives us a very good idea of what these nasties look like (something that we kinda missed in Pitch Black), to the savannah uplands plays out nicely and the seed that something nasty is coming is planted when Riddick witnesses something in the slowly moving storm system sweeping across the lands below. We don’t know what it is, but his sense of urgency, which builds with every passing scene, is enough to drive tensions higher and higher… but could have been done a little better. Some sense of movement when he views the ground beneath the storm, just to give us a clue, and a few more reminders between the time he hits the button to summon rescue and the time he tells his would-be rescuers that they’re well and truly fucked would have been nice… and speaking of them.
Finding a Merc base atop the high ground savannah, Riddick uses its emergency beacon to summon bounty hunters to collect him, knowing he can terrorize them into giving him a ship. Two crews with two ships show up. The first, a ragtag and brutal bunch led by Santana, bring with them a female quarry they’ve been systematically abusing (almost certainly raping) and a naive young Christian who will be, spoiler, the only survivor of that crew, as he’s the only decent one of them. The second crew however, is the more interesting.
It’s led by Boss Johns (yes, that appears to be his real name) father of Asshole Johns (not his real name) from the first movie. Boss Johns wants to know what happened to his son, and he’s been hunting for Riddick for a decade now. It’s nice, and works really well to tie things together… although Johns junior looked to be about 25 (which was how old Cole Hauser was when he appeared in Pitch Black), which, given that this is ten years after Pitch Black, would put Johns Senior at roughly sixty. If so, he looks damned spry for it… especially since the actor who plays Boss, Matthew Nable, is only 41… which he looks. Future anti-aging treatments must be working.
As many of my fellow internet critics have pointed out, the misogyny factor is high in this movie… sky high. There are five women in this movie. Three of them are lineless naked Necromonger whores (although I’m not sure they’d actually get paid for sleeping with Riddick, they’re clearly there just to seduce him), and one is a heavily traumatized young woman who Santana shoots in the back 2 minutes after she first appears. The fifth, however is Starbuck… I mean Katee Sackhoff, as Dahl (yes, pronounced Doll) who is hot, as usual. Especially when we get to see her topless, playing a hard as nails lesbian, who Riddick promises to get “Balls Deep in… but only after she asks”. But Santana, the leader of the “bad” bounty hunters is truly scum… yet for all that, he’s a bad man… so why are people complaining about the bad man being bad. Isn’t that the point of him being scum and thus deserving of decapitation? I don’t get that. Still, it’s easy to see why there really isn’t a place for women in this movie. The nicer of the two crews are still bounty hunters and mercenaries, while Santana’s crew would have driven any woman to suicide or homicide long since.
Riddick is beyond badass in this film. Apparently gone are the superpowers of Chronicles… or are they? He survives falling off a cliff with only a broken leg… which seems to heal fairly rapidly, slows his heart rate to nearly nothing, builds up an impressive immunity to a rather nasty venom, and survives being stabbed in, what appears to be, the heart. But then again, this is Dick Riddick, a man who it is implied, might even have won the grudging respect of Dahl, who might or might not have, but probably not, slept with Riddick. The movie doesn’t say thus it is open to interpretation.
All in all, it was a fun film, a return to form and I loved the Mud Demons. They are nasty bastards, combining the nastier parts of lung-fish, scorpions, and the Bioraptors from Pitch Black… which they might be related too, if jaws are anything to go by. Go and see it if you haven’t, and let me know what you think in the comments below. I’m not always right… oh yes, wait a tick, I am!