Monday, March 01, 2010

Richard B. Riddick: Escaped convict, Murderer and John Carpenter Anti-Hero

"All you people are so scared of me. Most days I'd take that as a compliment. But it ain't me you gotta worry about now..."

-Carpenter-esque anti-hero Riddick (Vin Diesel) assesses the situation in Pitch Black

In my previous post, I described writer/director David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000) as "the best John Carpenter movie not actually directed by John Carpenter." In terms of explanation, this comparison all comes down to the vital character of Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel), and the way that Pitch Black's anti-social hero interfaces with his distinctly imperfect universe.

Specifically, Riddick relates to his world and views his surroundings (and fellow humans) in a manner remarkably similar to the Carpenter anti-hero prototype depicted in the auteur's filmed works from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to Escape from New York (1981) to Ghosts of Mars (2001).

Given this postulate, I propose six essential qualities of the Carpenter-esque hero and his world. After noting pertinent examples in Carpenter's cinematic canon, I will describe how Riddick -- at least in Pitch Black -- also fits the bill.

1.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero is a man whose reputation precedes him. He's also a Bad MF.

In Carpenter's oeuvre, the anti-hero is often a notorious man known because of his (usually criminal...) exploits. His deeds have separated him from most of humanity; and the masses gaze at him with a combination of fear, awe, and curiosity.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is a subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug, an indiscriminate killer. There was something...else going on when he committed his crimes.

In Escape from New York, Snake Plissken is greeted at virtually ever destination with the same comment; one that establishes his history and mythic stature: "I thought you were dead." In Escape from L.A. (1996), a satiric take on the character, this comment is changed to "I thought you'd be taller." The point, in both circumstances, is that before meeting the anti-hero for themselves, people already boast a pre-conceived, larger-than-life notion of him and his actions.

The anti-hero may be a law-breaker, but he's no ordinary law-breaker. He's much more than that. In Pitch Black, Riddick is described by Jack (Rhiana Griffith) in similar fashion, as an accomplished murderer, a total BMF: "He'd probably get you here, right here, under the chin, and you'd never even hear him. That's how good Riddick is!," he establishes. Earlier, Riddick's captor, Johns (Cole Hauser), notes that Riddick is dangerous "only around humans." And that if Riddick finds you in your sleep, he could well "skull-fuck you." Again, this is myth-making pure-and-simple; a creation of the character as something out of the realm of the ordinary.

Why build-up a character, a criminal, like this? Well, when the moment of dying comes, these various films require a protagonist of extraordinary skill and efficiency; one the audience can have utter confidence in. And, Carpenter is eternally in the anti-establishment camp, so traditional heroes, like policeman, aren't going to do the job. Carpenter's anti-heroes universally-combat members of the establishment too, including Hauk, Malloy, Starker, etc. Riddick has this kind of establishment nemesis as well: the drug-addicted Johns.

2.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero is a Man of Unique and Distinctive Vision. Literally.

The Carpenter anti-hero is universally a maverick "born out of time," to quote Wilson, a man who views the world quite differently than the forces of authority who dominate it.

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom in both Escape films. John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind humanity's existence (and the Republican agenda...) in They Live (1988).

In Pitch Black, Riddick is also a character who shuns authority, and exists only around the periphery of it.

More trenchantly, the "vision" of these characters is all hampered (or perhaps augmented?) in a fashion that visually separates them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake wears an eye-patch. John Nada adorns a pair of sunglasses (which he wears throughout the film), so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.

Riddick is no different. His eyes have been surgically altered. "When you get sent to a slam, where they tell you you'll never see daylight again, you dig up a doctor, and you pay him 20 menthol Kools to do a surgical shine job on your eyeballs," he tells Jack. This means Riddick can see in the dark (and also see who is sneaking up on him.) Like Snake and Nada, Riddick's vision is literally a quality that separates him from others. The idea that he "sees" differently is critical to an understanding of the anti-establishment character, and we have that in Snake, Nada and Riddick.

3.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero establishes kinship with a woman with perceived comparable qualities.

A long-time admirer of Western director Howard Hawks, John Carpenter often populates his films with the so-called Hawksian woman. Authors Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack describe a Hawks woman in this fashion (Introduction to Film Criticism, Longman, 1989, page 72):

"She has a sense of identity beyond her alliances (with high society), and she is committed only to those personal ties she wishes to acknowledge."

Think of Feathers (Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo (1959), or Leigh (named after Leigh Brackett) in Assault on Precinct 13. In the case of the latter, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) is able to cross societal barriers to accept Napoleon Wilson -- a criminal -- as a trusted ally and even a man of honor. In Ghosts of Mars, Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is able to put aside her role as hard-boiled cop to team up with the notorious criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). They come to realize that they are, in essence, two-of-a-kind.

In Pitch Black, Riddick similarly detects something kindred in pilot Caroline Fry (Radha Mitchell): they're both survivors; they both understand their situation, as well as the sacrifices that will have to made. Only in Caroline's case, after nearly making a decision that would kill her wards during the crash, she willfully steps back from the moral precipice. She refuses to accept her own survival as the bottom line and actively seeks to save the other people stranded on this pitch black planet of the flying piranhas.

Importantly, Fry also chooses to place her trust in Riddick over his nemesis, Johns, who masquerades as a police officer (but is really a merc). So again, a Hawks-styled self-sufficient woman has put aside established "roles" in society, and selected an alliance based on her own "personal ties" and feelings about which man is more trustworthy.

Riddick mercilessly tests Fry, urging her to leave the other stranded castaways behind, but she beats him at his own game. She shames Riddick by her refusal to act in selfish terms. They may both be tough; they may both be capable, but Fry is connected to the human race in a way that Riddick is not. Riddick thinks he can grow Fry's killer instinct; Fry proves she can nurture Riddick's dormant conscience.

4.) The Carpenter anti-hero is a man been burned by religious faith, though it still has a place in his psyche.

The Carpenter anti-hero is one with few connections to the mortal coil, and yet who feels equally disappointed by the dogma of religion and faith.

In The Thing (1982), Kurt Russell's helicopter pilot MacReady notes that "faith is a hard thing to come by these days." In Assault on Precinct 13, Wilson comments that, as a boy, he met a preacher who told him that, as he grew up, he would "have something to do with death." This odd comment affected him. It was a prophecy that came true.

Riddick also has a relationship with faith that isn't strictly positive. When he is questioned about his religious beliefs by the Imam (played by Carpenter regular and star of The Thing and They Live, Keith David), Riddick rails against him, and against the Divine's role in his life:

"Think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? Think he could start out in some liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe? Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God... And I absolutely hate the fucker."

Incidentally, Riddick's bad childhood also gives him another trait in common with Carpenter anti-heroes such as orphaned Jack Crow (Vampires [1998]), and Nada, from They Live.

5.) Through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Order" is changed.

The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into darkness, so that America can start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending constant hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.

In an intriguing variation of the Carpenter aesthetic, the order that Riddick changes in Pitch Black involves his own personal code of conduct. After Fry dies, instead of fleeing the planet in the escape transport, Riddick returns to rescue the Imam and Jack. He essentially fulfills Fry's mission. He is shamed by the fact that she has "died for him," (certainly a religious allegory; a kind of Christ-like self-sacrifice from Fry that essentially washes away Riddick's sin). "Not for me!" He complains. He views himself unworthy of Fry's sacrifice, and now must make himself worthy.

After the escape from the planet, Jack asks what should be done if the transport encounters the authorities (and mercs). "Tell them Riddick's dead. He died somewhere back on that planet," Riddick states, an acknowledgment that the change has come from inside his soul. The old Riddick is dead. The Riddick that Fry tried so hard to nurture has finally taken his place.

6.) He is a man whose enemies represent a faceless, unthinking legion; a legion that doesn't recognize individual personality, pain, or even humanity.

The Carpenter anti-hero -- a flawed (but strong) human -- is almost universally pitted against a very specific kind of enemy: an attacking horde that seems to lack the anti-hero's enormous sense of individuality.

The gang in Assault on Precinct 13, Street Thunder, consists of hundreds of undifferentiated goons who keep attacking the police station regardless of personal injury or mortality. They just keep attacking, like robots, or zombies.

Inside New York Penitentiary, Snake encounters the "Crazies," another band of indiscriminate, animalistic killers. Even in Ghosts of Mars, the warrior Martians are not differentiated as individuals on the whole (save for Big Daddy Mars), but rather as a horde. And when one dies, his spirit moves into another body, sort of the ultimate in anonymity and horde-attacking. Likewise, Prince of Darkness also features hordes of homeless people as "cells" manipulated by Satan.

Although not human, the flying dragons of Pitch Black boast some of the same characteristics. They are indeed a swarm; a beast-like enemy that seems able to act both collectively and individually, and on instinct rather than evolved human motives. Riddick defeats them because he can "see" them in a way the others can't. He learns their weak spots.

Given how easily Riddick fits into the Carpenter anti-hero paradigm, Pitch Black is not merely a terrific, scary and engaging horror film (and one of the best of the 2000s), but a production that faithfully pays homage to one of the finest genre directors of the past quarter-century. Thus Riddick joins the ranks of Napoleon Wilson, Snake Plissken, John Nada and Desolation Williams. He is a criminal, a murderer, an outsider, and a maverick.

And when "the tide is getting high" and the "time of dying" is at hand, Riddick is also the one man you absolutely want fighting at your side.


  1. Wow, what a fascinating analysis of this film and the character of Riddick. It only reaffirms my belief, that in some respects, David Twohy is the Second Coming of John Carpenter. It made me think that his film BELOW is a Hawksian ensemble piece a la Carpenter's THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS as a group of men (and a woman) deal with the threat from the Other, something of supernatural origin.

    Watching PITCH BLACK again served as a sobering reminder of how Twohy and Diesel really lost the plot with CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK but to continue the Carpenter analogy, it is the ESCAPE FROM LA to PITCH BLACK's awesome ESCAPE FROM NY.

  2. Hey J.D.,

    Now I really, really need to see BELOW, especially given that Hawksian descriptor. Very interesting.

    And I agree with you that Chronicles of Riddick dropped the ball a bit: too much universe-building for my taste, and not enough about Riddick the man; Riddick the anti-hero.

    Thanks for the comment (and for recommending BELOW).


  3. I'll echo J.D.'s sentiments with your examination of Riddick as in the Carpenter vein of anti-hero. I think your examples, especially, break this down beautifully. I very much appreciate your mentioning of the Hawksian woman and their influence here in the films and on the anti-hero. I have soft spot for Feathers, Slim, and Maggie myself. The other thing I thing worth saying is the number of great films you've listed in this. Isn't funny that most of these would have been, in their day, thought of as B-pictures by mainstream film critics, but have grown in stature and have had influence on newer filmmakers and incisive writers like yourself. I dare say that few of the studio A-list (big-budget and brainless) will have the self-life as the ones you've referenced here, John. Thanks very much for this.

    p.s., if I could also recommend a film, it would be the one I took in over the weekend: THE CRAZIES. It was a great update of that George Romeo '73 oldie (GR was also the Executive Producer of this new version). This one has some chilling visuals along with a good update to the story. I hope you take this in and give it a review (do it quick because, if my screening was any indication, it won't be in theaters for long). I could count on one hand the number of people watching it with me.

  4. Hey LeOpard13:

    I definitely want to see The Crazies. I have heard good things about it; and your recommendation carries a lot of weight with me. Hope I can get to it before it gets pulled...

    And you are right about the great movies listed in this post: Assault on Precinct 13, Rio Bravo, Escape from New York, Pitch Black, etc.

    These were all considered B movies at some point, it's true but today they have a deeper resonance, especially with our generation.

    Carpenter is a unique artist, and in one way or another, he has pulled Rio Bravo and Pitch Black into his orbit (or David Twohy has pulled the Carpenter archetypes into his orbit...).