Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Cult-Movie Review: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dark new worlds. Necromongers, they're called. And if they cannot convert you, they will kill you. Leading them: the Lord Marshal. He alone has made a pilgrimage to the gates of the UnderVerse... and returned a different being. Stronger. Stranger. Half alive and half... something else. If we are to survive, a new balance must be found. In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.”
- Introductory voice-over narration, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Following the box office success of Pitch Black (2000), writer/director David Twohy was afforded the opportunity to construct a big-budget franchise around the film’s break-out character: Vin Diesel’s anti-hero, Riddick.
In 2004, The Chronicles of Riddick -- a sort of “Riddick meets Dune” re-vamp of the Riddick-verse -- was released to mixed critical reviews and middling box office. Heavy on CGI landscapes and quick-cut fight sequences The Chronicles of Riddick undeniably proved imaginative and ambitious…perhaps to a fault.
A decade later, the film’s extensive special effects appear highly-dated, and one can also detect how the film shoe-horns two good stories together, even though, perhaps, they should have remained as two separate chapters. One story involves Riddick’s escape from a burning planet called “Crematoria” and the rescue of a friend, Jack, while the other involves his interactions with a malevolent cosmic army the Necromongers, and unexpected ascent to the empire’s throne.
Each story in its own right would have made a great second Riddick picture, but The Chronicles of Riddick often experiences trouble finding the right balance between them, and erects too vast a “mythic” architecture around Riddick.
No longer is he merely a gifted and clever outlaw. Instead, Riddick is the subject of sacred galactic prophecy, and the man who can save the universe from slipping into perpetual darkness. Riddick thus carries more weight on his muscular shoulders than Atlas himself, and there are times in the film when it’s all too much. Choosing one story (and saving the next for a sequel) would have streamlined the movie and resulted in a more appealing, cohesive sequel.
When I first screened The Chronicles of Riddick in theaters, I felt profoundly disappointed with it, feeling that the film was over-stuffed and over-burdened in terms of “world building” and mythology-building. What I had connected with so deeply in Pitch Black was the simple idea of a man surviving an inhospitable planetary environment and eco-system using his wits, and his own code of morality. The Chronicles of Riddick features moments that reflect that particular (original) aesthetic, but everything has been made so grand and “galactic,” that much humanity is lost in the process.
Watching the film again for this review, I must acknowledge that I enjoyed and appreciated The Chronicles of Riddick much more than I had before, while still feeling that Twohy had miscalculated somewhat in terms of approach.
Riddick is Riddick, and he can thrive or survive anywhere. He doesn’t need to be “The Chosen One” or the messiah for audiences to feel interest in his adventures. Yet today, I can also detect how The Chronicles of Riddick -- released in 2004 -- meaningfully reflects its War on Terror Age context. The film involves a group of fundamentalist radicals, so called “World Enders” that have hijacked “established” civilization (think Iran, or Iraq) for belligerent purposes. This subplot is pretty clearly a metaphor for radical Islam.
Also -- and I never picked up on this element before -- one of my very astute readers here, blogger Roman J. Martel, noted in the comments section of the Pitch Black review that my description of Riddick reminded him “strongly” of Robert E. Howard’s vision of Conan.
Roman’s insight is doubly true of The Chronicles of Riddick.
Much of the mythology that comes to surround Riddick in this sequel feels like a space age variation on Conan’s mythology. Many details match, or at least line-up. That insight and literary context from Roman actually brings new luster to The Chronicles of Riddick, and makes the film much more intriguing to discuss and debate.
So there is plainly more in The Chronicles of Riddick than I saw in 2004, even while some of the film’s flaws have not been ameliorated with the passing of a decade.
“There's gonna be one speed: mine. If you can't keep up, don't step up. You'll just die.”
On a planet consisting only of ultra-violet light, the bounty hunter Toombs (Nick Chinlund) attempts to capture the escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel), who has not been seen in five years. Riddick promptly kills Toombs’ crew, strands Toombs on the planet, and steals his ship.
Riddick learns that the man who put the price on his head lives in New Mecca, in the Helion System. Specifically, his old friend, the Imam (Keith David) is responsible for the bounty. As the Imam -- now a husband and father -- reports to Riddick, the highly-advanced and civilized planet is under threat of invasion from an army of militant religious zealots called “Necromongers.”
Because Imam knows the story of Riddick’s birth -- that he was nearly strangled to death with his own umbilical cord and left for dead in a dumpster -- he suspects that the convict may play a role in the prophecy of the Necromongers’ destruction.
Specifically, it is known that only a Furyan can destroy the Necromongers’ Lord Marshal (Colm Feore). So the Imam sent Toombs to retrieve Riddick, and share this information.
Riddick refuses to take sides in the conflict, but when the Necromongers swarm the planet, and kill the Imam, he fights the Lord Marshal and his soldier tooth-and-nail. Like all the people of New Mecca, Riddick is given a simple choice by the invaders: convert or die.
Riddick escapes from custody, and allows himself to be re-captured by Toombs, in hopes that the bounty hunter will take him to Crematoria, the prison world where his old friend, Jack (Alexa Davalos) has been reported incarcerated.
Toombs complies, and Riddick is dumped in the subterranean “slam” on Crematoria, a planet with an inhospitable, charred surface. Riddick and Jack are reunited, but she now goes by the name of Kyra, and holds a grudge against Riddick for abandoning her five years earlier. Riddick counters that he went into hiding so all the mercenaries gunning for him wouldn’t endanger her.
Putting their differences aside, Riddick and Kyra engineer a jail break to the fiery surface of the planet, even as the Lord Marshal’s top underling, Vaako (Keith Urban) arrives to bring Riddick back to Helion.
But Vaako and his manipulative wife (Thandie Newton) are enmeshed in courtly politics, and believe that Riddick is the key to ridding the Necromongers of the Lord Marshal once and for all. Using Riddick as his assassin, Dame Vaako hopes to install her husband in the Lord Marshal’s place.
“We all began as something else.”
In very basic terms, The Chronicles of Riddick involves an invasion of a highly-civilized planet by fundamentalists that want to either “convert or kill” all sentient beings. There is no negotiation with these violent radicals, either. You either become one of them, or you are destroyed. Concepts such as democracy, education, and civilization mean nothing to these theocrats. They care only for their draconian faith, and their (promised) ascent into another realm, the UnderVerse.
Very plainly, the Necromongers are meant to represent the Taliban, or other radical Islamists who had declared war on the Western world in the first decade of the 21st century. Like the Necromongers, these radicals practice a restrictive, draconian faith, and claim that their (violent) actions in this reality will meet with a reward in the after-life.
This real-life context is reinforced in The Chronicles of Riddick via the setting of the planet Helion and the city of New Mecca.
Specifically, there is a distinctive Middle Eastern design to the visualization of the Imam’s planet. New Mecca looks like it could be a space-age Tehran, or even Baghdad -- on Earth, once the home of the Islamic Golden Age -- before the fever of religious radicalism takes hold. In short, a planet of reason, technology and democracy falls to tyranny. All the progress towards a just and fair society is lost.
The Necromongers are terrifying for the same reason that radical Islam is, in my opinion. Imagine spending generations arduously lifting your culture out of ignorance, fear and superstition through the development of science, education and social justice, only to see a military coup which knowingly reinstates all those vices.
Welcome to the New Dark Ages…
In my introduction, I mentioned the stories of Conan, and The Chronicles of Riddick also offers some unique parallels to that character’s life as it has been depicted in both literary and film form.
In particular we learn that Riddick comes from an extinct planet called Furya. Conan is, likewise, a Cimmerian, another survivor of a dead and gone society.
Furthermore, in both Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Chronicles of Riddick, we learn that a religious cult leader (either Thulsa Doom or the Lord Marshal…) is directly responsible for the death of the hero’s parents. Thus, the life-time quest for that hero -- although he doesn’t know it, initially -- is to avenge his parents’ deaths and vanquish the war lord.
Similarly, Riddick and Conan have both functioned, throughout their narratives, as occasional thieves and outlaws. But they boast one other vocation in common, and it is of vital significance.
They are both kings.
During the denouement of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick assumes, uneasily, the Necromonger throne.
Similarly, in Howard’s mythology (and we see the image briefly in Conan the Barbarian…), Conan also usurps the throne of an enemy. He replaces the tyrant of Aquilonia and becomes that kingdom’s ruler.
In terms of fantasy settings, The Chronicles of Riddick and Conan may even have something else in common: they are both set in a kind of baroque “mythological” age rather than an historical one. Conan’s adventures are set in the long-gone -- and fictional -- age of Hyboria, and The Chronicles of Riddick is set in a distant future epoch.
One other inspiration also helps to lift The Chronicles of Riddick above its over-used CGI and chop-suey cutting: the works of Shakespeare.
Vaako and Dame Vaako are very patently futuristic versions of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth. Like their literary predecessors, these characters ambitiously scheme to control the kingdom, and eliminate the rightful ruler, whether King Duncan or the Lord Marshal.
As befitting MacBeth’s characters, Vaako is the conspirator with doubts and some residual sense of loyalty. And by contrast, Dame Vaako is the one with murderous certainty. Part of the reason that the Necromonger sequences work at all here is because of this Shakespearean dynamic made fresh. The underlings of the Lord Marshal could have been fairly anonymous or lacking in definition, but the MacBeth “homage” adds resonance in a most welcome fashion.
Finally, I also appreciate the welcome visual imagination of The Chronicles of Riddick.
The opening scene set on Planet U.V. is visually-distinctive, and the escape from Crematoria is, perhaps, the film’s adventure high-point.
In the latter case, a group of survivors flee across a desolate planet surface as walls of treacherous fire encroach on them. When Jack becomes trapped on a mountain peak, Riddick must brave the scorching fires to pull her out of mortal danger. It’s all pretty exciting, and dynamically wrought.
In space operas like Star Trek, Dune, and Star Wars, audiences have seen again and again the desert planet, the ice planet, and so on, but The Chronicles of Riddick tries hard to mix things up a bit with its unusual (and dangerous) planetary environments, and that’s certainly a point in the movie’s favor.
My deepest concern about The Chronicles of Riddick has always been the fact that a great (and Carpenter-ian…) anti-hero is ret-conned into being a sort of “Chosen One” on a heroic quest. The comparisons to Conan’s story help ameliorate that concern to a large degree, it’s true, but the thing I’ve always liked about Riddick is that he seems like a very “in the moment” kind of character; one who measures his situation and his options, and acts according his moral code.
Somehow, knowing that Riddick is the “instrument of fate” as it were diminishes some of his virtues. He has been “ordained,” in other words to be special, because of his unique heritage….not because of his experience. I suppose I just like my Riddick movies lean and mean, and without all the pretensions to grandeur. I like the character as a bad-ass…I don’t need him to be a mythology-fueled, supernatural bad ass.
In terms of production design and imagery, I love the concepts of The Chronicles of Riddick, but dislike the execution. I fully realize that CGI is the preferred mode for visualizing other worlds at this juncture in cinema history, and will be for the foreseeable future. But there’s so much CGI in The Chronicles of Riddick that your eyes don’t always know where to look, and they nearly get burned out by the over-stimulation. When absolutely every edifice is colossal and baroque, nothing really looks impressive or stands out anymore. Instead, it all looks kind of…flat.
Similarly, the fight scenes in the film have been turned into nonsensical hash. The quick-cutting ruins any sense of rhythm or momentum, and instead, we’re just watching sheer spectacle: (beautiful) bodies in motion. In these fights, men and women defy gravity (courtesy of wires), but we never really know how or why they do so. In conjunction with the CGI overkill, the editing approach for the fight scenes creates a sense of distance from Riddick.
And so while I remain authentically impressed with the real world War on Terror context and the Conan influences in The Chronicles of Riddick, I am also disappointed by the film’s colossal-ness, to coin a term.
The one quality I sought most in a Riddick sequel was to re-connect with the character emotionally. Riddick has some great lines of dialogue here, and Vin Diesel still moves great, but all the world-building around Riddick keeps us away from getting as close to the guy and his struggles as perhaps viewers would like to be.
Pitch Black was thrilling, spectacular, and most importantly, intimate. The Chronicles of Riddick is….spectacular on a whole other level, but often at the expense of intimacy.
Next Tuesday: Riddick (2013).