Saturday, December 7, 2013

Riddick

2013, David Twohy -- in theatre
(countdown to the World's End, day 7, part 2)

I've been keen to write this review since the credits rolled after my screening in mid-October, because I have so many thoughts, opinions and emotions when it comes to Riddick, the character, and the film series.  Of course, I probably should have written this that same night, alas, the backlog of write-ups made me feel guilty about jumping the queue.

Where to start... I love Riddick... the character, not the movie.  Pitch Black is one of the most awesome sci-fi-action-horror films ever made.  It doesn't have quite the refined quality as, say, Alien, but it's brilliant in its execution, setting up Riddick as its villain, only to make him its hero.  Twohy mined multiple cross-genre B-movie tropes and combined them into a deceptively simple film, shot in an attractively alien locale, and maximizing his modest effects budget with a bevvy of lighting tricks.

The follow-up, the maligned Chronicles of Riddick, went the complete opposite direction of the first feature, opting for grandiose space opera, as Riddick traveled between worlds, a man against an entire civilization that glorifies death.  It's a messy picture but full of invention, operating on a scale its budget struggled to support, manned by a director that knows what he wants out of his pictures but is often challenged only by his own skill in achieving it.  For all the awkwardness, Chronicles in the right mindset is joyously delightful.  Twohy specializes in making films that are a cut-above direct-to-video but a step below summer blockbuster.  He's more clever a storyteller than high-budgeted filmmakers like Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay but his tastes are on the fringes and thus so is his appeal.

Riddick comes out of Chronicles as a king, and my mind dizzied as to where it would go from there.  Alas, Chronicles fared poorly at the box office and it looked like there would be no more Chronicles in Riddicks future.  Nearly a decade later, a new Riddick movie comes as a welcome surprise.  Knowing that the budget has been dramatically slashed, we were not going to be treated to another grand epic, but outside of the fact that Riddick (the movie) would be more confined I didn't know what it would be.

What it is, in fact, is a terrible movie.
Really, it's laughably ridiculous.
I loved it.
Tremendously.

Riddick (the movie) looks back longingly at the sci-fi movies of the mid-1980's, the post-Star Wars trilogy era when studios were looking for anything to fill in the gap and completely unaware or unsure of what would work.  A lot of B-movies got an A-movie release... Enemy Mine, Solarbabies, the Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and the like all came and went but somehow resonated not with the cinemagoer but the young videocassette-hungry youth.  Twohy, with Riddick (the movie) mines those lower-budget, mid-quality flicks for inspiration and what results is a plodding half hour in which Riddick, stranded on a desolate desert  planet, recovers from injuries, has a flashback, and makes friends with a dog-like cgi thing.  It's terrible, and yet, absolutely perfect for taking Riddick from grand scope to confined budget.

Vin Diesel hasn't had a lot of showcase screentime over the past few years.  Even his Fast and Furious endeavors have been ensemble pieces and his broad physique, normally quite impressive is overshadowed by the massive Dwayne Johnson.  But here, it's him against some cgi and the environment, and he's ridiculous.  Riddick is a worn glove for Diesel, one he can slip into with ease, it just requires a bit of grimacing and a lot of brooding, with sporadic croaking of barely intelligible words.

I went in expecting a relentless actioner, but that half hour of a man-and-his-dog really establishes a different pace and setting than we've seen Riddick in before. The average explosion-hungry blockbuster audience wouldn't sit patiently through that, but fans of genre films will key right into the trope and, like me, adore it.

But that's just the first act.  After roaming the desert, Riddick finds a bounty hunter waystation and sets off the alarm, calling a "rescue" ship that's in every probability going to attempt capturing or killing him.  Unexpectedly, two different ships arrive and a pissing match occurs between the rival teams as they realize their target is a most dangerous one indeed.  The second act sees Diesel disappear into the shadows, leaving the teams of mercenaries to work themselves into a fervor around the legend of Riddick as he starts to pick them off one-by-one, continuing the terror until one of the team gives up their ship.

But even this aspect isn't allowed to play to fruition, as a storm is coming on this desert world, and with the storm brings a world of trouble that will kill them all... they don't heed the warning.  The storm awakens monsters, and Riddick must team with his hunters (or rather, his prey) in a fight for survival as they try to somehow salvage their ships and make it off planet alive.

The mercs are a cookie-cutter cast of international third-string characters actors, the most prominent of them being Battlestar Galactica's Katie Sackhoff and UFC fighter Dave Bautista.  This gaggle of toughguys and girls makes for a perpetual pissing contest, but despite how conventional it is, it's still quite entertaining.  Twohy knows how to play with genre conventions, making it silly but fun.

The final act sees a planet of scarab-like beastie thingies coming to surface, and Riddick (the film) rips its own progenitors off as it emulates almost exactly the rhythms concepts of Pitch Black, as if Twohy was saying, "if you just want me to repeat Pitch Black, then I guess I'll repeat Pitch Black".  But despite a couple dodgy effects sequences (primarily the dodgy rocket-hogs, poorly designed and equally awfully executed in animation) Twohy plays things somewhat differently, by pulling a lot of visual references from fantasy and sci-fi artists.  Like the final shot of Chronicles, there's a battle on a peak -- Riddick (the character) forced up a mound by a horde of scarab-y creatures -- that's backlit by a lightning strike that might as well be a Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt painting.

The third act particularly feels not just over the top but that it swung back down, around and went back over again.  It just piles on moment after moment that feel like an endless parade of utterly worn cinematic genre tropes being trotted out, because it is.  Twohy here knows exactly what he's doing.  He's reveling in cliche, and not archly, but for fun.  Pushed only a tiny bit further and it goes from ridiculous to hilarious... Riddick (the film) is so close to being a parody comedy, but it's enjoying the tropes it keeps drawing upon.  I imagine Diesel and Twohy had a tremendous amount of fun making this film.

It's a awful picture, but it's supposed to be.  Riddick fans will appreciate everything happening here and ask for more.