Monday, September 05, 2005
The Chronicles of Riddick: Actually a Good Movie?
The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is hell, yes. I'm as surprised as you are.
[Note: I'm talking about the extended edition of Chronicles of Riddick that features an added half-hour of movie. This version is the only one I've ever seen. Also: Spoilers below. This post is lousy with them.]
Watching this film, I kept waiting for it to suck like most people I'd talked to about the movie said it did. Sure, there were moments here and there when I turned to my wife and said, "Yeah, okay. Kinda dumb." (And I admit, the whole palace-intrigue sub-plot wasn't terribly interesting, even though the scenes were diverting and well-acted). But those "dumb" moments were fleeting and were quickly lost in a relentless rush of awesome action sequences or cool new science-fiction ideas explored in an interesting and clever way. Twohy, (who appears at the beginning of the DVD looks very creepy and not at all like I expected. He kinda gave me a disturbed, sociopathic mortician vibe), did amazing work with Pitch Black and did good work with The Arrival (which was one of those better-than-you-thought-it-was-going-to-be movies), and this one, The Chronicles of Riddick, seems to know its genre and really embrace it in an enthusiastic, reverent, and entertaining way.
For example, the section of the film set on a "triple-max" prison planet called Crematoria, ("Crematoria"? A "Triple-Max" prison? -- c'mon, how can anyone not love stuff like this?), is gripping, exciting and inventive. Twohy sets up the rules for this place right off the bat just to make it that much easier to get wrapped up in the payoff. The planet in question is a lot like Mercury. Cold as hell in the dark and practically molten on the side that faces the sun. There's a twenty-mile wide "safe zone" between either side, and it moves as the planet revolves. When one goes outside on the planet, one has to wait until the safe zone shifts to where one's building is, (or, in this case, one's prison). So Riddick and his crew, having escaped from the Triple-Max prison, have to run from Point A (the prison) to Point B (the place where the spaceship's parked) while they're in the ever-shifting safe zone. They have to hurry or they'll be incinerated. It's great stuff. The movie's filled with great action sequences like this. One takes place on a frozen planet wherein we watch a group of mercenaries try to capture Riddick in order to collect a bounty on his head. Another excellent set-piece is set during the night-time invasion of the Imam's planet (played by Keith David, who was also in Pitch Black) by the Necromongers. This sequence is just exciting, pulpy, balls-to-the-wall science-fiction filmmaking. Full of ideas and even some commentary. Here's an example:
The images of green and red anti-aircraft fire lighting up the night sky like day, and the image of an Islamic, desert-city under attack from an unstoppable airborne force, puts one in mind of the current unpleasantness taking place in Iraq. Could Twohy be equating the Necromongers (an all-powerful sect with strange, deep-seated beliefs intent on taking over the entire universe through forcible conversion) with the NeoCon-led United States military? The imagery Twohy uses in this sequence is unmistakable. But forget political allegory for a minute, what about the high-falutin' ideas in this movie?
Never before have I seen or read a film or story that looked at the entire notion of Death through a non-human, non-existential, otherworldly, science-fiction filter. (I concede the point that I probably need to read more science-fiction to have this statement mean all that I want it to, but there it is). Sure, science-fiction movies deal with death all the time, but usually it's only a consequence of disturbing the natural order, waking up some monster or trying too hard to prolong life. Chronicles of Riddick presents us with something else entirely: a race of people who not only BELIEVE that people who have died have gone to a Heaven-like place, (we have that on this planet in spades), but KNOW that Heaven ABSOLUTELY EXISTS, (because, in this world it actually does exist), and is a place reachable by mortal humans through military, non-mystical means. They subscribe to the philosophy of Delivery to the Promised Land by the Barrel of a Gun. These warmongers have completely demystified Death; they've succeeded in making the prospect of a final end out-and-out-desirable even. How else can they make existing in an unceasing, permanent war-footing palatable to its followers? (Again, here's another interesting parallelism between the Necromongers and the modern Christian-American ambition of limited empire). But because the Necromongers' ideology, that all those who have died simply exist in a different "'verse" from our own, is NOT a delusion makes their beliefs and their motives complex and compelling. This is not a bunch of addled missionaries talking about King Jesus and "getting saved". The Necromonger general, called Lord Marshal, (played by the always-believable Colm Feore), who is half-dead and fearsome to his underlings because he's "seen the Underverse", extracts an un-believer's soul in front of a crowd of the newly-conquered and therefore uninitiated. Imagine if the Baptists could do something like that on a Sunday morning. Riddick is a great movie, in part because it's not afraid to throw out new and interesting, and dare I say, complex ideas, and stay true to them throughout.
The imagery in this movie is fantastic. The towering three-headed obelisk the Necromongers spike into conquered planets is a fascinating concept, not to mention just a great, graphic image. The group of mind-readers who "crack" strong and unwilling minds because they're already in touch with the Underverse has a unique design; the bulky, Samurai-inspired costumes and cavernous sets and creature design are awesome throughout. But also Twohy knows his subject: science-fiction. He borrows liberally from well-known books and movies to inform his own film, but tweaks these ideas and makes them feel new again.
[Note: What follows is deeply nerdy.]
How very much like Dune's Saudukar Empire are the Necromongers? Twohy takes their immense imperial might and then gives the Necromongers the Caladanian shields (also from Dune) that distort their forms and make them very hard to kill. Though in Riddick, these Calladian shields are not really shields so much as they are a practiced and lethal use of one's own soul. (Perhaps Riddick's fight against the Necromongers is a metaphor for the forces of secularism fighting against fundamentalist religion, which seems ascendant in modern times. Just a thought). The fight at the end of Chronicles between Lord Marshal (Feore) and Riddick also seems borrowed from Dune: ritualized, titanic and with the fate of the empire on the line. And the last image, the shot of Riddick sitting in the throne, slumped, sullen and slightly bewildered, is straight from the Conan mythology from Robert E. Howard. Twohy, with that shot, is making explicit what was implicit: with the character of Riddick, Twohy is trying to create a new sci-fi/fantasy mythos using a stoic, seemingly-invincible, nearly god-like character in the pulp tradition of Conan the Barbarian. I don't know if he's done it, only time will tell, but I admire him like hell for trying.
One thing I've heard from people who don't like the movie is that Vin Diesel is a problem for them. I can see that. One's perception of a lead actor is very important. My sister never went to see War of the Worlds, for example, because she can't stand Tom Cruise (especially after his "jumping the couch" routine). But for me, in this movie, Diesel's perfect. He's got a heroic-looking physique that fits Twohy's vision of Riddick perfectly, (because, after all, what else does a character like this need for the part? Range? Does he need to cry or be believably likable, even loveable? He needs brawn and charisma, and Diesel's got that pretty well covered), much like Arnold Schwarzeneggar fit John Milius's vision of Conan. Neither of these guys are tremendous actors by a long shot, but they play heroic, pulpy archetypes like nobody's business. Conan does not in any way seem like a live and breathing human being in Howard's original novels, nor did Howard intend him to be: he is a gruff, fearless, Terminator-like, I-Don't-Give-A-F**k antihero who barrels headlong into situations he only barely understands, but then comes out of it, not only victorious, but better than he came into it because he's goddamn strong and he's not going to let anyone beat him. Howard wrote Conan as a bigger, stronger, less-inhibited version of himself who did what he could not do, but wanted to. Riddick is written in the same fantastical, escapist vein. He's cagey, he's strong as hell, and, here's what makes him that much more interesting: he's evil. He's even really a good guy. The line Judi Dench's Elemental character says, that Riddick is "one kind of evil" needed to fight and destroy "another, greater evil," is a fascinating concept. I think an "evil vs. evil" storyline is really worthwhile and I think Twohy pulls it off pretty well. So yeah, in a story like the one Twohy's telling, Riddick tames bloodthirsty man-eating prison beasts, Riddick allows himself to be captured because it serves his short-term interests and also because he knows full-well he'll find a way to get free again, Riddick kills twenty well-armed Necromonger soldiers trained in the art of fighting with just a pair of nasty-looking knives, Riddick throws out sometimes-goofy one-liners (these antiheroes tend to be terse), and yeah, Riddick kills Lord Marshal and takes the throne himself. How is that not fun to watch?
So now, Riddick is the new Lord of the Necromongers. What will he do? From my vantage, it seems that the role of Emperor doesn't suit a character like Riddick; Riddick is more of a lone-wolf type; the antihero never takes on the mantle of Civilization: he is of the Wilderness. Which is partly why Conan looked so sullen in that iconic illustration of Conan on the throne (which I can't actually source out: can't remember where I saw it). King of anything doesn't fit his personality which is destructive, self-serving and restless. Which may be why they never made a King Conan movie. Maybe the fact that film doesn't exist is part of what spurred Twohy on to make this sequel to Pitch Black. Who knows? So will Riddick use the power of the Necromongers to destroy the Empire over which he presides? Will he use it to take revenge on the people who did him wrong? I don't know. Wherever Twohy decides to take the character, I'm interested, and I'll be seeing it in the theaters this time out.