Friday, August 30, 2013

'Riddick' (2013) directed by David Twohy

Riddick is finally back!  ...  You know.. Riddick!  That guy from Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick?  Yeah, him.  
It's been thirteen years since Pitch Black.  Nine since The Chronicles of Riddick.  Was anyone really clamouring for the return of Vin Diesel's fantasy/sci-fi superhero?  Pitch Black was an above par science fiction actioner - a B-movie with a few touches of real class - though nowhere near classic status.  The ill-advised Chronicles of Riddick was an aesthetic and narrative disaster, an expansion of a daft, confusing universe nobody particularly cared much about in the first place.  Chronicles took a well-deserved critical and financial mauling and the franchise was left for dead.  

Yet this franchise, much like its central character, has proved difficult to kill.  I don't think anybody was expecting Riddick to return, yet here he is, clawing his way back onto screens apparently by sheer determination.  Riddick is Vin Diesel's pet character, developed from games of Dungeons and Dragons he played as a kid.  Diesel's love for the character is palpable, for example to finance Riddick he leveraged his own house as collateral. The appeal of this film, produced on a relatively $40 million budget, with a very quick shooting schedule is obvious: it's the scrappy underdog in a market of high-gloss focus-grouped assured successes.  This is a labour of love.  But is it any good?

Riddick on the planet of green screen and his CG space dog.
We open to a blasted desert landscape, Riddick clawing his way out of what looks like a grave.  For the next 15 minutes or so the film is an extremely minimalist, almost experimental, survival film.  Riddick is a stranger in a strange land, seriously injured and disorientated, scrabbling for survival in the dirt.  Sure the CGI of the aliens and the green-screened environment is a bit duff, but we're at least interested in this world.  The lack of dialogue works in the film's favour as Riddick learns the ropes of this planet, showing us through his masochism and bravery why we should care about him.

I could have watched a whole film of this, Vin Diesel somehow managing to make the dodgy effects work in his favour.  But then the main plot kicks in, a bunch of generic soldier types show up and quality-wise everything goes to shit.  It's here that the budgetary constraints become obvious.  Almost the entirety of the running time is set in and around what is essentially a large metal shed populated by not very interesting mercenary characters, who banter and swear at each other just like in Aliens, but completely devoid of wit and charisma.

Like picking at a fraying thread on a piece of clothing, this dip in quality undoes the whole film.  Suddenly you notice the shortcomings in the costuming, the overly clinical digital sheen making everything from the set design down to costumes appear faintly tacky and amateurish.  The interactions with the CGI aliens become ever more unconvincing, the scenes conveniently blocked so that we almost never see the actors directly interacting with them, the result being that they feel intensely fake. 

Attack of the shitty CGI monsters.
Much of the film is propelled by the alien monsters, who provide both an ominous countdown to when they're going to arrive and finally direct physical threats to the characters.  I'd be prepared to forgive their fakeness if they had an interesting design, or something, anything unique.  But they're essentially Giger's Alien with bits stuck on, and as we get to see one in the first ten minutes of the film (in full focus in broad daylight) there's zero mystery to them.  The danger they represent is conveyed so poorly that we even get a character shouting (something like) "at least they're easy to kill!" when they show up - naturally this hardly strikes terror into the audience's heart.

By about the mid-way point it's pretty obvious what Riddick is up to: a stealth re-make of Pitch Black.  It's understandable why they'd want to put as much distance as they can between them and The Chronicles of Riddick, but to reverse so much that you end up doing an unconvincing rehash of what you did 13 years ago makes the creative team behind this feel out of ideas and slightly cowardly in refusing to try something new.  Having said that, the nadir of the film is a quick flashback to the world of Chronicles, a segment so mindnumbingly crap that you can take some solace that at least they didn't continue in that vein.

There are moments when Riddick just about works.  As mentioned, the opening scenes are pretty compelling, there's the odd flash of clever dialogue here and there and rare moments where the film aesthetically pushes itself, achieving a few seconds of genuinely beautiful Frank Frazetta space-fantasy bliss.  Vin Diesel is for the most part very good, although his smug 'know everything 60 seconds before it happens' shtick gets grating the more the film goes on.

I don't know who this is or why he's even in the movie but BOY is he annoying.
But these are flecks of gold in a bucket of seriously murky, foul-smelling water.  The mercenary characters that aren't obvious kill-fodder are barely developed caricatures that suffer some extremely lazy writing.  For example, there's one rookie soldier whose 'thing' is that he's an evangelical Christian. He does literally nothing the entire film.  The only vague stand-out is Katee Sackhoff, who draws our attention for being practically the only woman in the film, though also because the character, a lesbian, is subject to repeated taunts from our hero that he'll fuck her straight with his magic cock.  It's a bizarre bit of entirely unnecessary homophobia that feels entirely out of place in the setting.  On a more structural level there are a few unexplained jumps in the plot. This film has only 13 people in it and is set almost entirely in one location, that events could get confusingly tangled up is a bit bizarre - yet tangled they become.

I wanted to like Riddick, I really did.  But frankly this feels like it should have gone straight to DVD.  Vin Diesel seems like a nice guy (and I really hope he doesn't lose his house), but if he loves the character so much he should exercise a bit of quality control.  A low budget might be a mitigating argument for shoddy CGI, set design and costuming, but it's no excuse for a rehashed plot, awful dialogue and a painful lack of creativity.

Within his fictional universe Riddick is just about unkillable.  But in the world of cinema he's painfully vulnerable and this bad-to-mediocre movie is probably going to finish him off for good.

Riddick is on general release from September 4th

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