Sunday, September 29, 2013

Riddick

Alternate Title:  Back in Black

One sentence synopsis:     Riddick must adapt to survive a death planet and two crews of mercenaries bent on retrieving his head.


Things Havoc liked:  I've long maintained that the Riddick movies are among the best purely speculative sci-fi-adventure movies I've seen. Pitch Black in particular was almost the ur-example of the simple-story-done-right, proof positive that the mere fact that others have done something before (in this case "survival amidst monsters") does not mean that it can't be done in an entertaining fashion if given a chance. While Chronicles of Riddick was something of a disappointment, I still held out hopes for Riddick as a return to form, and not to spoil my review or anything, but that's exactly what it was.

The Riddick series' strengths have always been attention to detail within a simple story, and Riddick, the film, is perhaps the epitome of this. The entire first act of the movie is simply Riddick, alone and without resources, endeavoring to survive on the harsh, alien planet where he has been deposited despite the efforts of the climate, the wildlife, and largely everything else around to prevent him from doing so. Though explanation as to how this situation came about does eventually arrive, for a considerable amount of time we get no context whatsoever, and are simply allowed to watch Riddick go through the motions of survival, struggling to avoid being eaten, melted, or poisoned to death, without any need for a greater narrative than this.

And what motions these are. Riddick is of course a ridiculously bad dude, but one of the great strengths of the film is how well it demonstrates why he is such a bad dude. Yes, he's strong and combat-capable and ferocious and so on, but unlike the Arnold-wannabes of which action films are well supplied, the focus with Riddick is not his badass displays of ultraviolence but the preparations for his badass displays of ultraviolence. For instance, early on in the film, when Riddick finds himself confronted by a massive semi-aquatic scorpion-like monster with a poisoned stinger, blocking the one path to a more hospitable part of the planet. Rather than wade in and defeat it with his manly combat skills, the movie stops in its tracks as Riddick spends weeks preparing himself to take the creature on. We see him forging weapons, taming local fauna, dosing himself with small amounts of toxin so as to build up a resistance to it, capturing smaller versions of the creature to test strategies and capabilities against. The heroic-preparation-montage has been a staple of action films since Conan (or arguably Taxi Driver), but plainly the makers of Riddick understand why it exists. By extending the preparation this far, while still keeping the material interesting, the eventual showdown with the creature takes on more weight than it would if Riddick had fought it in a cursory duel. Great action does not come from having the hero make things look easy, but from having the hero make them look ridiculously difficult, and Riddick, like the great action movies of yore (Predator for instance) knows this.

Of course the film is not all weapon-forging and cave-dwelling. There is indeed a plot here, or more precisely a cast of characters set down in one place in the hopes that their interactions will supply a plot. These characters, two different crews of mercenaries who arrive on the planet looking for Riddick for two different reasons, comprise the majority of the character interaction for the first two thirds of the film. The list of characters and motivations is long and thick, but like before the film prefers to let the plot take a backseat to the situation and the characters. Every one of the dozen or so mercenaries that arrive to find Riddick are exceptionally well-characterized, even the bit players, and as Riddick (or other things) winnow their numbers down, they respond in ways that are both logically and thematically consistent. Confronted with the knowledge that Riddick may be in a dark cave, for instance, the mercenaries enter with a large, well-armed party and plenty of light sources, covering one another's backs and leaving once again as soon as they determine that there's no further benefit to being in it. Finding themselves attacked, they immediately hunker down to defend themselves with maximum efficiency, making it as difficult as possible to surprise or otherwise assault them, once more rendering the task Riddick has before him a tremendously difficult (and thus interesting) one. But the vast majority of the time, the mercenaries simply spend interacting, with Riddick or with one another, in ways that while not always pleasant, make a degree of sense and are consistent from one scene to the next. The unfailing ability of this film to wring interesting results out of boilerplate scenes and concepts such as these is perhaps the most surprising element of a film that could well have been as generic as Will Smith's After Earth.



Things Havoc disliked: Just because all of the mercenaries are characterized, doesn't make all those characters excellent. Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica) plays a character who is supposedly a lesbian (this is mentioned, for no reason, multiple times), yet who flirts shamelessly with Riddick, and periodically takes her clothes off for pointless breast shots. I have no objection to beautiful women taking their clothes off, but the eye-candy here is such obvious fan-service that it mars the film's overall well-crafted style. Other characters, such as the obligatory wet-behind-the-ears newbie, and the money-obsessed mercenary who will sell anyone out for a buck are travelling well-trod paths, and not always with enough material to make them stand out from these archetypes, despite the film's best efforts.

There's also the question of scope. Riddick is a very tight film, reminiscent in some ways of last year's Dredd, and while that tightness enables the film to focus on what material it actually has, and the interactions between the characters stuck in the situation, the base fact remains that we're basically watching a remake of John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars with better writing. I'm not objecting to the improvements by any means, but the limited horizons for this film limit in turn the possibilities that the movie can entertain. The greatest films are those with a sense of ambition, ones that seek to show us things we have not before imagined. This movie quite consciously shows us something it knows we've seen done before, relying on the fact that they're going to do it well to keep our interest, and while by and large they succeed in this, the effect is somewhat akin to re-reading a book you enjoyed the first time. A pleasant experience, but not something that will fundamentally alter your worldview or present you with a new horizon.



Final thoughts:   But then again, perhaps that's the point. Not every film can possibly give us things we (or at least those of us who see as many films as I do) have never before considered, and a movie that recognizes this, and substitutes successful execution for failed ambition, cannot be doing much wrong. Riddick, ultimately, is a film I was not expecting to be any good at all, given the genericness of its premise and trailers, and the generally suspect quality of Vin Diesel-helmed movies. Yet to my astonishment, the quality of the filmmaking craft at work here, in terms of the basic elements that constitute a film (writing, scripting, directing, editing), shine through the premise and present a movie that has no right to be anywhere as good as it is. I would accuse the trailers of lying about the movie, except they did not do so. Riddick is a generic adventure-survival film about a morose badass and a gang of shrinking supporting characters being stalked by a tide of monsters, when all is said and done. Yet even within that genre, there is a wide gulf between boring tripe such as Ghosts of Mars, and standouts like Predator, and Diesel, and director David Twohy, know just how to construct the film so as to place it in the company of the latter.

You never know what you're going to get when you go see a movie, of course. But even considering that, it's not often that a movie that promised this little delivers this much. But ultimately, I'd rather have a movie tell me a simple story well, than fall all over itself failing to tell a complex one at all.

Final Score:  7/10

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