Short review: I liked it, it’s not a great movie but I’m glad I saw it. It’s a solid B movie with lots of stuff to like for action movie and sci-fi fans.
Longer, rambling review: Warning, here there be spoilers.
I want to talk about movies mostly from a writing POV, since that’s what I love and do with my spare time. (ha, spare time…) And this movie plays with expectations and plays to them. One expectation, dark as it may be, is a captive kept on Santana’s ship. She’s a pretty, ethnic criminal and when they showed her being freed, I fully….fully expected there to be some bullshit romance subplot between her and Riddick. Instead, she gets shot in the back as she’s running by Santana. (his ‘kick the dog’ trope moment, first of many) She dies feet away from Riddick as he watches her die, without emotion on his face, without any attempt to help or even comfort her as she bleeds out. I did not expect that, props to you Twohy, you played with my expectations. I also expected the mercenaries to be utter monster or just cardboard cutouts and though some of them were flawed, there were entertaining and came off as at least half-competent. The mercs even debate just giving Riddick what he wants once the body count goes up but they don’t roll over and quit Hudson-style (from Aliens). They die but they almost all die trying. I can respect that. The monsters were interesting, clearly based on 17 year cicadas crossed with scorpion demon…thingys. I didn’t buy them as a real threat, unlike the monsters in Pitch Black and some of the hoverbike stunt stuff came off as stupid and showy XXX-style (the movie, not the porn genre) pandering. But it also doesn’t take itself more seriously than it needs to. I mean, it commits to itself but it is a B movie. It is not trying to be Star Wars or Star Trek…to the movie’s credit. It deserves to succeed and I hope it does.
So let’s start with the good stuff.
One thing that intrigued me was that it tried to use two main plot archtypes: Man Vs Nature and Man Vs Man. The first third of the movie is mostly Riddick going all Jeremiah Johnson, surviving on an alien world with no tools and only his wits and his toughness. To its credit, I found this enjoyable. I’d have watched a whole movie like this. I totally bought that Riddick was the kind of person who could survive no matter what. And the early parts of the movie show him as “merely” extremely tough as opposed to a superhero. He’s within human limits, if a real-life guy can cut his own arm off with a pocket knife and walk out of the mountains, nothing in the first third of the movie is unbelievable. I’ll talk about the Man vs Man stuff later. I feel it’s a mistake.
The second thing was the alien world. The setting and the creatures in it really intrigued me. The wild dogs acted like wild dogs, the weird alien scorpion things…we weird but they acted in a consistent manner, neither exhibiting supernatural intelligence or unbeatable super powers. They were just animals from another world. It was really well done and my hat is off to the effects team that animated them.
Next, Riddick feels like a real character. Not a real person, no, but he’s internally consistent. He’s a man with a code and he follows that. It’s admirable. Characters that keep their word, keep their promises to the audience as well. Also, Vin Diesel inhabits Riddick. He’s not playing a part, he’s being the part. That comes across. Lots of people play James Bond, damn few -if any- actually are James Bond. Diesel always knows what the character should do or would do and that shows.
The dog. A classic ‘pet the dog’ trope (or ‘save the cat’ for screenwriters) pulled off well. Whoever animated the dog, did a wonderful job. I have a 18 month old Rottweiler and he acts a lot like this alien dog does. The segments when he and Riddick are on screen together made me smile. When the dog died, I felt Riddick’s rage and determination for vengeance…and I wanted to go home and hug my dog.
The mercs. Most of them are a little two-dimensional but there are some standouts I want to discuss. One, Santana (Jordi Molla) could have stepped out of a spaghetti Western. He’s the kind of guy you love to hate. Every time he gets hit, you enjoy it. But he feels ruthless as well, you can see him more as a bandit than a merc to me but he’s well-played. Diaz by Dave Bautista felt real. The kind of ‘you don’t want to meet me in a dark alley’ kind of guy that you can really see selling his gun to the highest bidder. Not an idiot, either, which was refreshing. He even has some character touches, like his refusal to kill the dog when he could have (or that’s how I’m interpreting that). Most of all, Johns (Matt Nable) was a standout, in fact, this movie is really HIS movie and I’ll get into how and why (and why it shouldn’t have been). But on the whole, both merc teams had a kind of camaraderie that reminds me a lot of infantry squads I’ve known, seen and read about. Yes, the dialog is a mix of realistic and ‘movie speak’ but they didn’t feel like kill-crazy monsters or complete idiots, which is how mercs usually get depicted in movies and video games.
That’s most of the good stuff and I’m going to go on the bad and what didn’t work but keep in mind, I did like the movie. I had a good time watching it and I’d recommend it to anyone who liked the previous movies in the franchise. I hope we see more Riddick properties.
Ok, the bad.
POV change. This is a big one for me as it caused me some confusion as a writer and as a viewer. Riddick feels like two movies sandwiched together. For the first third, we are tightly in Riddick’s POV. We follow him as he tries to survive, we endure his narration (see my next point), and at no time does the camera leave him. This is not an omniscient POV movie at the beginning as, say, “The Hunt for Red October” is. But right after Riddick finds the service station, our POV switches and for the rest of the movie, we’re following the mercenaries. Riddick becomes a lurking threat, the monster in a slasher movie. There is so much so wrong with this, it makes my head spin. As a writer, you have establish your POV and stick with it. If we’re going to have multiple POVs, you need to have those scenes from someone else early. Worse, the story changes from Riddick’s story of survival to John’s story of his need of closure on his son’s death. Now Riddick is an archetypal character, like Conan, he doesn’t change. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is that his conflict is less compelling than the supporting character’s. Pitch Black, which introduced Riddick, has him in the opening narration but the story is pretty clearly the ensemble’s need to survive. You can also make the case that the story is Carolyn’s (Radha Mitchell), not Riddick’s. This movie is actually called Riddick and yet the main character all but disappears for the second third of the movie and remains in the background until the very last action scene in the movie. Very bad.
--how do you fix it? You establish the multiple POVs really early. Do a two minute scene with Johns grieving for his son and then getting news about Riddick fleeing the Necromongers. Because his ascension to Lord Marshall would not be a secret. Alternatively, pick one viewpoint character and stick with it. If that’s Riddick, show us him sneaking around, evesdropping, planting traps and planning his attacks. Or stick with the mercs all the way and keep Riddick as the monster.
The need to link the movies. Can’t we just forget about the Chronicles of Riddick? Clearly this movie wants to. Chronicles was a huge sci-fi adventure with invading armies and interstellar conflicts. A totally different beast from Pitch Black or Riddick. I actually liked Chronicles but it does not belong in the same plot line as either movies that bracket it. So, sadly, here we have to explain how we got from Chronicles, with Riddick trapped into being Lord Marshall of the Necromongers (in other words, written into a corner) to Riddick being injured and stranded on yet another abandoned world. (I’ll get into this trend of abandoned worlds next) This movie does this with a Karl Urban cameo (I liked him in this, actually) and some gratuitous nudity (which is very nice) which grinds the just-started movie to a halt.
--How do you fix it? Have Riddick flee the Necromongers and have them shoot his ship down. Start the movie with starship crash, which will also give you the callback to Pitch Black that Twohy wants so badly. That starts us out with action, drama and gives a plausible reason for Riddick to be here.
The empty universe. This is the second human-habitable planet we see in this universe that…doesn’t have any humans. But it does have abandoned supply and research stations. This time for…mercenaries. Huh? Look, I’ll buy that mercenary companies keep a cache of gear on different planets but I have a hard time seeing them share it with rivals. There is something very odd about the Riddick universe. There are prisons, Riddick is a fugitive from one, but there never seem to be any cops. (though Johns in the first movie is mistaken for one) Likewise, there don’t seem to be an interstellar governments or armies. Who is fighting the Necromongers? Where is the Star Patrol or Space Rangers? Starships may be expensive but that means its more likely to be owned by governments and corporations than private military corporations….or headhunters like Santanna’s outfit. What we have here is what feels like an abandoned universe. One where humanity spread out optimistically, terraformed worlds, mapped them, the fled and concentrated back on a handful of colony worlds. It feels like I’m missing something, some plague or war or social instability that happened in the past. I mean, why have Riddick find a mercenary outpost with a distress beacon? Wouldn’t a government facility make more sense? Who else would have the kind of money to construct them and the short-sightedness to abandon them?
--How do you fix it? Make it a government facility. Have mercs intercept the distress beacon, find out it’s Riddick and come screaming in. This gives us more time to set up the POV change and it gives the mercs a clock: They need to catch Riddick before the cops get here.
Narrative hiccups and the lack of threat setup. Say what you like about Chronicles, at least it’s a narrative straight line. We start with him running from (and killing) mercs and end with him as Lord Marshall of the Necromongers. Silly? Yes, but the plot moves him along. This movie is way more disjointed. We start with him wounded and half-armored with no idea of where he is or how he got there. (We never do find out where he is) Then we flash back to his time as Lord Marshall and his betrayal. Then we flash to him doing more survival stuff…but we don’t really know if that’s happing before the flashback or after. It’s very confusing. Eventually we can see that he’s well along on his attempts to survive, making tools and weapons and eating raw eels. We get the idea of the passage of time from the increase in his gear and from the advancing age of his alien dog but how much time? No idea. Based on my Rottweiler, I’m guessing at LEAST a year. But that’s not the impression the movie gives. Then we see the dog growling at the oncoming rainstorm. But we never see the results of the rainstorm. This is a huge fail. It fails to set up why Riddick wants off this planet before the rains come to the outpost (which begs several questions about the weather and the outpost and the world and the mercs and…sigh). Let’s hammer out the failures real quick: We fail to see that there are lots of the scorpion aliens in the ground, waiting to come to life in the rains. We don’t have any idea if rain is rare or not. We don’t know if the outpost has survived the rains before (it must have, right?). We don’t know if this kind of alien spawning season is documented anywhere. (At the very least, there should be warning flyers in the outpost or in the planetary notes). We don’t get any setup, what we have is hidden information and conveniently ignorant people. All for the cute payoff of the director playing “I know something you don’t know”. Now, you can hint at things without coming out and saying it, but there are still huge plot holes here. Then there’s the whole ‘neuter our spaceships so WE’RE trapped too’, which is so dumb even the characters in the movies call it out.
--How do you fix it? Two ways, the least-interesting lets you hide things from the audience. Give us a scene of Riddick and the dog watching the rains from some safe vantage point, say the jagged peak where the last action scene takes place. Don’t show us what he’s looking at, but show us his reaction. Show us horror and fear and we’ll say ‘hey, anything Riddick is scared of must be bad’ and then hype up the rains coming to the outpost. Make us dread it. But that’s weaksauce. The better way is to give us all the information and give the characters all the information they’d logically have. Let the mercs talk about the dry season. If it’s coming to an end, it’s another ticking clock for the mercs, more tension for them to get the job done and get off planet. It also shows the mercs as desperate or greedy and we can even see them take some intelligent precautions against the monster spawning season, giving us more things to go wrong for them (Man Vs Nature again, and Nature is too big to fight, usually). If we see the Mercs researching the planet, we the audience get to learn about it and become intrigued, rather than just try for the shock and surprise of seeing the monsters literally rising up out of the earth without warning.
The characters that didn’t work.
Oy. This might just be me but some of these characters just didn’t work for me. On the whole, Dahl (Katee Sachhoff…who has a magnificent rack, by the way and, yes, you will get to see all of it) didn’t work. For one thing, I kept thinking her name was ‘Doll’ which was a bold, borderline sexist name for her (which may have been appropriate. Soldiers are not plaster saints). She comes off as strong-ish but maybe a little too aggressive. Now this may actually fit. Any woman who chooses the profession of arms is walking into a world of troubles, with their eyes open. They may very well be trying to conform to the male idea of strength (ie. Beating the crap out of anyone who harasses you) but there are a couple of problems with that. One, men are stronger than women and they hit harder and can take a hit from a woman better. Yes, you can blur the lines a little with a combat-trained woman fighting against an untrained man but not with two people of roughly equal skill. There’s a reason women don’t compete against men in MMA unlimited weight class and it isn’t sexism. There’s at least one scene when Dahl is pinned to the ground by Santana and…we never see how she gets out of it. We just see some blood on the floor later. Now that is borderline funny and awesome and I didn’t hate the character. She was a lesbian (or at least she says she ‘doesn’t fuck guys’) but she doesn’t come off as hating all men. She is trusted and relied upon by her team and she fits in with them well without drama. All the hostility and rape threats comes from Santana and, oddly, Riddick. But here’s the thing, Carolyn from the first movie was a strong female character who didn’t try to be a man. Dahl, like Starbuck in BSG (also Sackhoff) is trying to compensate for being in a man’s profession by being ‘more manly’ than the men are. Ripley in Aliens didn’t need to do that to be strong. Neither did Naomi Watts’ character in Prometheus. Strong doesn’t always mean physical strength. All right, enough about her, most of you all are probably rolling your eyes at me already.
--How do you fix this? Make her strong without making her a less-sympathetic version of Vasquez in Aliens. Give her someone to care about, to show affection towards. And if you’re going to write her as a lesbian, don’t have her flirt with Riddick at the end. You didn’t see any of the guys there saying how much they wanted to fuck Riddick. Same thing, otherwise it’s just the ‘I can bang lesbians, I’m so cool’ trope and Riddick doesn’t need that.
In a more general sense, the merc characters didn’t work. There are places where characters who’ve been shown as competent and wary (like Lockspur played by Raoul Trujillo) become stupid, like Bokeem Woodbine’s Moss staring stupidly up at a skylight so an alien can nab him rather than grabbing cover and gunning up like we’d expect a combat veteran to behave. Then there’s Luna, played by Nolan Funk. He’s another one like Dahl that I was on the fence about. He’s the kid and the religious one. He comes off as being as out of place as a Mormon missionary at a gang fight. I will give the movie credit, it addresses how much he doesn’t fit in head-on. Santana calls him ‘his good luck charm’, I can see that. In fact, he even lives, much to my shock. And I like the fact that even in the future, people still have faith. There’s Luna here and there’s the Iman in Pitch Black and Riddick. One of the flaws of Science Fiction is the elimination of religion from the future. This series doesn’t do that. But despite that…he doesn’t work. He’s not as obnoxious as, say, ‘the religious guy’ in Doom but…he doesn’t work. Every time he opened his mouth I thought either how he didn’t fit in with bloodthirsty, greedy killers or I just wanted to smack him. I’ve heard some digs at the dialog and there are some dumb lines but on the whole, it worked for me. Remember, this is dialog, not real conversation. There is a place for writing the lines you’d wish you could think up if you had balls of steel and unlimited time. Nothing I heard stood out as out of character and if the character had witty comebacks and quotable dialog (retard bingo…still makes me laugh), well, it wasn’t nearly as bad as a Joss Whedon movie and people seem to like his dialog. (well, people who aren’t me)
--How do you fix it? Commit to the character, keep them consistent and write them like a real person. It’s not easy but your characters deserve it. You can still kill them but don’t kill smart characters like they’re the stupid characters.
The tech. This barely felt like the future in a lot of ways. None of the merc had drones, night vision goggles (or implants), satellite coverage or anything that really felt high tech. (And seriously, no night vision? At all?) They had some hover bikes and spaceships but other than that…they were just slightly less well-equipped than the LAPD today. I realize that they were on a budget, so I’m not going to beat them up too badly but it was a glaring fault. Heck, most of the guns the mercs used were just off the shelf firearms with the ‘bang’ sound replaced. I saw Springfield XDMs, Ruger LCPs, Beretta Storm carbines and what basically looked like M-4’s. No ray guns, heck the Necromonger guns seemed fake but they at least looked like sci-fi weapons and acted like them. It just didn’t feel like the future. Budget fail or imagination fail, you be the judge there.
--How do you fix it? Have the high tech gear break down or be stolen or whatever. A few grand extra on a prop guy to make your guns look sci-fi. Better effects for when they fire (though that’s going to cost a heck of a lot more than a few grand) or just commit to folks using bullets in the future. Aliens pulled it off, no reason they couldn’t here.
The wrong protagonist. I saved the biggest for last. We actually have a very well done, interesting, consistent, moral character here who suffers, goes through character changes and is tested. Unfortunately, it’s not Riddick. Mad props to Twohy for coming up with the character of Johns and for Matt Nable for knocking it out of the park in his portrayal. If and when I watch this movie again, it’ll be for him. Dahl is the character with a real motivation here, with a real problem and conflict. He needs to find out the truth about what happened to his beloved son (seen in Pitch Black) and only Riddick knows. He forgoes what seems like massive wealth for Riddick’s death bounty for just one thing: the truth. So he comes to this dangerous world, to capture a killing machine that he can’t afford to kill and he has to confront a dangerous rival mercenary who isn’t too smart but who is very ruthless. THIS IS THE PROTAGONIST. These are protagonist problems. All Riddick wants to do is get off planet. Yeah, he wants to find home, Furya. Big deal. Not a big enough motivation. He wants to survive. Again, big deal, everyone wants to survive. Riddick becomes boring after the mercs show up. Partly because he disappears from the screen and we stop following him, but also because his story and his needs are weaker. Instead, Riddick somehow becomes the arbiter of who is moral and who is honorable, believe it or not. Such a big fail and I’m sure it was unintended.
--How do you fix it? Well, you need to have Riddick need something from Johns. Maybe, dare I suggestion, absolution. Give Riddick some guilt over the Pitch Black incident. Maybe his animal side that keeps him alive, that kept him alive on this planet too, keeps him from having a family, form having close friends and comrades like John’s team. Make him admire and envy Johns. Riddick has to need. Alternatively, keep it the way it is, and let Johns be the main character. You can keep Riddick as the cool, archetypical badass who doesn’t need anyone or anything. Keep Riddick as the monster and let Johns carry the story. There’s plenty there to do it. It means swallowing your ego as an actor and director but it would be better than writing a story where your main character is less interesting than his antagoinists. See, Riddick only really shines when he’s interacting with someone and for most of the movie, he’s alone. Maybe getting him ebedded with the mercenaries earlier would be another help, but that doesn’t cover up the flaw that Riddick doesn’t NEED enough.
Anyway, thanks for reading or putting up with this over-analysis. Let me know what you think if you’ve seen the movie too.