Sunday, 29 September 2013

Riddick (2013)

Riddick (2013)
Directed by David Twohy; Starring Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matthew Nable

Rating: 3/5

The bleak yellow panorama of an arid alien landscape heralds the opening of Riddick, narration courtesy of Vin Diesel’s resonating baritone, a rumble so deep that at times, you can barely understand what he’s saying.

A hand protrudes from rubble, drawing the curiosity of a circling vulture, dramatically strangled as Diesel punches through the surface to begin his latest outing as the space faring mercenary known as Riddick.

This is the third reunion of producer/star Vin Diesel and writer/director David Twohy. Diesel’s clearly a sucker for his sci-fi and fantasy: aside from writing the foreword to Dungeons & Dragons retrospectives, one of the reasons he agrees to keep making new instalments for the Fast & Furious franchise is for the rights to keep making Riddick films. Twohy meanwhile spends years at a time honing the script, with all the overblown action lingo he can muster.

Looking briefly into the other films in the series, I have learned that this third instalment is something of a return to the series’ roots, after the higher budget blockbuster The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) which did more to expand on the universe’s mythology. Riddick is more monster movie than space opera.

The first act is a survivalist story, which sees Riddick navigating the harsh alien terrain. It’s an engrossing, character based introduction featuring little dialogue aside from Diesel’s continuing snippets of narration. Flashbacks reveal that Riddick was recently the Lord of a dark and violent alien race, but was deceived and marooned on the planet where the action takes place. The gig obviously did not suit his loner survivalist personality.

The locations are stylistically impressive. Far from claustrophobic, the wide other worldly vistas, every frame passed through an extremely yellow filter, emphasise the isolation of a single man, alone on a planet. It’s not clear how long Riddick spends struggling against the elements, but he manages to entomb himself within the ruins of an ancient civilisation to heal his injuries, develop an immunity to the poison of a vicious mud monster, and raise a completely CGI, but thoroughly convincing canine companion, an alien jackal native to the planet, from a pup.

But from across the savannah, brewing in the ever approaching rain, comes the threat of a whole swarm of these mud monsters, prompting Riddick to call an end to his solitude. He activates a distress beacon, drawing two teams of mercenaries hungry for the huge bounty on his head (which is doubled if he’s brought in dead).

The first are a rag tag band of piratical thugs led by the unhinged Santana (Jordi Molla, who plays well). They are soon joined by a second, more professionally organised team, who Santana resents for muscling in on his catch. The latecomers are helmed by a man named Johns (Matthew Nable).

Johns has deeper reasons for being here that tie in to other films in the series. He and Santana are at loggerheads for much of the film, leading to some entertaining conflict. Their differences, naturally, become their undoing.

Until now, we have seen little other than Riddick, but the man of the hour takes a step back and becomes a creature in the shadows. The narrative moves to follow the mercenaries as they try to root Riddick out, but are toyed with and picked off in the process.

His natural abilities and time on the planet enable Riddick to run rings around the pursuers, leaving cryptic messages in blood around the mercenary station where they are based. By the third act, the common foe (the aforementioned monster horde) forces the two sides together, revealing who is the most ruthless and desperate.

It is a testament to the versatility of the Riddick character that he can play lone protagonist, mysterious enemy and eventual saviour over the course of a single picture, elevating him above a mere muscle-bound one-liner spewing action hero.

The lone female character (aside from a captive of Santana’s, who exists as an establishing character moment for the sadistic mercenary) is Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), a member of Johns’ team. Her unfortunate name allows the rest of the characters to call her “doll” and she is subjected to an unsettlingly misogynist treatment from the rest of the characters, and a throwaway line about her sexuality offers two interpretations.

The best case scenario for the film’s morality is a feint by Dahl to secure some kind of standing in the testosterone-fuelled world of the mercenary. If not, then the direction in which her relationship with Riddick (which stretches a little too far from banter) progresses becomes somewhat homophobic as well.

Some of the character motivations are a little baffling given their situation, especially as the film progresses, but most of these other ‘characters’ fall into simple archetypes and exist only as fodder for either Riddick or the monsters, and are swiftly dispatched. The monsters fall prey to classic movie conservation rules: one on its own is deadly, but by the time the swarm comes, they are frequently dispatched, left, right and centre, with relative ease.

Going to see a third Riddick film is essentially the sci-fi equivalent of going to see the latest Transporter, Die Hard, or indeed Fast & Furious. It’s pure cheesy action, full of violence, monsters and one-liners. There’s plenty of machismo, from the mercenaries, certainly (Dahl included) but especially from Riddick himself, who sets his own broken limbs and cauterises egregious wounds whilst fighting off hordes of alien beasts with an improvised jawbone machete.

It’s an easy entrance for newcomers, so casual viewers won’t be disappointed, but fans of the series and mythology may regret the lack of any development to the overarching chronicle, as Riddick does little to advance this. It exists entirely to indulge in the character, throwing him an outlandish situation, and a couple of hours of screen time.

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