Friday, September 2, 2011

Rough And Tumble Science Fiction: The Chronicles Of Riddick Trilogy.

The Good: Two surprisingly wonderful science fiction films, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: Dark Fury is a little weaker, There are supposedly two more movies in the works . . .
The Basics: Better than the sum of its parts, the Riddick Trilogy has all three current science fiction films together in one pack!

Sometimes, I find myself fascinated by what makes it and what does not. This is especially true for me with science fiction projects where the storytellers have an ambitious view of the universe. The fact that the saga The Chronicles Of Riddick is stalled at two movies and an animated adventure actually left me surprised. And, for the time being, the best way to get the whole story (though Vin Diesel insists there were stories written for two more full films) is the Riddick Trilogy two-pack.

And yes, it is a two-pack, despite the three movies contained on it. Pitch Black and Dark Fury share a disc, with the extended cut of The Chronicles Of Riddick getting a disc of its own.

This contains:
Pitch Black
Dark Fury
The Chronicles Of Riddick with no additional programming, features or incentives to buy. Sure, the buyer saves a little shelf space with this slipcased DVD set and the fact that it is only on two discs, but it is not a huge set to begin with and there is no reason to upgrade if one already has the three component DVDs.

In Pitch Black, a starship transporting settlers for a distant world, and a dangerous felon, is damaged in flight. The ship crashes on a barren, inhospitable planet. Some ten survivors set out from the crash site to find water, including the felon, Riddick. When a crewmember disappears, Riddick is the natural suspect, but alien animals are soon found to be the real culprits. Finding an abandoned mining establishment yields the conclusion that the animals were responsible for the slaughter of this outpost, which seems fine given their aversion to light, until a planetary eclipse seems imminent and the survivors come to understand their hours are numbered.

Pitch Black is not a movie that's going to light the world on fire, and it didn't. But it does some things very well. The first is in the casting. While there aren't any terrifically extraordinary performances in Pitch Black, the parts were well cast for the actors. Radha Mitchell is credible as the sudden captain of the ship, who is uncertain with her new authority and lacks experience. Keith David is great as the Islamic pilgrim Abu. And Rhiana Griffith is decent as Jack, which requires the character to idolize Riddick. Even Claudia Black's brief role in Pitch Black was well suited to her athleticism.

The ultimate in intuitive casting, though comes in the form of Vin Diesel as Richard B. Riddick. Vin Diesel is a heavy who is not the most naturally emoting actor. Riddick is a hardened criminal whose role needs to be sympathetic but realistic. That is to say that for Riddick to be plausible, he cannot be so likable as to make the viewer forget that he has murdered in his past. There needs to be something dangerous and edgy to him. Vin Diesel's quiet underacting executes this character perfectly. This could be the role Vin Diesel was born to play, as they say.

Despite the rather basic plot – Pitch Black soon degenerates into a fairly standard “pick ‘em off” horror movie – the concept behind Pitch Black is refreshingly intriguing and it remains true to itself. There is no one enemy in Pitch Black. The horror that the survivors face is simply a pack of animals. There's no negotiations, There's always another and there is no leader to be wiped out to make the rest back off. Given Hollywood's obsession with villains, Pitch Black is refreshing for the way it creates a species and sticks with the concept.

Moreover, the movie smartly utilizes the double threat. Our survivors are beset from the outside by the alien animals and the ravages of the environment. From within, the group is plagued by fears of Riddick and the corruption of his jailer, Johns, who also becomes a thorn in Captain Fry's side. By adding the human villainy element, Pitch Black attempts to keep the movie focused on the characters, even if all they are doing is trying to flee through the wilderness.

The characters, if not entirely memorable, are diverse. It's nice to see a future presented where the crew is not all white, not all male and not all good. Pitch Black has religious characters, the greedy Paris, and is fronted by a criminal. It's a less polished vision of the future and the opening immediately conjures recollections of Alien. This is a dark future with humanity stretching out into the galaxy with many of its current faults, like capitalism and a failed penal system.

On a simple, stylistic front, the alien animals are cool. the creature and set designs do transport the viewer to a very different time and place quite effectively.

But is it enough? David Twohy does an adequate job at directing, but there are a number of editorial choices that are questionable. Employing the standard conventions of horror as opposed to keeping the expressive science fiction tone and style from the movie's opening scenes quickly begins to detract from the story. We have quick cuts and blurred images and later in the movie, images are cut away rather than revealed. The movie becomes horror; playing with the audience instead of keeping the audience as witness to the events and struggles of the survivors. This is only truly effective at the very end with the last casualty of the film, which causes a reaction in the viewer. But even when that happens, part of the power of the action is that the image is clear, revealed fully for the viewer, unlike so many of the previous deaths.

And while the plot becoming something standard might be forgivable – we've seen the “slaughter the crew” in science fiction/horror since Alien – the editing is less so. There are great moments of special effects that set the viewer up for a style of film that is disappointing when abandoned for the conventions of horror. The eclipse shots are beautiful cinematography. After that shot, though, there are no further examples of extraordinary visual technique until the last shot of the movie.

In Dark Fury, Riddick, Imam and Jack are in their little ship heading for civilization when they are awoken by the presence of another ship. That ship is a giant mercenary vessel and Riddick quickly represents the potential that getting rescued represents. Unfortunately for him, the computer systems positively identify him and his attempt to pass himself off as another member of the crew from his former ship fails. After a brief fight with security forces from the mercenary ship, Riddick is given an audience with the noblewoman aboard, while Imam and Jack are detained.

The captain of the ship is a woman, arguably a psychopath, who is fascinated with serial killers. She has a collection of them frozen in her gallery and she has the desire to have Riddick join her collection. But first, she wants to watch him kill, which she delights in. When Riddick refuses, she throws Imam and Jack in with two giant, squidlike aliens which will kill them if Riddick does not kill the creatures first!

Dark Fury might tell an interesting story which fleshes out the Riddick universe, but it falls sadly flat when it comes to making a whole lot of sense. The short film makes a point of introducing Tooms - who is seen hunting Riddick at the outset of The Chronicles Of Riddick - and that is a nice tie-in. But beyond that, Dark Fury makes little sense. The reason for the nonsensical quality is the woman who is interested in collecting Riddick. Her stated desire is to watch the act of killing. However, in the first conflict with her crew, Riddick manages to take out some members of her crew.

But then, she pits Riddick against the giant aliens. The aliens are essentially violent creatures with no apparent intelligence, so Riddick attempting to fight them is basically the same instinct and execution as a farmer executing cattle. Perhaps the analogy works better with a cowboy putting down a bull with mad cow disease, but the basic concept holds: if the woman truly wanted to see that type of violent activity, she could watch the nature channel.

The voice acting in Dark Fury is good, undoubtedly because the producers managed to get Vin Diesel (Riddick), Keith David (Imam) and others from the two movies to participate. The animation style is a style very familiar to those who watch anime. This is not trying to be an animated work that fools the viewer into thinking they are watching a live-action production. Instead, this is an animated work and the production looks good within the context that the physics are not quite those of reality.

Even so, the animators do a decent job of creating characters like the aliens Riddick must fight that would have been cost-prohibitive for a film to make. And the shootout in the landing bay is appropriately spectacular in its execution. The blood from that scene would have made a live-action version of it PG-13 and the animators clearly delighted in having Riddick play in zero gravity.

In The Chronicles Of Riddick, set five years after escaping the dangers presented in the nighttime of the eclipse in Pitch Black, Riddick finds himself hunted in his isolation with a bounty on his head. Stealing a ship, he heads to Helion Prime to find Imam and have the bounty removed from his head. There he meets with Aereon, an Elemental, who informs Riddick that he is the hope of the galaxy as a scourge is headed in their direction and his form of evil may be what's needed to fight the coming evil. Moments later, Helion Prime is overrun by the Necromongers.

The Necromongers are essentially a cult run by the Lord Marshal who converts entire planets by either brutally ripping out their souls or using a machine to somehow alter the citizens. The Necromongers are obsessed with finding the Underverse (which seems like a universe of the dead) and their conversion process identifies Riddick as a threat. Riddick finds himself on the run and soon finding the one person in the galaxy he still cares about.

The Chronicles of Riddick, since I first saw the bits of it I saw, made me question what makes a science fiction epic. I can't understand why The Chronicles Of Riddick is not considered a classic and why it was not more successful. I find only three real problems with The Chronicles of Riddick.

The first problem is that it felt long. A lot happens in the movie, but it felt long, even though I was engaged by it. The second problem is the unnecessary running. At the beginning of the movie, Riddick is literally running around Helion Prime and there's no real good reason for it. We know he can run; he starts the movie running. Why does he need to run constantly? The final problem is that the lead is Vin Diesel, who is not the powerhouse of quality acting. And that is not truly a problem; Riddick is a heavy, so Vin Diesel is perfectly cast. Objecting to Vin Diesel as Riddick as a reason for denying The Chronicles Of Riddick a legitimate place in the echelons of science fiction epics is like condemning The Princess Bride for casting Andre the Giant for the role of the giant there.

So, what does The Chronicles Of Riddick do right? The first and foremost thing the film does well is create a distinct sense of place. The universe is a dark and miserable place and the smarter races of the universe use whatever they need to in order to win, in short, they will fight evil with evil. Some of the more subtle concepts go unexplained. So, for example, when the Necromongers invade Helion Prime, the survivors are given the chance to convert or die forever. The citizens surrender and Riddick resists. Riddick's resistance does not inspire anyone to get off their knees. Humanity is broken.

The visual effects are impressive with a real sense of architecture and culture behind the buildings, ships and planets in The Chronicles of Riddick. I like that, it's easy to tell what the beliefs of the groups are and who and where the characters are. This movie creates a universe that is easily as distinct as other respected science fiction movies, like Star Wars. In fact, the universe is already better and more consistently defined than the universe in the Alien movies.

What keeps the movie rooted and interesting are the characters. Riddick is a convicted murderer who has in no way reformed, but his skills serve the greater good in The Chronicles Of Riddick and he makes for a compelling anti-hero. The morally ambiguous place created in this conflict allows the viewer to accept Kyra, a character who emulates Riddick so much that she has essentially become a murderer like Riddick while hunting for him. Kyra is tough, angry and skilled, making her an appropriate companion for Riddick - she is too like him to be a foil.

The villains are intriguing and while they are characterized as something different, they seem very human. The Necromongers are subject to infighting, as the Lord Marshal is hunted by his chief warrior, Vaako. Vaako is less an indoctrinated cult member and more a MacBeth with Dame Vaako as his Lady MacBeth whispering conspiracy in his ears. One of the most compelling of the villain's ranks is the Purifier whose allegiance is questionable and who possesses an integrity that is respectable, after a fashion.

The Chronicles Of Riddick is a very simple movie in terms of plot. Riddick is on the run, learns that Kyra has been hunting him and he tries to find her while avoiding the Necromongers, who also begin hunting him. This takes Riddick from Helion Prime to a fiery prison planet and back. The visual effects and battles are fairly impressive and fun to watch. The running gets tired, but it's necessary for the plot.

Generally, the acting is good. Colm Feore is wonderful and menacing as the Lord Marshal, Thandie Newton is brilliantly calculating as Dame Vaako. Judi Dench is wonderfully cast as Aereon, with her simple, quiet dignity. And Alexa Davalos is more than just a pretty face as Kyra. Davalos is tough and reminiscent of other strong women of science fiction, like Ripley and Buffy.

On DVD, each of the movies has a commentary track and multiple featurettes both on the story and the making of the movies. Again, there are no exclusive featurettes unique to this package and there is nothing missing from the earlier releases.

I'm not sure why the Riddick Trilogy has not been more popular. They are big, special effects films with a character who is surprisingly well-acted and works well for the role. And if Vin Diesel is unable to get the other two David Twohy movies made, then this three pack will be the ultimate one. Personally, I'd rather have to come back here and re-rate this than be robbed of the last two installments. If you buy this, odds are you'll come to feel the same!

For other science fiction or fantast film series', be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Back To The Future Trilogy
The Star Trek movies
Alien Quadrilogy


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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