Riddick, in cinemas this week, sees Vin Diesel return to his niche role – antihero with night vision – the role which made him famous in the cult scifi-horror Pitch Black (2000). Director David Twohy also returns, dispensing with the space opera, pseudo religion, subplots and backstory which made the second film in the series, the Chronicles of Riddick (2004), absolute rubbish (at the same time removing the need for Diesel to actually act) and reprises the formula which made Pitch Black a cult classic: bad arse aliens, meet bad arse antihero – fight, preferably in low visibility.
Twohy barely attempts to ascribe any motivation to his lead besides survival, and it largely works. The worst parts of the film plot-wise are the attempts to provide continuity between this film and the one before it.
Testosterone oozes from the screen. The first act sets up Riddick as Bear Grylls – dropped from above into a hostile environment with no supplies besides a small knife, a broken leg and a camera crew, our antihero must fight his way through one deadly creature after another, each one bigger and deadlier than the last. Accompanied by gravelly narration, of course
Once Riddick has conquered these labours of hercules, picking up an dog-alien along the way (did I mention the testosterone theme…), he remains hunted as two ships arrive to answer a distress signal he triggers to get off-planet. Both arrivals are there for Riddick, but neither likes the other, and the conflict and uneasy truce between these mercenaries and figures from Riddick’s past are well-utilised through the second half of the film to keep the plot twisting and turning right to the end.
It is completely silly stuff and I laughed most of the way through. Diesel’s Riddick of course is the king of men – he screws armour into his shins, punches giant scorpion-aliens while climbing a jagged peak, and pulls off the most entertaining cinema kill scene since Legolas downed the olyphant and accompanying score of haradrim* in the Return of the King. Here, let’s watch that again:
(I still only counted one… heh.)
Riddick holds together purely because Twohy and Diesel remain committed throughout, by choice or accident, to their love-story of all things masculine. They’re so true to bringing the boof to the screen one of Riddick’s hunters is played by former Rugby League player (yes, that game where they run into brick walls made of flesh over and over again) Matt Nable. To be fair, Nable delivers probably the most convincing performance of the lot.
Diesel’s Riddick is the perfect antihero, interested in nothing but his own survival. If that involves killing people, so be it. If there are people to be saved, sure, why the hell not? The special effects are excellent, the internal ‘science’ of the tech and aliens all well within the realms of believability, and the direction is tight, albeit not as claustrophobic or suspenseful as Pitch Black.
But for me, what removes Riddick from the rewatch list is the woeful gender politics. Women appear in the film twice – first in a flashback sequence explaining why Riddick found himself in this situation – apparently as Lord Marshall of the Necromongers (worst name ever, another reason the Chronicles of Riddick was crap) Riddick was supposed to be chaste, and four naked women writhing over each other in a bed were too tempting for our leading man.
The second appearance of the “feminine” is in the form of one of the Riddick’s human hunters arriving in act two, Katee Sackhoff playing “gay Starbuck”, who packs a mean punch but is first the subject of an attempted rape and then a pathetic rape joke. Hmm… apparently women can be tough and macho if they’re gay, but they’re still sex objects. And either way they get naked.
Sure, this type of space and aliens action caper, read “entertainment”, usually has terrible politics all round – see World War Z – but it’s a shame that Twohy couldn’t pull off a potentially fabulous satire of the extremes of masculinity. Instead of being in Starship Troopers territory, we have another entry into the canon of mindless entertainment. Can’t wait for the video game (#sarcasmalert).
In a nutshell, Riddick is 118 minutes of testosterone, pure and simple. It’s mostly entertaining – in a so-macho-it’s-funny-way – but is sadly soured by lousy gender politics.
(* not orcs, as originally posted. Thanks Saul for the correction)