The Chronicles of Riddick
I have no idea how many times I've watched The Chronicles of Riddick, David Twohy's 2004 lavish space opera from 2004. It's been on my radar because it's been shown a lot over the last year, on the repeat digital channels here in the UK. Usually late at night. A fair number of films get this treatment. Do the television companies get certain films on a cheap deal, so as to enable this - can they repeat them as much as they like, at no extra cost? It's maybe evidence for there being too many channels, that even with our great quantity of imported US content, a film which the consensus would say was no better than an average SF flick, is on constant repeat.
When I spot it on my digital TV's programme guide and click on it, this comes up: Starring Vin Diesel and Colm Feore, 2004. Well, I guess. Odd to mention just them, or Colm Feore anyway. Not that he isn't good, or prominent, but there's also Oscar winner Judi Dench, Karl Urban, and Thandie Newton as well. And then: When war-like mindbenders seek to subordinate the universe, peacekeepers enlist the help of a convict. Now I'm amused. 'war-like'? Ye-e-ss, but... And where did that hyphen come from? 'subordinate the universe'? This is technically true, but only an aspect of what the baddies are up to. And 'peacekeepers'? Who are they exactly? It's probably a reference to Judi Dench's lot, but... You get the picture; it's one of those quick descriptions written by someone who may not actually have seen the film.
I've found myself watching it, several times. Sometimes late, sometimes I've watched it only the day before, and yet I've found myself drawn in yet again. Why?
Right:- Kyra, formerly Jack, and Riddick, in the prison on Crematoria. It's one of many unsatisfactory encounters they have, partly because neither actor injects much nuance into their parts, but also because the script doesn't give them much. In the end you feel they're at odds solely to create some dramatic conflict, but it feels artificial and I would have written it very differently. I'd want to suggest Jack/Kyra's resentment, but then move on and do something with the bond they are supposed to have, and leave out all that student drama dialogue - honestly, some of it makes Arnold Schwarzenegger's trademark banter seem as witty as Oscar Wilde.
One problem arises before you even see it: like many people, I was aware of, in fact I'd seen, its precursor Pitch Black. Precursor? Ah yes, you see therein lies an awkward mismatch. The writer David Twohy told us Chronicles continued the story of Riddick in the wider universe. He'd always had this in mind, he said, to create a saga of sorts, an evolving story. This notion is fair enough: lots of writers and directors have nurtured their own imagined universe into being. It's perfectly legitimate to make your own rules, and set out your own mythology. Maybe not everyone will buy into it - eg. I've never been much interested in the universe of Star Wars ('Heresy!!!') - but that's a matter of taste. The awkwardness comes from scale and structure. Pitch Black was small and tight, a thrilllingly told tale of desperate survival, with a handful of well realised characters sufficient for the limited scope of the story. A minor SF gem. But only three of those characters continue into The Chronicles of Riddick. One of them is played by a different actor; and the central character's story is expanded considerably, not always convincingly; while the setting has changed from one desolate planet to the entire universe, or, at least, the four or five planets we see in the film. Twohy may have had the wider mythology in mind from the beginning, but you'd be hard pressed to see it in the first film.
The real triumph of the film is its design. Everything, from the extraordinary visualisation of the various planets - no matter how unlikely they might seem - to the styling of the various peoples we see, done with imagination, originality and unusual attention to detail. Prime example must be the Necromongers, whose look despite their advanced technology seems to be an exaggerated confection of Baroque architecture, Renaissance decorated armour, all as if seen through the morbid eye of H.R. Giger. The Necromonger sets are astonishing. You'd think they'd be dull, with their being near monochrome, but once you get used to the subtle shades of steel grey, and the complexities of detail your eyes pick up everywhere, you sense you are seeing a different kind of multicoloured madness.
Left:- the Lord Marshall, played by Colm Feore. He's good, very well cast. He conveys something difficult, a character who utterly dominates the 'Legion Vast' and has crushed worlds all over a galaxy, and yet is haunted by fear of a prophecy. I'm not sure how much I believe that he would have let himself be killed in the way he does at the end. He commits the usual crime of all supervillians, of feeling a need to give long speeches before despatching his victims, hence giving them an opportunity to recover and turn the tables. But it's still a good scene.
And then there are the Necromonger spaceships. Rationally, they seem absurd, especially the way they reshape themselves when settled on the ground, and when taking off again. Most of it is entirely unnecessary, with no practical point; but oh does it impress. And intimidate. We're meant to believe that they have overwhelming power, even when dealing with an obviously strong and motivated opponent like the advanced civilisation of Helion Prime, and we do. Again I refer to the styling: the character of each planet or race is distinct, and when you see a spaceship or structure you know who it belongs to. Really, the technology isn't a worry. This is very far into the future, and the designers have done enough to make us accept that this is how it is.
Elsewhere I have to commend the care taken over the depiction of Helion Prime, even though it takes up only a part of the story. One of many treasured scenes from the film is Riddick's approach over some kind of waterway towards the capital city, with our viewpoint slowly lifting from the sparkling water racing beneath his ship up past some marker posts until we see the imposing sight of the city. Other such awe inspiring scenes include the strange forms of the ice planet we first see Riddick on, being pursued by bounty hunter Toombs, and the diurnal scorching of Crematoria, realised in such depth of detail that you believe the unlikeliest things, starting with the idea that people might indeed have constructed a prison on a planet like that.
Right, by this point you must be asking, why don't I think this is one of the SF greats? Apart from a niggle expressed above about some of the acting and dialogue, I seem to love this universe. But the film is let down somewhat, mainly by the science fiction itself. I wish a bit more time had been spent on thinking it through. It may be that further films would have resolved the problem areas, or perhaps the extended 'Director's Cut', which I haven't seen, would make me happy, but I don't know. I did say I was fine with the technology, or most of it anyway, which is true enough; but the whole doesn't quite hang together, and many details are stupid when you think about them. One small example: the sled which takes people from the landing site on Crematoria to the prison complex. It's open and ludicrously dangerous, and clearly only looks like that in order to enable another good Riddick action scene. Another thing: the 'Elementals' of whom Judi Dench is one. They don't quite work for me, when the other varieties of human we see are broadly speaking within the spectrum of physical types we're familiar with. Judi Dench is practically a wraith, and from a different sort of fantasy film entirely. There's a lot more... but I mainly want to highlight the biggest looming fact of all, which never gets explained and never goes anywhere useful, namely the concept of the 'Underverse'. You hear the word, and sort of explain it to yourself, but to make the film work, you really need more. Especially when you see the Lord Marshall's special powers. Above all, there's a simple point of logic: if getting back to the Underverse is such a big deal, why did he leave it, why is he not there already and why does he have to crush all of humanity to do it? Maybe there are all sorts of good background reasons, but we don't get them.
Right:- Riddick on Crematoria, watching a Necromonger ship depart, and finding out that he wasn't the only Furyan left...
In terms of critical regard, I think this film badly needed to be a lot more successful, so that there were further films which would shed light on the other stuff which needed explaining. I don't know if it was the 'world' of Chronicles which failed to win viewers over, but I suspect that the main casting might have been a problem. For one, Alexa Davalos looks great, but Kyra needed to be a much more interesting character than she makes her here, with what is essentially one angry expression. And as for Riddick, don't get me wrong, I think Vin Diesel has a lot going for him, and he's carved put a definite niche for himself in action films. And he carries off the very specific requirements of Riddick in Pitch Black very well. But I think he or the script doesn't allow his character to fill out to deal with the much larger themes of Chronicles. You feel the direction is too concerned to build scenes around his delivery of 'cool' lines and set piece action, rather than acting. A major theme of the film is to do with Riddick the Furyan loner unwilling to be concerned with other people's problems, now faced with the fact that his life is entwined with others, and being forced to act for others' benefit. Well, it happens, but I wish I could say that I believed it more.
Still, I like The Chronicles of Riddick. I warm to those characters, despite myself, even though I've found fault with them. I've managed to adjust to those weaknesses of logic - and honestly, I might have made a lot of those faults, but for me they're outweighed by the design and detail of that universe, and the weird complexities of the affairs of the various characters. You sort of fly along with it, somehow. It shouldn't be that memorable, and yet in the face of all those faults, it manages to be one of those films whose images stay in your mind long afterwards, conjuring up who knows what further fables.
31 March 2009
The Chronicles official site. This can't be a full five years old, because the animated pre(?)quel and the game are covered, but you do wonder, because it seems designed for a much smaller screen size. And it isn't as slick as the latest movie sites. The main goodie seems to be a sort of game you play when you 'Meet Toombs'. I lost patience with it. Anyway, there's a reasonable amount of stuff to dip into. But you're more likely to browse elsewhere for fan pages etc.