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Riddick: A Meditation

[I did not include the Riddick-verse video games or animation as I am unfamiliar with the material.]

In 2000, a little movie named Pitch Black dropped in select movies houses. I had no idea what it was about, but the posters and the one trailer I saw intrigued me. I was also a lightweight David Twohy fan based on his 1996 alien invasion film, The Arrival. So, me and my boy Corey walked into the theater without any expectations. When the film ended, we sat quietly through the credits. We said nothing to each other until the lights asserted themselves. I looked at him, and he looked back and almost in unison we said some variation of: ‘What the hell did we just see?’ Without any verbal confirmation, we sat in the theater and watched it again.

Not that Pitch Black is a particularly amazing film. Far from it. There are plot holes the size of Vin Diesel’s biceps all throughout and some characters made stupid decisions that got them killed. But the filmmaking was tight and appropriately atmospheric, there were some legitimate scares, and the action was tightly choreographed. And then there was Riddick (now known as Richard B. Riddick. He should have stuck with the mononym).

We’ve had cinematic antiheroes before, but none of them were a yoked man of color with a voice like concrete giving birth. Riddick’s world was just so different than what we were used to seeing. It wasn’t post-apocalyptic, nor was it space fantasy or space opera, nor was it in that narrow vein of haunted house sci-fi that films like Alien fall into. It was something wholly different. In the film’s 109 minutes, we learn about prison surgeries that can allow people to see in the dark, intergalactic Muslims on space Hajj to New Mecca, mercenaries, interstellar drugs and drug addicts, and swarming fast-ass nocturnal monsters who will strip you of your flesh in a few seconds.

This was a universe I wanted to know more about. Some folks forced the criticism that Pitch Black was a low rent attempt at Alien. I argue against that. If anything, Pitch Black was an Advanced Dungeon’s and Dragons campaign filtered through a science fiction trope. You had thieves, clerics, fighters, wise men, a dungeon, monsters, and a defined quest. One of the first things I thought, after my second viewing of Pitch Black was: This world’s DM is a straight up asshole.

Eight years later, Vin Diesel and David Twohy unleash The Chronicles of Riddick to a cacophony of negative reviews. This film was savaged within an inch of its celluloid life.  Deservedly, so. It left behind the quiet menace of Pitch Black and amplified…everything. It was big, loud, brash, clunky, and had some of the worst names for planets in the history of filmed science fiction. Crematoria? Really? It also had the least frightening villains and big bad ever. The idea of half-dead soldiers that roam the galaxy, terror-forming planets, and killing or converting said planet’s populace is a scary prospect. When you add in the idea of the quasi-dead and the Underverse — this could have made for a host of genuinely badass antagonists. But alas, no. Not at all. Not even Karl Urban could inject the Necormongers with any sense of, well, anything.

And the Necromonger hordes looked like legions of Schleich knights.
However, there were these things called “Lensors” that acted as Necromonger bloodhounds that gave me a shiver or two.

As the big bad Lord Marshal, Colm Feore was as threatening as a cookie.

If the effects are the only thing that makes you spooky, and not your acting skills and charisma, you are not villain material. Despite all of this, I love this film.

It delivered on a multi-cultural/racial universe that Pitch Black hinted at, and it also piqued my interest in wanting to explore more of the world/s presented. There were Elementals — we only say Dame Judi Dench’s Air Elemental. What about Earth, Fire, and Water? In this universe, are there other  elements with Elemental representatives? — we get hints of Riddick’s past as a Furyan (the director’s cut is messier, but provides more necessary story elements), we see Jack from the original film who informs us of slave trades, there are color changing hell hounds, and the film possessed a sense of adventure.  It didn’t get stuck in action only mode.

The Chronicles of Riddick is my new Dune. Just like with David Lynch’s 1984 mess-terpiece, I watch Chronicles every single time it is on. I drop whatever I’m doing and watch the film to completion. As wholes, both films are pretty bad. But there are sequences and performances that are quite fascinating, this, coupled with genuine attempts at world-building make both of them films I enjoy. I’m entirely too old for guilty pleasures. I like what I like. If Pitch Black was an AD&D adventure, Chronicles was Gamma World when it should have been Star Frontiers — a mash up of genre expressions that only served to present an incoherent mess.

When I heard that there was going to be a third film in the Riddick-verse, and it would be rated R, I became very excited. I thought that, with the R rating, the franchise would go back to its small film, spooky roots.

Riddick came out two years ago and it was such a letdown that I was angry after seeing it at a midnight preview. I really try not to dump on films and television programs as they take a considerable amount of time and energy to bring to fruition. But Riddick took what was wrong with the first two films, and ratcheted up the wrongness. Riddick was a vulgar film. It was unnecessarily violent, homophobic, and misogynist. There was a mean spirit that ran through the entire thing. This film betrayed the spirit of the first two in a way that was offensive. If I had to equate Riddick with a roleplaying game, it would be F.A.T.A.L. F.A.T.A.L. is universally believed to be the worst RPG to ever spill from the mind of a human. I won’t go into it here, but follow the links above to investigate for yourself.

But we shouldn’t abandon all hope. There is still room, and a need, for Riddick and the universe he resides in. While many (good) sci-fi films are based on comics or films that were first established over thirty years ago, the Riddick franchise is contemporary and is beholden only to its own canon and mythology. If crafted correctly, it could tell space-action stories in a new way.

It can be (successfully) argued that women of color have not been an integral part of (or not given too much to do in) this universe, thus far. This doesn’t mean that this cannot happen. That multiple races and cultures exist in the Riddick-verse is just a fact of world-building. It isn’t played for a gimmick, nor is it highlighted as some sort of, ‘Hey, look! Brown people in science fiction.’ It just is. There is a very prime opportunity for Diesel and Twohy to introduce a woman of color either as a foil (hopefully), companion, or love interest for Riddick. Badass kickass women of color in science fiction are next to non-existent. I’m doing a little bit of dreaming here, but to have a man and woman of color, in science-fiction, all anti-heroed out, in space ships or hovercrafts or jetpacks, using beam weapons, getting into all manner of sci-fi hijinks, all projected on the big screen…I’d be the first in line.

While Richard B. Riddick has yet to live up to his filmic potential, he has much room to grow and mature into the type of cinematic sci-fi presence that will change the, ‘Let’s make every male lead in a sci-fi/space action television show or program some variation of either Captain Kirk or Han Solo.’

For Riddick to become another template for these types of characters would be a very welcome addition. But for now, all we can do is experience the B-movie magic of Pitch Black, cringe with embarrassed delight at the total miss that is The Chronicles of Riddick, and completely disavow the existence of Riddick.

Let’s hope that Vin Diesel and David Twohy give us an installment of the Riddick-verse that is the space Dungeon’s and Dragon’s film we all deserve, instead of the scattershot cinematic salmagundi we’ve already experienced.

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