by Indy Datta
The shower scene is when you know it’s all gone a bit wrong. About halfway into David Twohy and Vin Diesel’s agreeably disposable reboot of their SF microfranchise, Katee “Starbuck” Sackhoff’s lesbian bounty hunter character Dahl (which I heard as “Doll” right until the end credits rolled) strips to the waist to give herself a sponge bath, and to give the audience a gratuitous eyeful (sideboob, nipple). What gives? Until this point, Dahl has been portrayed as one of the most intelligent and capable characters in the film, as two rival bands of bounty hunters squabble over who gets to bring in the fugitive Richard B. Riddick, alive or dead. Her sexuality is dealt with by brusquely taking it off the table. “I don’t fuck guys. I fuck them up”, is all she says to the sleazy rival (Jordi Mollá) who pays her too much attention; and she’s his equal, so that’s all that needs to be said. But from this point on, the character is sidelined, told to wait here while the boys sort it out. When Riddick, captured and shackled by the bounty hunters shortly after this, predicts how the story ends, he finds the time to note that he intends to “go balls deep into” Dahl, “but only because you’re gonna ask me sweetly”. And; guess what happens at the end. Seriously, you guys? I was looking forward to this, and you’ve made me into a PC internet scold. Thanks a bunch.
I probably wasn’t, to be fair, looking forward to Riddick quite as much as was Vin Diesel, who has never quite let the general public’s indifference to his signature character (the “B” is silent) stand in the way of him strapping on his signature goggles at any given opportunity. He’s gone so far in the years since the poorly-received Chronicles of Riddick as to publish 2 Riddick video games through his own games studio and has now, if the launch publicity is to believed, put up his own house as collateral for this independently produced third film. But my anticipation was genuine – Pitch Black was tight, witty and visually inventive, and Chronicles… had a hologram of Judi Dench in it. And, you know, if your fictional alter-id could see in the dark and instantly convert lesbians, you’d probably find it hard to move on too.
Riddick sets its stall out early – the reset button has been hit hard. The windy mythology of Chronicles is dispensed with in a brief flashback as Karl Urban’s Vaako (game, in the film for about thirty seconds) double-crosses Riddick and abandons him to the nameless desert planet that serves as the film’s setting. Much as the almost endless day of Pitch Black’s hostile world was just a prelude to the monsters unleashed by the eventual night, so you might intuit that you don’t want to be on this planet when it eventually rains (let’s stipulate that the ecology and biology of both films make no particular sense, and I don’t really care). Up to the point where Riddick figures this out for himself, the film has taken the form of a planetary romance cum survivalist fable, with Riddick passing his time doing battle against various CGI beasties who want to feast on his gym-bulked flesh (including the amphibious scorpion things that become the main monster antagonists later on, and packs of wild dogs, one of whom he domesticates), and also running naked up mountains a lot to show off his butt.
All of which is well and good, but a bit drab. The planet setting is brown and repetitive, the vintage pulp magazine art style is competent but unmemorable. And Diesel’s talent for drily camp repartee is ill-served when he only has a giant CGI dog to bounce off (as giant CGI dogs have notoriously poor comic timing). So, there’s a sense of relief when Riddick sees the storm coming and pushes a panic button at a mercenary station, which is a thing, bringing not one but two crews of bounty hunters down on his head, but also possibly bringing with them a way off the deathtrap planet.
From here, things improve considerably, as Twohy’s script elegantly shuffles the antagonisms among the various parties (although, side note, any elegance is confined to plotting; the freakishly clunky dialogue probably accounting for any recent anomalous spikes in the price of tin). At first, the two bands of bounty hunters face off against each other for the right to bring Riddick in. Then, they band together as they realize that he is stronger and more resourceful than they thought. And, of course, in the end, reprising Pitch Black, all the humans have to unite against their common enemy, with Riddick as the de facto leader, not because of his official status (outlaw, murderer), but because he is smarter, faster, stronger, better. Riddick is never remotely the kind of film that’s interested in why it finds that idea attractive. Although one of the bounty hunters has a connection to the events of Pitch Black, and makes his entrance feeling that Riddick has a moral accounting to make to him, he is of course mistaken. This film isn’t about any of that – it isn’t really about anything but the visceral cinematic conjuring of rapacious monsters, alien landscapes, darkness, pounding rain, and guys with big guns and bigger biceps.
Lord knows, having (to pick the most recent example) just seen Elysium flourish its big ideas like a protest march flag yet fail to keep more than one thought in its head for ten seconds, I’m more than fine with that, and for the most part Riddick is a likeable throwback to the kind of meathead DTV sci-fi trash I grew up on, and more than capably put together. But, you know, sort out the woman thing, that’s all. If the treatment of Dahl was even a throwback, I’d say it was the wrong kind of throwback.
Riddick is on general release from Wednesday.