Talk Franchise To Me, Baby
My history with the chronicles of Richard B. Riddick is a long and loving one. I love these movies. All of them. It’s okay that you don’t love all of them, and it’s okay that you’re not into how weird the middle one got, and how the last one was the same movie that the first one was (in a lot of respects, even though I disagree). The Riddick movies are a great example of what a cool, personal, and ever evolving franchise should be, and I think, over time, they will be reevaluated as better movies than you remembered. These are not art films. They are not filmed to be particularly moving. They are great for a totally different reason.
I have been a Vin Diesel fan for a long time, which is something that lots of people find odd about me. I appreciate his dedication to working hard, hustling for movies, and making movies that bring him joy. As an actor, he has played some interesting roles, and Torreto from the Fast and Furious movies. Now, for a controversial statement, the FF franchise is one of the best in the world at what it does. It is shallow, stupid, has dumb as bricks plots, and will vicerally excite you if you buy into it’s stupid premises. Every frame is designed to be as testosterone driven and insane as possible, and I love that about them.
Weirdly, I hear of the Riddick films as testosterone driven murder porn, in the same vein as FF. This, I believe, is false. The Riddick films have some of the best world building, interesting premises, and weirdest ideas that you will ever see in a mainstream movie. They are a space opera, set in a dirty future world, where the entire universe is a frontier, and we are focused on the small stories of a brutal survivor in a harsh and terrible future.
Yeah, you didn’t think I was going to make it sounds like that, did you? It’s a movie about Vin being awesome right? Sure, there is some Vin being awesome stuff in there, but for a wider view, let’s look at the history of the space opera.
What is a space opera?
I am glad you asked, heading me. A space opera is defined as a story that is set in space (duh), having the qualities of an opera (also, duh). The world of space is given weight, with people and creatures interacting on multiple worlds, creating a gigantic backdrop for the stories that are going to be told. Each world is defined by it’s differing characteristics, and this allows the universe to constantly be expanded, confronting new challenges and ideas.
The opera part of space opera refers to the kinds of stories that are told. The stories are those of great people in terrible situations, overcoming, changing, and defying the odds to triumph. The stories are huge, fighting gigantic battles and moving from planet to planet, creating worlds that matter, but they also are focused on characters who are dedicated to their own goals and ideas.
(And now, for my favorite sentence I will ever write) Let’s talk about Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I love the extended universe, I love the original trilogy, and I love The Force Awakens. I love the ideas that Star Wars cultivates, and I love the worlds that it is on. Let’s write about Star Wars without all of the space stuff.
A young man discovers that he is the inheritor to a great power, is called to fight a greater fight, he meets interesting people, learns to control his power, and with the help of his friends, overcomes huge odds, using his power, to destroy a huge threat to his world. He joins a small power, helps that revolution through his action, learns more about his power, and confronts his opposite, and fails. After he fails, he learns more about himself, confronts the evil, and through his will, guile, smarts and power, defeats it.
That’s a story. It’s not a new story. It’s just a good solid base for a story. What makes Star Wars great, in my opinion, is that that is just one story that is going on at the same time. There is also the ambivalent rogue, who discovers that running at the first sight of trouble isn’t the path to getting what he wants, and his growth and change to become a better person through love and compassion. There is the terrible villain who decides to change his ways from hate and fear in his final moments. There is the love interest who is more than just a love interest, who is clear-headed and driven for a goal that she wants. There are two observers who are more important than they realize. There is the ultimate evil, tempting and sewing dissent at every turn.
Each part of Star Wars is designed to get you thinking about who you want to be. These characters persist in culture because they create impressions of who they are, make choices that are defined by those character traits, and eventually overcome weakness to be greater than they are. Star Wars is the kind of movie that makes people feel things.
Additionally, the Star Wars universe is designed to be intriguing. Every one of the bounty hunters that Vader hires on the Devestator (his Star Destroyer) is an interesting design and looks like they have a story from before that moment in time. When someone sees the Mos Eisley cantina scene for the first time, you get a glimpse of a couple of different stories that you could follow through, that Luke and Obi-wan are just one story in this universe. We see ancillary stories end, like Greedo’s, on camera. We hear about other things that you could do in the universe (Kessel run, “I have death sentences on twelve systems”, the band, “We don’t serve their kind in here”). We hear about the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and we think to ourselves of stories that could be told about them.
This is the power of the space opera. Let’s move on before I write another 6000 words about Star Wars.
Why is Riddick like that for me?
Well, first off, we’re talking about three movies. Let’s deal with them in order.
SPOILERS FOR PITCH BLACK AND CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK AND RIDDICK TO FOLLOW.
Pitch Black is an odd little horror film set in a space opera enviroment. If you’ve never seen the film, what’s wrong with you, but I’ll do a quick story recap. A group of people are travelling on a ship together, and the ship breaks up over a charted, but out of the way planet. When it crashes, the survivors realize that the planet was once colonized, has breathable air, and set about trying to figure out a way to signal for a rescue. The planet is odd, seemingly peaceful, but after a couple of people are killed and it is discovered that there are creatures who are hurt by light, the planet moves into alignment with the three suns of the system, creating a feeding frenzy from the creatures who live below the surface. There is a workable ship, but the survivors must band together to get home. They are picked off one by one, until there are only a few remaining, and eventually, they reach the ship, and some of them escape.
Not a complex story. Well, as usual, it’s in the details. These people are moving from one place to another for odd reasons. We have a miner, looking for work. We have a man and his two sons on the hajj. We have the co-pilor, who was going to jettison the passengers before the crash. We have a young boy. We have a cop. We have an antiquities dealer. And we have Riddick.
Pitch Black lives and dies on Riddick’s presence. Riddick is the center of the movie, because it seems like he is the threat at the beginning. Everything we hear about him suggests that he is going to be the horror movie villain, taking the people one by one. And yet, he ends up being much more of an anti-hero than a villain in the film. His decisions and ideas are important to survival, and over time, it’s revealed that he actually has a moral code. He kills the cop, but the cop wants to kill a girl to provide bait for the creatures. He mourns the loss of the actual hero of the movie. He is the character with the biggest arc in the movie.
The movie is also visually stunning. The creature designs are unique, in that the creatures have no eyes, sense through heat, and are damaged by light. This gives the director David Twohy, the ability to play with colors as markers of distance and time. We start with ever present light, and slowly lose it to up the tension. The bottleneck scene is incredibly tense from start to finish, and the light enhances that. The use of color is also glorious, and the film uses its smaller budget to create amazing terror in darkness. You never know where an attack might come from, because outside of the light is all dangerous.
Additionally, there are suggestions of a larger world. Old Earth is still a thing, as well as France. The Hajj is a space faring trip. Mercenaries and miners have jobs. People who pilot ships are prized. There are police, prisons, and more. The world feels lived in. People strike out to find new worlds. If you kill people, get sent to a prison where the sun never shines, you can get a surgical shine job that lets you see in the dark. Not only is this awesome, this is the start of a space opera.
Building a Bigger World
Chronicles of Riddick is much more in line with a traditional space opera. Riddick is brought back into the action because someone put a price on his head. He has been out of the universe for some time, but he is tracked down by mercenaries. He finds the imam from the first movie, runs into Judy Dench as an elemental (sort of an oracle and air being, having statistical based calculation powers) and fights the Necromonger army. The necromongers are an inspired villian, bringing people into eternal half life, creating a zombie army with a hierarchical structure that is based on “keeping what you kill.”
The worlds span interesting ideas. There is an ice world, a world so close to the sun that the surface is scorched every time it faces it, a prosperous world being devoured by the necromonger fleet. The beings are well designed, creating interesting characters, and memorable people to run into. We see more of the universe.
Riddick starts as an anti-hero and suffers a great tragedy in losing his protege and friend from the first film, who he distanced himself from to keep her safe, only to find her in the same position as him. He ends this movie on the throne, ruling the necromongers as a living person. The world expands. We wonder what his next moves are.
Karl Urban (who is a solid actor and does good work in almost every movie I have seen him in [DREDD]) does a lot of heavy lifting in this movie, acting as our character inside the necromongers. He is ambitious, doubtful, and trying to achieve his own goals. He has risen through the ranks. His wife, played by the glorious Thandie Newton, has her own turn as his Lady Macbeth. She is ambitious, sees the way to move up in the society, and chews scenery.
The Lord Marshal of the necromongers, played by Colm Feore, is revealed to be a genocidal maniac, fearful of prophecy and deeply committed to his stated goal, which is bringing about a necromonger empire. They have their own beliefs and thoughts, and Riddick becomes a thorn in his side.
Riddick is also given greater depth. He is revealed to be the last of the Furyans, a race that was wiped out by the necromongers. He was to be strangled with his own umbilical cord, but he survived. The elemental said that a Furyan was going to take down the Lord Marshal, and he was the fulfillment of that prophecy, but in that moment, he lost the one person he thought he cared about.
It works, for me, because Riddick is an evolving character after this. He is still a murder machine, but he did a lot of the things in this movie in the interest of others. He stopped the planet of his friend from being destroyed. He tried to save Jack and the others from being abandoned in the prison. He killed a guy with a cup. He was attempting to join the good guy side, and for that, he was pushed into a role that gives him power, but loses him everything else. I think that is a just end to this movie, and a good way to make the character lose and win at the same time.
What about Riddick?
The third film in the series, Riddick in many ways seems to suffer from sequelitis. He’s trapped on a foreign planet again, with an unstoppable, unthinking alien force. We introduce a bunch of non characters, who are after the bounty on his head, who slowly get picked off one by one. This time, when the rains come, everything goes to shit, and the monsters come out.
However, that’s only on a cursory viewing. There are two mercenary leaders, one, a man who is only there after wealth, and one who is seeking closure for his son’s death from the first movie. Riddick is attempting to get everyone off safely, but because of who he is, they doubt and people die. He raises something to be his ally. He loses that thing. He shows that he has a code of honor. He works with people to get them all safe, and his investment in trust is rewarded by being saved by them.
I like this movie, because I think that it is another continuation of his arc. It’s not as glorious as the first two, but it creates a nice book end to the full space opera Chronicles is. It works because I want to see this character in different situations. I want to see him succeed in harsh environments. I want to have characters who are interesting, fascinating and worry about different things. I find the turns and twists to be satisfying, and create a huge desire for the next film. I like that the first half of the movie has one character.
Is this movie as good as the first two? Probably not. But I think that it is aiming to be a turning point movie. We’re finally seeing what humanity has to offer in a world that is plagued by terrible things. We get action and adventure.
Where do we go from here?
Furyia, which is a movie that exists and is going to happen, is coming out in the next couple of years, hopefully, it seems. I hope that this one is more in line with Chronicles and not Riddick. I think it would be interesting to see what has become of Riddick’s world since the entire population was killed, and I want to see where he came from. I hope that there are really interesting character designs, and I hope that we get to see Riddick do awesome stuff. In the long run, though, I hope that it embraces it’s space opera with an anti-hero destiny, and creates something that expands and creates new worlds for my imagination to play in.
But, I’ll see it either way. Because of my love for these movies.