For our second re-view of the day, please welcome park ranger Rachel Shields, who takes another gander at the moral complications, black eyeliner, and “faceships” of The Chronicles of Riddick.
The Chronicles of Riddick, unrated director’s cut
I don’t remember the first time I watched The Chronicles of Riddick very clearly, just flashes of biceps and reflective night-vision eyes. I had recently broken up with an evangelical Christian whose conflicted and inconsistent approach to sex had started to make me embarrassed and confused about myself—and a little pent-up. I probably related to the female member of the mercenary team who rubs up against Vin Diesel (handcuffed to the interior of the space ship) while she thinks he’s asleep. Now, watching ten years later, I thought about things like the morality of terrorism, our cultural inheritance from Classical mythology, and technical errors related to crevasses. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a sign of personal progress.
After I put the unrated director’s cut of The Chronicles of Riddick into the DVD player, I started to get worried as I skipped through the previews, which are usually so helpful in letting you know whether or not you should be watching the movie that comes after. Drunken Jackasses: The Quest (I hope no one in Mexico ever watches this film) was followed by Bourne-something-something (the one with the car chase I saw them filming in New York and mistook for a blocks-long car accident), Earthsea (LeGuin seems to translate badly to CGI), Adam Sandler films (all of the fluffiest ones), and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay video game (in which Vin Diesel seems to have lost a perilous amount of weight from his waist). I have never played the video game, but seeing the preview at the beginning allowed me read much of the film as a template for it. For example, the character “types” (like the night-vision creatures who look like they’re wearing glowing diving masks) and the harsh environments that rarely seem justified by the story made much more sense as preparation for a game. Seeing the ad taught me to watch the film.
The menu of the director’s cut is very stressful to navigate. To get past the first screen, you have to pick “Convert” or “Fight.” Not remembering the film very well, I was still pretty sure I was being guided to choose “Fight.” I felt weirdly instructed. “Fight” was the right choice—at least, it led to a play button. The film continually reinforces overly simplified options, choices that seem unnecessarily narrow even within the world of the film. I wouldn’t care—except this film also appears to have aspirations of moral complexity.
The film begins with a brief introduction by director David Twohy, in a beige jockey-like jacket that did not help me take him seriously. This introduction has the sole purpose of explaining shoddiness of editing in the newly added scenes. Basically, he explains, there will be skips and jumps where we added stuff. But, he says, don’t worry, it’s a good thing because then you can tell where we added stuff. It’s like an intentional marker. Except we only did it because we couldn’t afford to do something better.
The actual film begins with a close-up shot of a big metal thing that turns out to be a phallic tower with three Egyptian-looking face attached to the top. It shoots blue fire (sperm?) into outer space. Just in case we did not pick up on the sense of menace, Judi Dench informs us in a voiceover that “There were times where evil would be fought by good, but in times like these, evil must be fought by another kind of evil.” Here begins the aspect of this film that most confuses now that I am no longer distracted by biceps: I have never fully understood the premise that Riddick is evil. He seems to be primarily motivated by the desire to save children from violence—am I to supposed to understand that this is the mark of moral depravity? I may think so privately, but I’m pretty sure that this is not a possible interpretation within the film. Riddick is unmotivated to save an entire planet from destruction (“Not my fight,” he says) until his friend dials up the guilt by mentioning Jack, the child (from the previous film) who Riddick “abandoned” with a loving family. The friend says, “so you will leave us to our fate, just like you did her” and suddenly Riddick is all for planet-saving. The friend’s kid lays it on even thicker: “Riddick, are you going to stop the new monsters now?” If you want Riddick to help you, just find a kid and wave it around in front of his face. This exchange leads him to search for the child he abandoned on a sun-melted prison planet, where he discovers that “Jack” has renamed herself “Kyra,” a clear sign of emotional distress. Shame on you, Riddick.
Kyra also subscribes to the we-are-evil theory. When she and Riddick run into some necromongers (the invaders in the earlier scene), she says, “Shit, I hate not being the bad guys.”
To make things more complicated, Judi Dench’s character, who appears to be “good,” is an “Elemental” who is obsessed with “balance.” I think the implication of this is that the world needs equal parts good and evil, but Dench’s morality is as difficult to pin down as her character—who flits around the set like a ghost in a sparkly dress.
Is Riddick evil because of his methods? Is he Machiavellian in his desire to save children? To be fair, he does kill someone with a metal teacup. And, when he gets his own blue fire and blasts everyone around him, its tough not to think of a suicide bombing (or an invincibility code in a video game), but he doesn’t make the choice to use the weapon himself (it’s implanted in him by the ghostly memory of his dead planet). He also seems to take insults badly. After he’s killed a couple of members of a mercenary team and incapacitated most of the rest, he tells the captain, “You made three mistakes.” Two of which directly relate to underestimating Riddick. He seems to be happy to kill them (or abandon them on ice planet) partly because they didn’t fully respect that he is a badass. None of these moments make Riddick any more morally ambiguous than characters marked as heroes or essentially “good” in other films.
That leaves that fact that Riddick dislikes light, which might be why he’s evil. When he is forced to return to civilization, he says, “So now it’s back to all the brightness, everything I hate.” There is a practical reason for this, however, which is that he has to wear sunglasses all of the time because of his eyes. I hate sunglasses myself, so I don’t really blame him for preferring the dark.
Perhaps it is easier to discuss what the film marks as worse evil than Riddick. Just in case you weren’t sure about “Convert” being the right choice, the bad bad guys are models of machine-like conformity (like in practically every other science fiction film). When they attack New Mecca (which is basically Dubai), they land one of their faceships and foot soldiers come out of the bottom like the Trojan horse if the Trojan horse had not been disguised as a gift. They fight in rows, which shows how evil they must be. As we’ve learned from Star Wars and films about the American Revolution, the bad guys fight in rows, even when it means more casualties for themselves. When the fighting is over, the soldiers, the weapons of mass destruction, the faceships, etc. are all in rows as well. Throughout this film, the menace of conformity is more important artistically than the reality of combat.
And to what purpose? A man with ribs on his head tries to tell the conquered that they should die and go to the “Underverse.” Basically, they’re killing (or partially killing?) all the living people so that there will be more dead ones to populate the underworld. It’s all put in terms of faith and accepting this conversion. One man disagrees, so they take his soul out. Taking your soul out also kills you, but not in the good way—you’re dead dead, not just line-obsessed foot solider dead. The strangest part is that the necromongers are not just mindless zombies, even after the overlords stick spikes into the sides of their necks and distribute the black eyeliner. Characters show signs of disobedience and an ability to overcome the converted state—which made me question the implied mind control. In other words, the bad-bads seems to have moral decisions left open to them (though perhaps more of a struggle than before their conversion), which makes them not so much a different kind of evil than Riddick—possibly actually the same kind.
For a film that purports to complicate morality, its claims really aren’t very controversial—and when they are, the film always backs away from them. Riddick isn’t a suicide bomber, he is merely unknowingly carrying the rage of his destroyed planet. Riddick doesn’t really abandon a child, he leaves her behind to keep her safe. Riddick only kills when attacked and is only brutal when all he has to fight with is a teacup.
Perhaps I’m not as nice as I was in 2004. At the end of the film, as the necromongers kneel before him on the throne, Riddick says, “You keep what you kill.” By the time the film ended, I wanted him to take over exactly where the evil overlords had left off, just for the sake of developing his characterization in a new direction.