by Lucius Shepard
July 19, 2004
I recently happened upon a book entitled Multiplexity: Why Bad Movies Taste Good and Good Taste Bites, written by a person known as the Author, an anonymous writer once reputed to have been a harsh critic of the American film industry, but who, after years of therapy following severe head trauma incurred during an assault by an enraged scriptwriter, experienced a series of illuminations that, in their printed form, are invaluable to anyone who approaches the viewing of a summer movie with a certain trepidation. The books rather zen premise is that if a movie appears to be awful, to make no sense, its not the movies fault, but rather that you have failed the movie by imposing your terms upon its creative order. The last section of the book offers a number of exercises (only a few dependent upon the use of anti-depressants) that allow those who suffer from such an impairment to relax their overly rigorous standards and sit back and enjoy the fruits of American cinematic genius. Thus, though I refrained from doing my exercises before entering the theater where The Chronicles of Riddick was playing, I did feel less anxious than usual when the opening scene faded in.
Prior to directing CoR, David Twohy had gone a long ways toward establishing himself as the new John Carpenter . . . and considering the quality of Mr. Carpenters recent films, God knows we need a new one. In his four previous movies, Disaster in Time (based upon a Henry Kuttner-C.L. Moore novel), The Arrival, the excellent haunted-submarine flick Below, and Pitch Black (the film to which CoR stands as a sort of uber-sequel), Twohy demonstrated that he understood the fantasy and science fiction genres well enough to play with their tropes on a creative level apparently inacessible to many of his more celebrated and/or successful peers, and, operating with limited budgets and second-line actors, he also demonstrated that, like Carpenter, he could create character-driven B-pictures that were more entertaining, more conceptually sophisticated, and considerably less pretentious than the majority of the mega-budgeted, FX-laden films in whose shadow they existed. In other words, smallish movies that delivered a bit more than they seemed to promise. CoR serves to reinforce the similarity between the two directors, for when handed big budgets to work with, Carpenter made the worst two films of the prime of his career: the gruesome-sappy Starman and the intolerable Chevy Chase vehicle Memoirs of an Invisible Man. In accordance with this tradition, handed a budget roughly equivalent to the Paraguayan national debt, Twohy has now made what many consider to be his worst film.
The strength of Pitch Black lay in the fact that it was not primarily about a single character, Riddick (Vin Diesel), but was about the various characters of its ensemble castthey were sketched well enough so that if we did not deeply care what happened to them, we were at least interested in learning their fates, despite the fact that we more-or-less knew, thanks to the formulaic circumstance, what those fates would be. Drawing Riddick as an irredeemable criminal whose retinas have been polished to allow him to see in the prison dark from which he has escaped, Twohys script gradually revealed that his protagonist might not be as primitive a soul as he appeared, yet stopped short of redeeming him completely, a development that roughly mirrors the arc of Arnold Scwarzeneggers character over the span of the first two Terminator films, passing from nemesis to ally, from soulless evil to rudimentary humanity. In CoR, however, Twohy eschews the muscular simplicity and claustrophobic enclosure of the original film (a planet soon to be darkened by a total eclipse during which flocks of predators will descend upon the survivors of a crashed spaceship), supplanting it with a lavish overdose of plot and a variety of settingsan ice planet, a civilized world, a triple max-security prison on a hell planet, the sumptuous gaud of enormous sarcophagi-shaped spaceshipsand, by ladling an extra helping of mystery over Riddicks character (could it be that, like various other science fiction protagonists these days, he is the One?), he reduces our hero to, well, our hero, casting aside the more intriguing interstellar misanthrope. As the film opens, Riddick is running across an ice field, fleeing bounty hunters chasing him in a spacecraftnot only does he evade his pursuers, he captures their ship, persuades them to identify the people who put a price on his head (one being a mullah whom he saved from predation in the original movie), and then forces the bounty hunters to take him to the planet Helion Prime, where those folks live. At this point we understand there will be no further arc to Riddicks character. He is destined for great things and the only mystery attaching to him is how many people he will have to kill in order to achieve them.
Shortly after Riddick arrives on Helion Prime, after hooking up with the mullah, he learns that a being known as Aereon (Dame Judi Dench) has announced that he is civilizations last best hope against the Necromongers, a vast, remorselss army traveling in those aforementioned enormous ships toward the Underverse, a paradise that purportedly awaits them at the edge of creationjudging by the Necromongers funky black centurion-like costumes, Im thinking Goth nirvana, or maybe its a place where all the little angels wear Underoos. Along the way, they happily destroy every planet in their path, and they also happily murdelize anyone who will not convert to their cause. According to Aereon, who is an Elemental (this means that every so often, provoked by no apparent stimuli, she tends to wax wraith-like and transparent, and is then capable of shifting like a ghost from place to place), Riddick is the last surviving Furyan, a race of bad motorscooters who were thoroughly Necromongered some time back, but put up one hell of a fight. It seems theres a prophecy, uh-huh, you betcha!, that only a Furyan can kill the leader of the Necromongers, the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore, who played a much scarier villain, Andre Linoge, in Stephen Kings Storm of the Century). If you think that gives the ending away . . . Wow! Youve seen this, havent you? Before Riddick can generate much of a reaction to Aereons announcement, here come the Necromongers laying waste to Helion Prime. At about the same time, Riddick discovers that the other person he saved from death in Pitch Black, Krya (Alexa Davolos), a teenage girl who hero-worshipped him, now bloomed into a supermodel lookalike who loves him, has followed in his footsteps along the path of criminality and is currently imprisoned in an underground maximum security facility on a planet known as Crematoria. It should be clear by this juncture that in Twohys universe, the thing is the name, the name is the thing, and thus its a solid bet that Crematoria is going to be a tad on the warm side. Putting the Necromonger problem on holdand its a fairly urgent problem, since theyre preparing to turn Helion Prime into space junkRiddick lets himself be hauled off to Crematoria by the bounty hunters, who plan to sell him to the prison.
(Perhaps I wasnt paying close enough attention, but the rationale underlying the practice of prisons buying their prisoners eluded me, and thus I decided it was time to put into practice the exercises I had learned from reading Multiplexity. As a result, though not completely successful in penetrating CoRs mysteries, I did manage to comprehend much of what followed.)
The Crematoria segment, embodying the pulp crunchiness of Twohys previous films, is the best part of CoR. Watching Riddick interact ultraviolently with his fellow prisoners, reconnect with Kyra, and tame two ferocious mutant pangolins (the prisons guard dogs) all makes for good genre fun. But then, after busting out of the underground complex, Jack, Riddick, and a small group of convicts flee across the planetary surface, seeking to outrun the sunrise, which on Crematoria brings 700-plus degrees of heat, and . . . Well, if not for the puissant wisdom of Multiplexity, I might have been unwarrantedly dismissive when our hero and heroine manage to avoid cremation by hiding behind a rock. Newly confident in the movies genius, however, I assumed this to be no ordinary rock, but one that emitted cool rays. Once back on Helion Prime, when the evil Necromongers imprison Aereon by clipping a ball and chain to her leg, not once did I believe that this might prove ineffective, like chaining fogI understood that a special metal must be involved. Why does Riddicks dialogue consist entirely of tough-guy one-liners? Ritual Furyan warrior-speak. Why do Necromongers sound like actors reciting lines from a draft of a bad Shakespearean play? Bad Shakespeare is a pop culture item on planet Necro (if youve watched enough Star Trek, youll likely tumble to this), and that may also explain the popularity among the Necromongers of armor that looks to have been scavenged from a Cinecitta dumpster, and the use of swords and axes for dueling in a high-tech culture. Continuity errors, the random, pointless appearances of Dame Judi; the pagan-temple-meets-Terry Gilliam design of the Necromongers decor and technologyit all makes elegant sense when you utilize the proper comic-book logic.
I will admit that there were spots when I lapsed into the mode of ordinary human being and was baffled by all I heard and saw. For instance, when one of the Necromongers says, Take him back to the ship for mind regression, I (a) thought that the comment might have been directed toward me and (b) felt that the instruction was somewhat redundant. Once in a while, as I watched Diesel grunt and swagger, I had the impression that the survival of mankind was dependent upon the efficacy of the steroids abused by a grumpy personal trainer. And I had trouble understanding the purpose that informed Twohys quotes from various other genre films. To list but a few: storm troopers in Star Wars armor; quaintly retrofitted, begoggled human hound dogs called sniffers, who bring to mind Twelve Monkeys and Brazil; the ending of Conan the Barbarian. According to Multiplexity, the reason for my lack of understandingI did not come sufficiently pure to the experience.
The final scenes, most of them onboard the Necromonger flagship, are enlivened by Thandie Newtons performance as Lady MacBeth-ish Dame Vaako, who throughout the movie manipulates and motivates her husband, Lord Vaako (Karl Urban, Eomer in Lord of the Rings), to initiate regime change and make a move on the Lord Marshall. But thats easier said than done. For one thing, Lord Vaako, a man sporting maybe the worst mullet ever, is not the sharpest tack in the box. For another, the Lord Marshall, alone of all the Necromongers, has traveled to the Underverse and there gained the power to snatch a persons soul out of their flesh (which may explain why its so compelling a tourist attraction). You might think that this power makes him a heavy betting favorite when the time for the big showdown with Riddick arrives, but my Multiplexity exercises helped me to understand that the souls of Furyans come equipped with extra stickum and, though the Lord Marshall can yank a regular ol soul from the body easy as pulling a tissue from a box of Kleenex, I knew that when he grabbed hold of Riddicks animating principle, it was going to be more like tweezing a rattler out of a steampipe.
Thanks to Multiplexity, Ive come not only to enjoy the summer movies, but to have learned to open myself to their simple profundities. And when understanding is not possible, as happens with the greatest of these films, films whose potency is beyond articulation, I heed the Authors advice, perform a certain muscular ritual that is only slightly painful and removes all desire for decent dialogue or continuity, and just let the pretty pictures crush my skull. As for my take on Twohys latest, well, its no Battlefield Earth. We cant hope for that until Travolta pulls off his long-promised sequel. But in the meantime, no movie is going to get you closer to that particular slice of heaven than The Chronicles of Riddick.