The spur to starting this blog was the shuttering of the website Chris and Phil Presents, a site for which I had wrote a ton of stuff over the years. We don’t leave much of a mark on the world, so faced with mine evaporating like so much digital smoke I started this blog.
As is the nature of the fast moving world of show, some of the stuff I wrote has rather gone past its sell-by date, but with the recent [mild] controversy over a particular sexist joke in the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service (one I commented upon in my review along with everybody who saw it and quite a few who didn’t) reminded me of a blog I had written after seeing the sci-fi sequel Riddick.
Kingsman’s miss-step was to me an annoyance, it felt less grievous an infarction in part because I liked that film a lot and was willing to compartmentalise it in order not to have to write off the preceding two entertaining hours. Having said that director Matthew Vaughn’s atrocious response to criticism has done little to endear him to anyone. Riddick on the other hand was at best a mediocre re-hash, lacking redeeming qualities in any quantity sufficient to sugar its bitterness.
In any case, now that the Chris and Phil site appears to have switched off for good, I thought I’d rerun this. Enjoy.
Don’t be dick, Riddick!
Recently I saw a press screening of Riddick the improbable third entry in writer director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel’s science fiction franchise. I say improbable because while the first entry Pitch Black (2000) was an enjoyable and moderately successful B movie, sequel The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) was a bloated and self important attempt to take the badass character of Richard B. Riddick and plonk him down into a Dune style epic science fantasy saga. It didn’t work and the film was both a critical and commercial flop.
However clearly Diesel loves this character, and his renewed box office clout following the surprise smash that was Fast & Furious 5 combined with the cult popularity of the Riddick character on home ents formats, means that a second sequel arrives almost a decade after the previous entry. Conscious of the failure of the Chronicles, Riddick was greenlit on a reduced scale and obviously smaller budget from the previous entry’s estimated $105 million.
The film takes the character back to basics, The Chronicles of Riddick attempted to open up the character’s world into a universe, adding a complicated mythology of Necromongers, Furyans, and Elementals that was mostly baffling. Riddick tries to tie this up as briefly as possible (and fails miserably) before getting on with mounting what wants to be a lean, mean B action picture.
The movie opens with its eponymous character broken and marooned on a hostile world. Aside from a ridiculous but thankfully sparse gravelly voice over from Vin Diesel (Riddick is no Philip Marlow), and a brief flashback to tie the film into the end of The Chronicles of Riddick (including an appearence from Carl Urban, as usual delivering dialogue like he has his jaw wired shut), the opening section of the film is actually pretty good. It’s just Riddick alone on a planet where everything is trying to kill him. As such it is extremely reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s excellent Deathworld series of pulp novels (which also seem to influenced Will Smith’s SF catastrophe After Earth). Riddick is chased, attacked, has to set his fractured leg, hunts, and is incredibly manly. After being pursued by a pack of alien dogs, he rescues an abandoned pup which he sets about training. Frankly a film that was 90 minutes of Vin Diesel and an alien mutt growling at each other would have made me quite happy. I didn’t even mind the hilarious scene were Diesel strips off all his clothes and climbs a CGI mountain only for the rays of an alien sun to perfectly illuminate his depilated bubble butt.
Eventually Riddick comes to a mountain range, over the mountain there is water, and water is life. Unfortunately to get to the steps carved into the cliff face which will lead there, he has to get past a pool guarded by a semi aquatic grubbly that is part scorpion and part Watcher in the Water from The Fellowship of the Ring. Cue more Rambo-esque macho masochism.
Sadly once Riddick does reach the other side of the mountain, and discovers an abandoned bounty hunter camp the films starts to deteriorate badly. Spotting a distant thunderstorm apparently awakening hundreds more of the vicious grubblies that are buried in the soil, Riddick decides it is time to vamoose and sets off an interstellar beacon announcing his presence. Of course the now vast bounty on his bonce attracts not one but two sets of bounty hunters.
Now the film makes it’s first big mistake as Dickie B. Riddick goes into stealth mode and leaves his own movie for a long stretch leaving us in the company of some of the thickest characters seen in an SF movie since Prometheus (yeah, all these guys would take of their helmets too). Even worse, people open their mouths to spout Z-grade dialogue that would embarrass any DTV Alien clone.
However the movie trundles along amiable enough as an undemanding genre time waster. In this it is greatly enhanced by the presence of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff as a hard as nails mercenary. The only female character of any note in the movie, Sackoff’s character self identifies as a lesbian ‘I don’t fuck guys’, holds her own in a firefight, and can kick the ass of any of the men who hit on her. This seems pretty cool right? Badass gay character’s are rare enough in SF, let alone lesbian characters.
In fact this fits in nicely with Riddick’s obvious (if publicly closeted) status as a gay icon. With his bald pate, hard body, rave glasses and industrial clubwear, Riddick would be a huge hit cruising the streets of the Castro District. And if you have a problem with that, well you are liable to need emergency dental work.
So all’s well, the movie is enjoyable violent fluff right? Well no, quite late in the film amid the breaking spines, body shots and decapitations, something genuinely shocking happens. Riddick has allowed himself to be captured by the remaining mercs he hasn’t killed, and is smirking away in chains when he turns on Sackoff’s character and tells her that (words to the effect of) he is going to escape, and after he’s killed everybody he is going to fuck her, and she is going to ask him to. In fact I think the actual term he uses is that he is going to be “balls deep” in her character. Balls deep? John Donne is truly spinning in his grave that he didn’t use that term in his celebrated sonnets of love.
This moment is totally out of character for Riddick, while an amoral, criminal badass, he’s never come over like a jock date rapist with a pocket full of Rohypnol bofore. In fact in the previous movies, he’s never really shown any interest in women as sexual being’s before. Even when he told Thandie Newton in CoR after a deep inhale that ‘it’s been a long time since I smelt beautiful’ one got the impression that he just liked the shade of her lipstick. Previous to this moment the only woman who has really got him interested was Dame Judy Dench ferkrissakes! Early in Riddick during the flashback sequence we see a jaded Riddick sigh a deep ‘meh’ when faced with an entire bed full of ready to go Suicide Girls.
This scene, and it’s follow up when Riddick is actually airlifted from certain death by grubblie by Sackoff and romantically grabs her ass, something she smiles indulgently about! Are a slap in the face for fans of Diesel, fans of Riddick, fans of science fiction, women, lesbians, in fact anyone who isn’t a complete dickhead frankly. What were they thinking? It takes quite some effort to throw away an entire film with one scene of crass offensive misogyny and homophobia, but Riddick does it and the movie never recovered for me.
In fact as I travelled home following the screening, this scene bothered me more and more in hindsight. For all that the character of Riddick began life as one element in a tight little monster picture with an ingenious premise, the character has become an extension of Vin Diesel own rather unique personality. Despite his physical presence (he is one of the few action stars on today’s scene who would be just as at home in the musclebound lunkheaded eighties) Diesel is a self confessed nerd who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and clearly loves the unfashionably nerdy side of fantasy and science fiction. CoR ended with a clear reference to Robert E. Howards Conan books (and the Schwarzeneggar movies) as Riddick becomes anointed an unwilling Necromonger king (okay Lord Marshall in that movie’s parlance). For all The Chronicles of Riddick was presented as Science Fiction, it actually had more in common with pulp high fantasy. So as such Diesel has an appeal that reaches out to more marginalised members of SF and fantasy fandom. Like Jason Statham, he seems (or seemed) to be quite aware that he had an appeal to gay fans, and was comfortable with this. So for him to indulge in this type of language and behaviour is not only disappointing, it feels irresponsible and more than a little cruel.
Worse the language Riddick uses against Sackoff’s character is very similar to the sort of horrible trolling that seems to have exploded online recently, in forums, on twitter, on gaming networks. The kind of abuse that prominent female writers on movies, comics, fandom and games who express any kind of feminist viewpoint face on a more or less daily basis. The implication is that Riddick is going to rape the character straight, and ultimately because he is just so irresistibly masculine, she’s gonna like it. This is actually dangerous.
I expect this kinda thing from Michael Bay, but I was stunned to find it in a Vin Diesel movie. What worries me most is that Riddick has to have gone through a test screening process. That a moment that was so offensive to me that is ruined an enjoyable three star bit of fluff (and having seen some guarded tweets from other writers at this screening – which was embargoed until two days before the film’s release, wonder why? – it seems I am not alone) has survived a test screening process makes me despair. It makes me despair that this sort of B film, which I grew up on, and which I adore, his courting an audience of sub-literate morons who hold these sort of attitudes.
This is a line in the sand, I’ve had enough of this, and if it continues and becomes normalised in genre films… sad to say, I may be out.
This is one of the few things I’ve written that inspired another writer* to run a response article.
*Anton Bitel who I respect and admire even if we often do not agree very often.