Passion is essential to any art project. In fact, passion is important to any endeavor, regardless of artistic merit. If you don’t really care about what you are doing, you won’t be successful in your actions. That’s true of anything from storytelling to relationships to dog-walking. Unfortunately, passion alone does not guarantee quality. One example of passion perhaps exceeding its grasp is found in the Riddick series of films, which is the pet project of actor Vin Diesel and writer/director David Twohy. I spent the last few days catching up on the (thusfar) trilogy, which has garnered acclaim from several sources.
There is no rhyme of reason to the naming convention of the films in the future-set science fiction series. Things kicked off in 2000 with Pitch Black, depicting the efforts of survivors of a crashed transport ship trying to escape the dangerous planet on which they are stranded. Among their number is Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) a repeat escapee from the galaxy’s harshest prisons. Riddick is an unrepentant killer who can see in the dark, and he is willing to do whatever has to be done to save himself from the fierce predators that come out when the sun goes down.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but we follow Riddick on to his next adventure in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Riddick finds himself in the role of unlikely galactic hero as he faces off against the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore) and the Necromonger forces, who are slowly moving from planet to planet, picking up converts and killing those who decline. Along the way Riddick escapes from another prison, brutalizes some bounty hunters, and learns quite a bit about his mysterious past.
Last year’s most recent entry in the series, titled simply Riddick, is an entirely different monster. The film starts as a survival film, similar in many ways to fellow 2013 features Gravity and All Is Lost; Riddick finds himself injured and abandoned on a brand new planet. The second act takes on an entirely different tone as two groups of mercenaries come searching for Riddick and he becomes their personal boogeyman. The final third of the film forces all the remaining players to join together in an interesting homage to the first movie.
The three films are different in more than just name. Pitch Black is a very straightforward sci-fi horror film, a la Alien. It’s main problem is that it just isn’t very good. Most of the acting is terrible, including Diesel and Keith David – who is usually a strong addition to any cast. The basic story is interesting enough, but the execution is pretty awful. It makes one wonder how Chronicles got made; perhaps it was that Diesel/Twohy passion. What is clear is how deep Twohy’s vision for the series became. Chronicles opens up the series’ universe immensely. Eventually it ends up mired in its own mythology, leaving a product that feels like impenetrable fantasy. The third movie goes a long way to redeem the series, focusing on the aspects of the previous movies that really worked to create a whole that is good-not-great.
The series is populated by interesting performances by surprising actors; the aforementioned Keith David plays an off-putting Islamic stereotype in the first two films. Judi Dench appears as a wind/ghost person in Chronicles, as do Karl Urban and Thandie Newton as a couple of wannabe Macbeths. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff features in Riddick as (get this!) a tough lady merc. But the only constant in all three films – tone- or character-wise – is Diesel’s main character.
When we are first introduced to Riddick he is painted as a truly evil person. And while his actions in Pitch Black are not quite that, he is definitely not a likable guy. Riddick schemes, and plans, and really only looks out for himself unless it is absolutely necessary to do otherwise. He is a really interesting character to write a movie around, which makes Diesel’s less-than stellar (get it? ‘Cause “stars”) performance a real bummer. Diesel ups the quality in the following two movies, but Riddick is drastically softened in Chronicles. Almost all of the edge that made the character cool is sacrificed in favor of messianic gobbledygook. Riddick, however, shows us a side of the character that we desperately needed: vulnerability. Throughout the first two installments Riddick always knows exactly what the play is, and he never seems truly surprised by anything that happens. Not so in the third movie; Riddick is injured (and – dare I say – scared) for the first 10 minutes of the film, and his confidence wavers toward the end as well. Not only that, but we get back some of the darkness that initially graced the character. Diesel pulls all of this off rather well; there aren’t even any laughable moments where he whispers something like “beautiful.”
But the most interesting thing about Richard B. Riddick is his obvious status as a homosexual. Maybe it is not explicitly stated, but over the course of the series you can definitely pick up a clue or two. There are a couple moments in the movies where women are very forward in their pursuit of Riddick, but he always rejects these advances. While this isn’t exactly proof, he does talk a big game to Sackhoff’s character Dahl when other men are around, without ever actually makes a move (doesn’t help his case that this character openly declared herself a lesbian). In The Chronicles of Riddick there is the suggestion of sexual tension between Riddick and Kyra, a young lady he met in Pitch Black. When she was 12. And pretending to be a boy. But Riddick never actually makes his intentions clear; it is easy to look at his interest in Kyra (or Jack as she preferred to be known in her younger days) as more paternal than anything else. Considering Twohy’s willingness to include queer and transgender characters in these films (despite a decidedly male gaze on the former), it is not too hard to believe Riddick might fall somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum as well.
Let’s put all of that aside and take a final look at the series. Twohy and Diesel continue to make these films, despite only mild success. The project is obviously driven mostly by their interest in Riddick, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; the films are slowly improving in quality. If this trend continues then the recently announced fourth film may be a masterpiece. It is not uncommon for a genius’ work to improve as time goes on, and while Twohy and Diesel may not be classified as “geniuses,” they certainly have the passion to make up for it. I’ll gladly see whatever they serve up next.