Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Chronicles of Riddick" - Fun with Necromongers


Next month my article for Riddick will run as part of Midwest Film Journal’s “All We Do Is Vin” series of articles, so I’m preparing by revisiting the first two film’s in the series. Last month, I wrote about Pitch Black, so now I’m moving on to my favorite film in the series, The Chronicles of Riddick. As a sci-fi fan, Chronicles was right up my alley. I wasn’t thrilled with the PG-13 rating for the theatrical release, but I knew they just needed to make as much money as possible (they released the far superior unrated cut on DVD, anyway). I loved how writer/director David Twohy just fucking went for it, going from the very small scale Pitch Black to the planet-hopping, world-building Chronicles. Some of the mythology is murky or needs more explanation, but overall Chronicles is a satisfying action/sci-fi film that unfortunately bombed at the box office, which led to the much smaller in scale Riddick later on. Hopefully, they can dive back into the mythology created in this film when they make Furya.

Despite the extreme focus on death, Chronicles is a very fun movie.

I love when a writer/director gets to go all in on a sci-fi film as David Twohy has done with Chronicles, but what makes this a special movie for me is the tone. There is some super serious shit going on here (main characters die, the entire universe is at stake, etc.), but the film never dwells on that. Instead, it plays to the strengths of the Riddick character: looking cool and being a smartass to mercs.

Chronicles features much more ambitious action sequences. And while there is plenty of CGI being used (I’m not a fan of the CG hellhounds, but they’re not awful), it still feels real. Most of Riddick’s hand-to-hand fights are compelling, and his big moments look awesome. The standout for me was when he saved Kyra from the mountain on Crematoria. Not only does it look great, but Riddick emerging afterward with steam rolling off of him is a straight-up hero shot. 

The action is not the main reason I love this film, though. I like the Riddick franchise for his interactions with mercs. Riddick’s back and forth with Johns in Pitch Black was great, and his rivalry with Toombs in Chronicles is even better, but that might just be because Nick Chinlund is perfect for the character of Toombs. I like seeing Riddick talk shit to the Necromonger zealots, but his scenes with Toombs are what make the movie. Obviously Twohy and Diesel think so as well since Riddick is mainly just him and a bunch of mercs for the majority of the movie.

All the stuff with the mercs is just meant to make Vin Diesel/Riddick look like a badass, but it works. I could watch him talk shit to Toombs the entire movie. Even his unspoken moments are funny. Possibly my favorite moment in the film is when Riddick kills the merc while they’re on the sled into Crematoria. Toombs looks back to see what happened, and Riddick gives a “what the fuck did you expect?” shrug. And Toombs laughs. I just like the cynical nature of a bounty hunter/convict relationship.

The character of Riddick is why this franchise exists. The action and sci-fi stuff is all fine, but people like this anti-hero. For me, it’s the fact that this character is very similar to Dom from the Fast franchise, but there’s a reason why he’s superhuman. We’re just supposed to accept that Dom has become a superhero in Fast at this point. But with Riddick, at least we’re given a backstory to explain it. I’m okay with Vin Diesel playing a superhuman badass, but let’s keep this shit semi-logical. Speaking of that backstory...

So they have liquor stores on Furya?

In Pitch Black, Twohy and Vin Diesel didn’t think they had a franchise on their hands until they were making the film (hell, in the original script Riddick was a female character with a different name). So at the time, Riddick’s backstory of getting his eyes done as a shine job for “twenty menthol KOOLs” and being left in a dumpster of a liquor store as a baby were just elements of a convict who didn’t give a fuck. They weren’t thinking of him as a prophetic warrior from the planet Furya who would one day take over the Necromonger empire. 

So when Chronicles (especially the director’s cut) revealed that Riddick was one of the last surviving members of a warrior race from a planet called Furya, it meant an explanation was needed. With the eyes, it was simple enough: Riddick was just making up some bullshit, although the full explanation was offered in the videogame Escape from Butcher Bay (Shirah, the Furyan from his visions in Chronicles, gave him his eyeshine) and other properties, eventually explaining that Riddick was an Alpha Furyan, which is why he special powers. I assumed the story of his birth must’ve been at least partially made up, as well. 

We don’t get to see Furya aside from a field of gravestones in a vision, but I just assumed it wasn’t a regular world, you know, with liquor stores and shit. But apparently it is. I guess alcohol is a universal substance, so why wouldn’t Furya have liquor stores? Still, even that story is retconned a bit by explaining that Riddick was left for dead (strangled with his own umbilical cord...godDAMN) because the Lord Marshal received a prophecy claiming a male Furyan would cause his downfall. Naturally, he went to Furya and killed almost the entire planet. There’s still plenty of questions about all of this, such as: how did Riddick know he was left like this as a baby? Who got him out of the dumpster? How many Furyans are left? Is the planet really just a mass graveyard now? Who dug all the graves? Perhaps there are more explanations in comics and whatnot, but overall I think the holes in the story are because a one-off character suddenly needed a grander backstory for a franchise. Hopefully, since the next film is currently titled Furya, a lot of this is covered in more detail.

Thanks to DVD sales, David Twohy was able to go all out.

The home video market is much more about streaming these days, but for a while DVD sales played a factor in getting movies made. Without DVD sales, the Austin Powers franchise would be a single film. Universal saw how well Pitch Black did on DVD, and that, coupled with Twohy and Diesel’s enthusiasm for the franchise, convinced them to gamble big on this sequel. Since it only ended up making back its production budget (though DVD sales were very strong), plans to continue on with the franchise stalled after Chronicles. But because of DVDs, we got to see what Twohy would do with a shitload of money, and I’m thankful for that.

David Twohy and Vin Diesel decided to expand the series on an exponential level. The film hops from planet to planet, the action is much more prominent, a prison planet escape subplot takes place, and an entire evil empire of Necromongers is added to the story. 

I don’t want to be dismissive of this film and simply call it ambitious. Calling something ambitious is also saying it failed, in a way. Despite the negative critical response to this film, I think Twohy and Diesel are very successful in creating a vast mythology. They, along with the set and production designers, had a very clear plan for this film and future films. There are still plenty of questions that I personally have about the Necromongers (I’ll get to that in the next two sections), but I feel like if I had the chance to ask Diesel or Twohy any question they would have an answer. The problem is that a lot of answers aren’t on the screen. Many of them can be found in other properties a la Star Wars, but it would be better if everything was clear from the movie alone.

Despite my questions about the Necromonger mythology, Chronicles is a very straightforward movie. The terminology and some of the dialogue may make it seem a bit convoluted (the quasideads, Elementals, Furyans, the UnderVerse, etc.), but the plot is pretty simple: Riddick reluctantly joins the fight against the Necromongers to save people he cares about, specifically Kyra (Jack from Pitch Black). The film may hop from planet to planet, but it’s never hard to understand where the story is at and why the characters are doing what they’re doing.

And it looks cool, and it’s a fun movie. Chronicles could’ve easily drowned in its own mythology-building and been a very dry, serious film. Instead, Riddick is still a smartass despite the threat of the universe coming to an end. And all the new worlds and technology make for a much more visually interesting film than Pitch Black. The assault on Helion Prime looks amazing, as does the escape from Crematoria, to name a couple. This was an expensive movie, but every dollar is on the screen.

It’s just a shame that this film wasn’t successful enough for the franchise to stay on the path that Chronicles started. I partly blame the studio for demanding a PG-13 version. The director’s cut, which added a lot of the Furyan stuff, is much better and is more tonally in sync with Pitch Black. I’m probably wrong, though. An R-rating may have made this film even less successful. I just don’t think this is the type of franchise that can be profitable if over $100 million is spent making one movie. I’m just glad we got one big movie out of this franchise. Maybe they can find some middle ground with Furya: not as small in scale as Pitch Black and Riddick, but more focused than Chronicles.

Necromongers: the militant death cult.

The role of religion in Pitch Black surprised me when I rewatched it. It was interesting that they used an existing religion in the film rather than making one up. This time around, they did make up a new religion with the Necromongers, but it’s still a unique choice because it clashes with existing religion. The Necromongers basically show up to new worlds and tell everyone that their religion is wrong, and they must join up or die. 

Religion was on the fringes of the plot of Pitch Black, but it’s the driving force of Chronicles. The Necromongers are basically the Roman Empire in space, but instead of expanding their land, they are interested in gathering recruits to take to their holy land, the UnderVerse. The Roman Empire influence makes them one of the more interesting sci-fi empires, visually speaking. Their ships look like temples when they land, and there are statues honoring past Lord Marshals all around. 

As for their religion, it’s quite dark, if a little confusing. The Purifier explains during his recruitment pitch that life is a mistake to be corrected. These people are obsessed with death. Their ultimate goal, the UnderVerse, is only reached through death, but you must die at the right time, apparently. It gets a little confusing, but religions typically are complex and contradictory, even (“turn the other cheek” and “eye for an eye” don’t exactly jive). But certainly the focus on what happens after you die is in line with actual religions.

There are even Biblical parallels with their mythology, as well. The current Lord Marshal, upon learning of a prophecy about a Furyan that would one day kill him, went to Furya and pretty much wiped out the planet, which is how Riddick ended up in a dumpster with his umbilical cord around his neck. This is a page out of King Herod’s book as he ordered all males two years and under killed when he heard a prophecy about a new king of the Jews being born. These are some serious fanatics.

The dangers of religious fanaticism is the underlying theme of Chronicles. When one group decides to impose their views on the entire universe, life as we know it hangs in the balance. Of course, this has as much to do with power as it does religion, but that’s in keeping with history, as well. Typically, religion has been used by empires as a means to increase their power. That’s certainly the case with the Necromongers. It makes for a surprisingly heavy element in an otherwise fun movie.

What the fuck is the UnderVerse?

The inclusion of the Necromongers definitely adds a deep mthology to the franchise, but it also created a lot of questions, too. There are plenty of things that are kind of glossed over that I can deal with: the quasi-deads that read minds, the seeker things that don’t have noses, the neck torture that turns people into Necromongers (but not exactly slaves, since Vaako, Dame Vaako, the Purifier, and Kyra seem to maintain their independence), the Lord Marshal being half-dead after traveling to the UnderVerse...actually, never mind. I don’t get how most of this shit works.

To be clear, I don’t mind that much, and I still love this movie. But I do feel obligated to bring up some of the more confusing parts of the Necromonger faith, mainly the UnderVerse. I’m sure the quasi-deads and all that other shit are explained somewhere in some DVD special feature or something. And I’m okay with that. Sure, the quasi-deads are barely alive, and that, coupled with the black goo the Necromongers use, makes them telepathic. Fine. But what the fuck is the UnderVerse exactly?

The Elemental describes it as a constellation of new dark stars, which makes it a physical place to travel to. This is reinforced by the fact that the Lord Marshal has been there personally, which is why his soul can travel outside of his body and whatnot. 

But later on, the Elemental tells the Lord Marshal that he will reach the UnderVerse soon, making it sound like a threat of his imminent death. So simply dying takes you there? And Dame Vaako tells Vaako that he’ll never see the UnderVerse because the Lord Marshal will kill them “before our due time.” So if you die when you’re supposed to you will go to the UnderVerse? Then how did the Lord Marshal go there and come back?

Perhaps dying in their “due time” just means when they make it to the physical location of the UnderVerse. I guess I need to stop thinking of it like a Heaven or Hell and think of it more like Hades from Greek mythology. It’s a place where did people end up, but it can also be traveled to by the living. I still want to know so much more about how it all works. 

And I want to know what’s keeping the Necromongers from just going there and leaving everyone else the fuck alone. I get that the Lord Marshal wants to take as many people as possible with him to the UnderVerse, but why? I suppose this can chalked up to religious history, as well. Typically religions want as many converts as possible, and plenty of wars make it clear that people are willing to kill those who don’t believe the same thing they do.

What frustrates me the most about all this UnderVerse stuff is that it was going to be explored further in the sequel. Vin Diesel said in a press conferenceLINK that this was the first of a planned trilogy, and that the second film would have been Riddick traveling to the UnderVerse. He also referenced Lord of the Rings saying that Pitch Black was like The Hobbitt, and this proposed trilogy would be the real story. The director’s cut of Riddick does address a bit of this, but that film overall feels more like a speed bump on the way to the main story, especially since it ends with Riddick staring at what I assume is the entrance to the UnderVerse and the revelation that Vaako is now half-dead like the previous Lord Marshal. Hopefully, Furya picks up right where Riddick left off and they combine the second and third proposed sequels into one: Riddick travels to the UnderVerse to confront Vaako (and find Kyra) and goes to Furya from there. I think Vin Diesel has built up enough box office financial security with the Fast franchise to get to go big with Riddick one more time.

Why Do I Own This?

I love the Riddick movies, this one most of all. As a fan of sci-fi, I love it when a director gets the budget to go all out with his vision, as Twohy has done here. Sure, it’s messy and the mythology is confusing, but you have to respect the ambition. And they truly did a great job with the set design and world building, not to mention the action.

Random Thoughts

I hate that Dench implies that Riddick is evil in the voiceover before the main title. He can be an asshole, and he's definitely a smart ass, but what has he done that makes him evil? I know he's a killer and a convict, but in general he tries to save people he cares about. How is that evil?

I wish Riddick had the long hair and beard the whole movie.

"I'm sure God has his tricks…"

"Threshold! Take us to the threshold!" That might be the lamest chant ever.

I suppose seeing someone's soul ripped out would convince me to sign up with the Necromongers…

Sweet space mullet, Vaako!

"But I will take a piece of him."

I know he's a Furyan or whatever, but how the fuck does Riddick spin that knife like that?

Twohy went from low budget sci-fi horror to big budget Shakespearean (Dame Vaako is clearly Lady Macbeth) hardcore sci-fi, and I love it.

"Kill the Riddick!"

You gotta hand it to those Necromongers, they really cornered the market on black goo technology. 

Dame Vaako calling the Elementals witches and spies makes me think of the Bene Gesserit from Dune.

"Angle of approach: not good."

Sexual stuff with Riddick is odd. He doesn't have sex with anyone and has no love interests (which is refreshing), but the films make a point to show that women at least kind of want to fuck him (the flirting and whatnot with Carolyn in Pitch Black and that weird scene in Chronicles when the female merc straddles and sniffs him while everyone else is asleep).

The titles of these films have become confusing. They tried doing a Star Wars thing by retitling Pitch Black as The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black on a DVD release. But that means The Chronicles of Riddick has no subtitle. And then the third film is just called Riddick. Or is it The Chronicles of Riddick: Riddick? (There are two alternate titles [Rule the Dark and Dead Man Stalking] that would work with the Chronicles theme.) Here's a title suggestion for the new one: The Chronicles of Riddick 4: Chronicle 3 - Riddick Origins: Furya.

Death by a Riddick pelvic thrust...I can't think of a more dishonorable death.

Crematoria has a real Alien³ vibe to it. Probably because Twohy wrote the first version of that film to feature a prison setting (his script wasn't used and he didn't receive a writing credit). 

Also, the planet in Alien³ is called Fiorina, but is known as “Fury.” Hmm...

I like how Crematoria has a band of welcome killers waiting for new prisoners to be lowered in.

I get that Crematoria is a prison, but one of the guards mentioned they get paid by the Guild per prisoner each year. Why set loose the weird giant dog things that try to kill the prisoners then?

A guard does say "They aren't dead if they're still on the books." But doesn't this mysterious Guild ever perform an audit? 

Those knives Riddick takes are cool, but no way he decapitates someone with them, Furyan or not.

Sweet backbreaker, Vaako!

The fuckin' Purifier went out hard. 

It's nice that they label the locations in this movie, but I hope at this point in the movie you know which planet Helion Prime is.

Lord Marshal: "Give me your soul!"
Riddick, as he uppercuts him: "Fuck you!"

And that Kyra, is why people should stay away from Riddick.

“Keep what you kill.” What a dumb fucking rule for any kind of society. What is it with sci-fi cults and this rule? This is what brought down Will Patton in The Postman. As for the Necromongers, I couldn’t help but think of that Futurama episode about the liquid planet where each king was pretty much immediately killed because of the rule. Why wouldn’t people just constantly try to kill the Lord Marshal? I know he has the weird powers now, but all it would take is two people: one to distract the ghost part and the other to kill him (kind of like how Vaako and Riddick did it). In the sequel, this was addressed in a very satisfying way: people constantly try to kill him as Lord Marshal until he is eventually marooned on Not Furya...because of an assassination attempt.

One more thing about this “keep what you kill” rule: what happens if a Lord Marshal dies of natural causes? Never mind, my brain is starting to hurt trying to figure out all this shit.

There are a lot of special features on the DVD, and my favorite is Vin Diesel's guided tour of the sets. Not only does it show just how expensive it must have been to do those sets practically, but you also get to watch Diesel geek out. You can tell he truly loves this shit.

Looking back at the theatrical ending, I like the final image of the ships and everything (to show what Riddick is now in charge of) more than the final image in the director's cut (a close up on Riddick's face). But I am glad they got rid of Vaako and the Elemental's dialogue for the director's cut.


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