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2 Stars Movies

Riddick makes the most haphazard of movie franchises

When even the humblest movies are planned to allow for multiple sequels if at all financially feasible, the Riddick trilogy (and counting?) must be one of the most haphazard of movie franchises.

I doubt many would have expected any kind of sequel at all to 2000’s Pitch Black, and yet The Chronicles of Riddick appeared four years later to reinvent its surviving character as the hero of a grand sword & sandal epic in outer space. It’s not unlike the later John Carter of Mars, but less wasteful in terms of money spent, and with 100% more hovering Judi Dench.

Even more improbable still, with David Twohy’s Riddick, Vin Diesel is now officially the headliner of a trilogy. Having achieved the holy number of installments, now three movies can be packaged together in budget multi-dvd box sets in time for Black Friday shopping. Or should that be that Pitch Black Friday? Oh, please yourself.

Riddick has more in common with Pitch Black than Chronicles, but one thing they all share is surprisingly good art direction and set design. Chronicles, especially, went far above and beyond the call of duty. I’d argue that it draws more from Dune‘s visual imagination than the typically plundered art direction of Alien or Star Wars. Even Riddick has more believable alien landscapes than the volcano top conclusion to After Earth, which looked like it had been shot on the tiniest soundstage M. Night Shyamalan could book.

Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick
Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick

Riddick‘s plot is admirably simple (man trapped alone on a hostile planet, struggles to simply survive, then gain a foothold to escape), and the first 30 minutes or so are crackerjack. But then additional characters show up and so there has to be… shudder… dialog.

Sadly, everything falls apart at this point — and I mean everything, from the visuals to the script. What started out as an intriguing shipwreck story turned into something conventional and cheap. The bulk of what follows is set inside a single room, and not in a good way (like a good submarine movie, for instance), but in a bad way (like, they ran out of money and ideas).

Riddick is also unfortunately sexist. Battlestar Galactica fan favorite Katee Sackoff gets the coveted only-girl-in-the-movie role, and she dutifully works what her momma gave her. She’s sadly stuck with a retrograde character who exists mostly to concede to Riddick’s brutish flirtations. It’s unclear if her character is actually gay or simply allows her male colleagues to assume she is, but either way, it’s stomach turning when she acquiesces to Riddick’s crude propositions. Her utility exhausted, she simply vanishes from the film.

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2 Stars Movies

Vin Diesel is a Man Alone, in Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel has made something of a specialty in dystopian science fiction movies, possessed of astonishing visuals but horrifically bad scripts. I’m looking at you, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick) Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been typecast as a weary but action-ready man of the future?

Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an international feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeuvre, but also very much a direct descendent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. The presence of Michelle Yeoh promises martial arts asskicking that never really materializes, and the proceedings are given a measure of class by Gerard Depardieu and Charlotte Rampling.

Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.
The goggles… they do nothing!

The movie predicts an especially bleak future for Europe, wracked by perpetual war and terror attacks that leave the urban landscape looking like Chechnya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluctant mercenary warrior, something like a masterless ronin from old samurai movies. I was prepared to like his character until he shoots a disarmed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip.

I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 minutes lapses before the hero finally undertakes his task: to escort the genetically engineered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn wastelands of “New Serbia” to New York. The persistent tone of a-man-alone cynicism is something else Babylon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, especially the Transporter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.

Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.
Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.

Some of the genuinely incredible shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the promotional stills:

  • The opening sequence is an unbroken shot zooming straight down on planet Earth, homing in on Manhattan and into Diesel’s eyeball
  • A 270-degree camera move incorporating a CGI helicopter and an ancient convent carved into a stone cliff
  • An establishing shot of an unspecified Russian city built around a giant crater, its origins unexplained (but a likely allusion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira)
  • The entire island of Manhattan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and completed Freedom Towers
Babylon A.D.
The Freedom Towers dominate the Manhattan of the future.

Movies like Babylon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally succumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father suddenly materializes, apparently solely to provide a massive infodump of exposition. The long, complicated backstory was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the product of an incorporated religion whose CEO and High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) hopes to manufacture a miraculous virgin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only creates frustration and confusion, and little emotional response.

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