The whole My Favorite Movies series is both an excuse for me to enthuse about movies that I love, and also for me to examine a deep well of things that have inspired me as a writer. I have not been inspired just by movies, of course; I’ve been inspired by plenty of other things, too, and role-playing games and novels are chief among them. And sometimes, multiple inspirations have a way of dovetailing into each other, which is very much what has happened with today’s installment of this series.
A lot of people know what role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are, but I was one of the lucky ones: I got to be a kid when role-playing games made their debut and hit it big. It’s hard to describe to my own kids what it was like to be consumed by the wonder and unlimited nature of this new kind of entertainment, especially since they have grown up on computer games so incredibly detailed that the blank slates that is an RPG strikes them as both bewildering and a bit too much like work.
But RPGs got into my blood, and they never got out. They never will. Heck, I even wrote them professionally for a while for Palladium Books, and the last RPG I ever wrote – Septimus by West End Games – you can get for free. RPGs had an enormous impact on me as a writer. What I like to write, and how I like my stories to go, draw deeply from my RPG experiences, especially those games I played early on. Nothing against the role-playing games of today, mind you, but the old skool RPGs that I grew up on remain the ones most near and dear to my heart. Dungeons & Dragons (both the Mentzer Red Box and Advanced D&D) was the go-to. But a close second is a game that never seems to get quite as much recognition and praise as it deserves, and that game is Traveller.
Traveller was a science fiction game set in the far future. It had no official setting per se in the beginning, or at least what setting there was, was so thinly described that you could easily substitute your own. What made Traveller so distinct for me was the feel of it. It was game of a harder kind of science fiction. It didn’t really have the mysticism and pulpy romance of Star Wars, nor the utopian supertech visions of Star Trek. It was like the early industrial revolution in space, where tough people survived in even tougher environments, using technology we might still find familiar today. Shotguns were the norm rather than ray guns. Starships were cold, imposing vehicles built for sturdiness instead of flash or comfort. Aliens were either part of a vicious food chain we had unknowingly entered, or they were part of a civilization we could never really understand. And the people you could trust the most were the rough-and-tumble hardcases who somehow made a living out in a universe that seemed out to kill them.
It all added up to a flavor of science fiction that I absolutely loved, and it really steered my own efforts at SF writing. It is the kind of feel that also emerges in a number of other movies that appear in the My Favorite Movies series, namely District 9 (#90), Outland (#87) and the Alien series (where that lands on the list, you’ll have to wait and see).
Meanwhile, on another front of my overall geekdom, some of my favorite fantasy writing ever is that of Robert E. Howard’s various stories of Conan the Cimmerian. When I was a kid, I knew about Conan, but I thought the original stories were just simple tales of some big guy walking around and smashing things. That the first Conan novels I read were written not by Howard, and that I also learned of the character through those cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, did not help. But some years ago, a three-volume collection of all of Howard’s original Conan stories was republished, and i bought them and read them. And I was blown away.
Instantly, this became some of my favorite fantasy writing ever. Howard’s Conan was a brooding, violent outsider who sought to carve a life of his own design out of a world that made little sense to him. Whether it was fighting the machinations of corrupt empires, or confronting the unknowable horrors of ancient and almost Lovecraftian magicks. Conan was on an endless quest to take what was in his power to take. He was the threat from beyond to a world where civilization was only veneer-thin, and wherever he went, that veneer was left in tatters. And he knew it, and it gave him no solace. Conan was a guy who could find no lasting happiness or contentment, and I found that incredibly compelling. Howard also felt that he never wrote Conan stories so much as he tried to transcribe what was told to him by Conan himself, as if standing behind the author while Howard banged away at his typewriter. As a writer, I know how he felt. And that made me love his work even more.
Traveller and Conan, two great things which both left their mark on me in big ways. Which brings me to the Riddick Trilogy.
For those of you who haven’t seen these flicks, the first – Pitch Black – is a fairly straight-forward survival story about a bunch of space travelers who crash-land on a planet where an unusual environmental convergence results in the release of a plague of alien predatory creatures that sends our cast of characters running for their lives. The creatures can only come out in the darkness, and so the only defense worth having in this story is a steady light source, which is in awfully short supply. If the survivors can make it to a shuttle, they might make it off-world. But we all know that most of them won’t survive the trip. Isn’t that how it always goes?
There are clear inspirations derived not just from the Alien franchise here, but from every movie that was itself inspired by the Alien franchise, and any movie that ever mined the notion of man-against-nature, and an attrition-based, survivors’-journey-to-safety story. But that’s okay. Pitch Black is yet another example of not-terribly original storytelling that succeeds, despite its derivative nature, because of extremely skillful execution, and because its central character is so compelling.
In Alien, we have a bunch of not-entirely-likeable space truckers left to fend against an unstoppable menace, whereas in Pitch Black, we have a variety of travelers, pilgrims, rogues and stowaways, but chief among them is Riddick himself, an extremely dangerous criminal who was less a passenger on the downed ship than he was cargo – a prisoner under transfer from one hellhole to another. Riddick really is as bad as his rap sheet says he is, a killer through and through whose penchants for dealing violence at knife point shows that his preferred method for dispatching the unfortunate is one that requires him to get very, very close. Close enough that there can’t be any shred of regret or hesitation to stay his hand. And there isn’t any. Riddick might just have a heroic impulse within him, but it is something he works awfully hard at repressing. Ultimately, if we like Riddick at all it’s because we respect that in an ecosystem where everything is out to get you, it helps to root for the apex predator. He might be cool, but he’s not good. It’s an important distinction, and it leads to one of those fun movie experiences where you finish watching the thing realizing that you enjoyed the show a whole lot more than you thought you would. I love it when that happens.
The Chronicles of Riddick differ sharply in story, if not tone. In it, Riddick finds himself returning to civilization, perhaps against his better judgement, and we see a part of the universe that is filled with the kind of wealth, splendor and technology that really drives home the notion that the reason why the hinterland colonies like where the story of Pitch Black takes place are such ramshackle places is because that on the fringes of any civilization, all there is are the cast-off trappings of whatever bits of junk and leftovers civilization itself no longer feels it needs. But instantly, we see why Riddick isn’t cut out for this part of the setting. This is a place of law and culture and society, and these are all things for which a guy like Riddick has zero need. It’s like trying to tell a shark that he has a sweet 401(k). What does he care? He’s in this to bite something.
Thankfully for Riddick, his stay in the galaxy’s First World doesn’t last long. The Necromongers, a horde of supertech death cultists show up to destroy this planet while making a pitstop on their quest to pretty much kill every living person in the universe. As nice as civilization ever is, it can’t stand up to a force of sheer and total brutality, and quickly, we find Riddick on the run, at first trying to survive, and later, to get some payback against the predators who thought they could prey on him. When a lion fights a komodo dragon, the spectators are the real winners. And as fun as this section of the trilogy is on pure action terms, where it really works is how it draws from the same thematic well as Conan. Through the Necromonger, Riddick has an opportunity to rule and to destroy. And it all ends on a curious kind of cliffhanger. What does a guy like Riddick do when there are no more adversaries to conquer? What does he do when the only prey left is prey hs is not interested in? Even a guy like Riddick can run afoul of getting what he wishes for.
This theme is continued very much in the third installment, simply entitled Riddick. And in a way, this might be my favorite movie of the three, even though technically speaking, it is the one showing the most rough edges. It takes place 12 years after The Chronicles of Riddick ended (which is no coincidence; it took more than a few years to pull together this next movie.), and it removes Riddick from the Necromonger storyline, yet not entirely, and it returns him to the man-against-alien storyline we first saw in, but again…not entirely. Betrayed by his Necromonger compatriots and left for dead on an alien backwater world. Riddick must once again survive among vicious predatory monsters and then against competing team of mercenaries and bounty hunters. In the extended edition of this movie, we see that Riddick also brings the fight once again back to the Necromongers, and he learns that whatever grim weirdness the Necromongers might be up to, it certainly leaves the door open for a fourth installment, and a fifth, and a sixth…
In ways, Riddick seems to be re-treading elements of both the first two movies in a third installment that feels like a partial reboot of the franchise. And maybe that was the point. If I’m not mistaken, Vin Diesel put his personal fortune on the line to get this third movie made, which might explain why, visually, the movie sometimes seems to have a reach that exceeds its grasp. There are scenes where, had the movie been fully funded from the get-go, would have been far more polished. As it is, there is a kind of constrained-budget feel to Riddick, almost an indie vibe, that you never really got in the first two. I am sure there are people out there who found that really off-putting. Me, I found it engaging and almost endearing. Vin Diesel really loves this character. He is committed to developing it as a creative property. He could have just spend the rest of his career showing up for Fast and Furious movies and voicing the Iron Giant and Groot, but instead he mortgaged his house to bring us another story of this knife-wielding murderer who lives in the dark on planets nest left alone. And you know what? More power to him for that. Even if I liked these movies half as much as I do, I’d still support him just because I dig where they are coming from. If only more stuff that came out of Hollywood had that kind of conviction.
Ultimately, I love this series because it is a really solid exploration of the kind of gritty hard-ish science fiction I love so much. I love the universe it creates. But most of all, I love its examination of Riddick himself. By the third movie, we really get back to just how reprehensible a guy Riddick can be, but in true Howard fashion, he is the kind of barbarian and outlaw we can appreciate because ultimately, the Riddick universe consists of three kinds of places: 1) savage wilderness where only the most predatory individuals (or those who have the sense to stick close to them) might survive, 2) places that have been overrun by the most vile expressions of civilization, and 3) places that seem like fine examples of all the good things civilization might be, but ultimately lack the strength to endure against the likes of the Necromonger or the ravenous aliens that seem to lurk in every world not fully inhabited by mankind.
Robert Howard’s Conan was, ultimately, an expression of disdain against the corrupting influences of civilization. His imaginary world was one where there were great empires and nations, but ultimately, the greater the civilization, the more corrupt it became, and even though a barbarian from the hinterlands might be an anathema to the laws of civilization itself, those laws, Howard suggested, were only propping up something rotten to its core. So what is a guy like Conan – or Riddick – really offending? Nothing. And that is why we can root for both anti-heroes. It is brilliant, moody, gutsy stuff, and I just can’t get enough of it.
And that, my friends, is why the Riddick trilogy are some of my favorite movies.