Thursday, November 28, 2013

2013 in Shit: Riddick

Having never seen or played anything in the Riddick-verse, I opted into it with this film. Knowing that Vin Diesel is into Dungeons & Dragons, I watched it through the lens of a campaign, and thought it was a pretty neat movie.

The movie initially threatened to be incredibly cool, in a similar way to how John Carter threatened to be incredibly cool; but where that movie collapsed in on itself in a particularly unspectacular way, Riddick moves through a series of well-obscured generic shifts that kept it, if not as amazing as it initially suggested it might be, at least really interesting. For the first, maybe, slightly less than a third of the movie (I am likely exaggerating its length out of poor memory) I was tentatively convinced that I might be watching a movie about one man, whose only conflict was with a planet. There's almost no dialogue, and no other characters played by humans; if it was less malleable an environment than The Croods presented, it was largely because the game after which it might be argued to be modeled (D&D rather than THPS (I originally wrote my piece about The Croods first so I guess just consider this a TEASER)) has a fundamentally different method of abstracting space. I was incredibly excited about the idea that we might be allowed to spend an hour and a half doing little more than following Vin Diesel, absolutely devoid of companionship, wrestle a planet into submission.

When the shift comes and the other characters show up, the movie knows at least to cast off the sensawunda-tinged cosmic horror and leap straight into a series of genre frames that are each done pretty damn well. The high note, for me, is when it becomes clear that for a good chunk of Riddick we are watching something like a mixture of Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, with Diesel as Mike Myers. If he isn't going to spend his time leveling up off dire wolves and scorpions, he might as well roleplay the unkillable menace. And when that burns itself out Diesel gets to take a brief turn as Hannibal Lecter before the film goes full locked room zombie flick, complete with sick motorcycle foray into mindless-enemy territory.

It might just be because I happened to spend a good amount of 2013 experimenting in using D&D to tell a horror story about a haunted house, but the fusion of campaign and slasher film excited the hell out of me. Reading Riddick as a tabletop adventure necessarily positions Diesel as the most proactive, if not the only, PC; that he goes on to largely absent himself of the story is not exactly how campaigns tend to work, but, as someone who almost exclusively plays as a DM, it makes him seem, to me, like maybe the most ideal player; not in the sense that he gets out of the way to let "me" tell the story, but in the sense that he seems to readily recognize just how fundamental negation is to that game.[1]

Given a more recent watching or the context of the other films, I might have more to say about the particular use of genre in this movie; lacking those things, the best I can offer is a general sense as to how the way this movie pulls off its internal generic shifts, at least when viewed under the campaign rubric, points towards the possibilities it offers. For all the apparent uses of Carpenter and others, Riddick might be closer to Wreck-It Ralph than any other movie, and certainly (to me at least) is the best statement on games that came out in theaters in 2013. Both Riddick and Ralph offer not just the apparent visual motif of games, whether through the occasional HUD that the camera enters that signifies Riddick's vision or through the neon clutter of Ralph, but also a rough filmic equivalent of the focusing effect that the type of interaction that games offer allows and films do not. Where in Ralph that was done by a specific ordering of the clutter, Riddick creates the effect, as read through tabletop RPGs, exclusively through the use of meta-referents; this is a movie that demands that you watch it in dialogue, whether with fellow enthusiasts or with yourself. It's in the genre-swapping as much as it is in the loving attention to what each of those genres does best and worst, in how the movie seems committed not to the transcendance of any of these genres but to adhering to their individual representative capacities, in the clear signalling of this film as a passion project of its star whose idiosyncracies are easily known; this isn't the sort of movie to watch for its mastery of cinematic grammar, even if it does use blocking or lighting to particularly good effect here and there, but to evoke a certain kind of communal activity, the post-theater enthusiastic dialogue, and how that shades into a mixture of analysis (most often as apparently-simple recap) and roleplay.

This is one of the reasons that, for instance, the film can get away with framing the traditional, much-hated grind of an RPG in a cinematic grammar more reminiscent of 'arthouse' film than anything else without any real dissonance; while grinding is basically the confluence of mechanical advancement in a closed system with narrative justifications of that system, it doesn't follow that the removal of the mechanics requires a doubling down on the narrative (via genre) justification, despite this being the nearly sole way that translations of games into film have operated in the past. Riddick instead offers a productive disjunct, the narrative frame all but repudiating the mechanical representation that it smuggles in. What tension would normally arise, however, is subsumed under the larger narrative that the film's moves suggest, most especially its apparent orientation against itself as a text (assuming one takes text to mean a hermetic artistic construction, or a mode of weaving together abstractions to organize them internally in such a way as to exemplify through the juxtapositions allowed by cultural shorthand). Lacking an overwhelming attendance to internal coherence isn't just a fancy way of saying that Riddick's a mess, either; it is likely one of the most internally coherent movies I have seen and enjoyed recently, through its attention to worldbuilding and integration of disparate aesthetic categories. It's that the movie, in manifestly not giving a fuck about that, creates a space in itself for alternative methods of interpreting and valorizing by way of its competence and disinterest in the normative cultural model by which all interpretations work.

Does that sound radical? It isn't. Texts have been doing this for decades, at least. That Riddick does it as well probably has more to say about (my perception of a?) hegemony within criticism than it does about the film's particular merits, anyway. That it then uses that framing to allow for a productive juxtaposition of generic elements without becoming messagey about doing so is, if also not radical, at least really, really great.

[1] Here’s the first (and likely last) Year in Shit easter egg, embedded as the link prior: an essay, written by me over the bulk of the last year (on and off, admittedly) and only now posted, about how the structure of Dungeons and Dragons is dialectical, and how tabletop play is actually just social relations, and why The Forge is class war psychoanalysis. Shouts out to my longest campaign ever, and to Jenna, Steve, Bunny, Sara, Mark, Adam, Duck, Michal & the rest; and also to Finch for a lot.

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