Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thoughts On Chronicles Of Riddick (Or: The Sci Fi State Of The Union)

So, I'm going to go see Riddick tomorrow, and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm really excited. I loved Pitch Black and I loved Chronicles of Riddick, I love Vin Diesel and I love Katee Sackhoff, so I'm exactly 100% this movie's target audience. But I know not everyone is in this camp, and I was thinking about that tonight while I was re-watching CoR in preparation for my long-awaited IMAX experience tomorrow.

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The movie certainly isn't without it's flaws - I'll be the first to admit that. Neither the acting or the writing are the best the world has ever seen, and some of the camera work and lighting in the first half hour of CoR should come with some sort of epilepsy warning. But despite its flaws - and its dramatic differences from Pitch Black - it's actually a really pretty solid sci fi movie. It's got a creepy religious/military state, crazy space pirates, humans struggling against inhospitable environments, and effects that are usually pretty good, even almost a DECADE later. If the movie is a little light on plot, it certainly isn't on action or worldbuilding, but the combination of a big budget and poor turnout effectively killed the whole franchise for that intervening decade.

We're only getting another Riddick movie because Vin Diesel wanted be Riddick again and made enough money from the Fast and Furious movies to make it happen. And while it's doing well so far on it's opening weekend (maybe because it went back to the PB roots?), it makes me wonder about the overall viability of Sci Fi in Hollywood. I mean, after John Carter it'll be a miracle if any fantastical science fiction gets produced in the next ten years - and that was a pretty good movie, too, but one that again suffered from a too-big budget and (in this case) excruciatingly poor marketing. If there's ever been a time for Sci Fi to be a mainstream genre, it's now - with the age of the nerd in full swing, and corporations catering harder than ever to the 14-35 male demographic. But even with a Star Trek reboot and more Star Wars in the mill, by and large the only sci fi flicks that are getting the go ahead are established franchises. The exceptions are pet projects (Avatar, Riddick) and low-budget sleepers (Chronicle - which incidentally was signed for a sequel and subsequently lost its brilliant writer to creative differences with Fox, who reportedly wanted to establish a carbon copy franchise instead of a continuation of, you know, what made the first movie great).

I wonder what happened to the audiences for Sci Fi movies. There was so much buzz for Pacific Rim, but it didn't get the turnout it needed (here, at least) to recoup the sky-high budget. Of course, it's at least partly that the movies that have been made haven't been great - I loved Luc Besson's Lockout, but it was no successor to The Fifth Element, and Prometheus was an absolute disaster, despite everyone's high hopes and every reason for it to be really good. I don't think it's naive to think there IS an audience for these movies. Anyone could see from a mile away why the Lone Ranger movie failed: westerns are dead, and the genre belongs to a different time and a different mentality. Without a skilled translator (see: 3:10 To Yuma, True Grit), it's going to look and feel, at best, dated, and at worst, deeply offensive and problematic (Johnny Depp as a totally un-updated Tonto, really? Who made THAT decision?).

But while Sci Fi is often a bastion for the old guard (as evidenced by all the hullabaloo with the Hugos this year), science fiction by it's very nature is supposed to be imaginative, explorative, innovative, and new. And maybe that, really, is where Hollywood is failing. John Carter was based on the grandpappy of all sci fi stories, something unimaginably innovative for its time, but came off stilted and recycled because so much sci fi since has sprung from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original stories, and because it was based on the imaginings of someone brilliant... in the early 1900s.

And then there's District 9 and Elysium which, I think, really get to the heart of what sci fi is supposed to do, but especially in the case of the latter don't feel entirely fulfilling as movies because they're so much about the message. And Looper, which while I thought was probably the best time travel movie ever made, was apparently very divisive (but maybe fairly successful - I'm actually not sure about that one).

But movies like Pacific Rim and CoR (see, I brought it back around!) aren't any of those things. Really, they're action movies in a science/fantastical setting, a little bit of fun escapism, and I'm left not really knowing where they, and movies like them, went wrong.

I've realized that this post isn't going to have much of an ending, because as much as I'd like to have an "in conclusion" I don't really know what to make of the state of contemporary sci fi in Hollywood. I hope there's more of it, and I hope Riddick is good and does well, but as to the particular woes of the genre, I have a lot more thoughts than answers. Maybe more tomorrow after I see Riddick.


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