In 2004, I made a terrible mistake. I mentioned Vin Diesel on my personal blog in a post about The Chronicles of Riddick. For months afterward, that post got traffic from a bewildering number of searches related to Mr. Diesel. Apparently, he has a rabid fan base that is desperate for details of his eating habits, workout schedule, dating life, mother, bare feet, and whether or not he is a gay scientologist or has a cider named after him.
For those of you who were not drawn in by the allure of evil alien cult armies and thus skipped The Chronicles of Riddick, here’s a plot synopsis. Vin Diesel’s character Riddick was introduced in Pitch Black as an evil incarnate sociopath who nevertheless ends up Saving The Girl. The girl, in this case, was masquerading as a boy named Jack. In The Chronicles of Riddick, we find out that after Pitch Black Riddick dropped Jack off with the other survivor, known as “the Imam,” and went on his merry way.
Now an evil alien cult army called the Necromongers is converting and/or killing entire planetary populations, and Riddick is fated to stop them. Not that he cares, since as previously mentioned he’s a bit of a sociopath. But the cleric has him kidnapped and brought to the latest planet to be targeted by the Necromongers. Riddick finds out that Jack flipped out, went looking for him, and ended up in a supermax prison, so he heads off to look for her and away we go.
All of those blog visitors looking for Vin Diesel gossip must have been terribly disappointed when instead of dish, they saw my assessment of Riddick and Jack, now calling herself Kyra:
I did not expect much from The Chronicles of Riddick. Pretty spaceships, evil alien cult armies, Vin Diesel’s glowing eyes. But now that I’ve seen Tomb Raider and Underworld, I’m much less forgiving of weak female characters. Especially when the female characters actually kick tremendous amounts of ass and should be treated with more respect by the story’s architects.
In Riddick, he’s violent because he’s an invincible alien with special powers. Kyra’s violent because she’s broken. He’s capable of taking care of himself. She always needs his help at a critical moment. She can only win by sacrificing herself. When he wins, he gets the extra prize of a devoted army of followers. She is strong but also looks like a sex bomb, and is not taken seriously as a threat by men because she’s a woman. He is amazingly competent, no questions asked. Her violence is lamentable, a waste of her life that the other characters mourn. His violence is because he’s allegedly evil, but we only know that because other characters say so – we only see him making the right choices – and it’s necessary to save the world.
Re-watching the movie this year, I did see that Kyra rescues Riddick a couple of times. But overall, she’s still a mess. Her distinguishing characteristic is her pathological devotion to Riddick. She’s first shown in a cage. She’s a badass who suddenly can’t fend off an attempted rape by prison guards once Riddick is around to protect her. Her function in the movie is purely as bait to motivate him, and perhaps to humanize him so we can wrap our heads around the “serial killer as messiah” switcheroo.
The other women in the movie do nothing to offset Kyra. Instead of a powerful female Necromonger somewhere in their ranks, we get Thandie Newton’s scheming Dame Vaako who can only achieve power through her husband. Judi Dench plays an “elemental,” which means that she gets captured and makes prophecies and can’t really do anything. The Imam’s wife is the only other adult woman of note, and she doesn’t get much screen time.
No stars for any of that.
The cast is not a model for what I would like to call “reality casting” – casting that reflects the mix of people who live on this planet? However, there are people of color in major speaking roles. Vin Diesel is listed on IMDB as half African-American and half Italian-American – and hey, was I the only one who didn’t know he has a background in theater and made a short film called Multi-Facial about his experiences as an actor? (Oops, veering into gossip.) Thandie Newton’s mother is Zimbabwean and her father is white. The Imam is played by African-American actor Keith David.
I was surprised by how much diversity there was in the extras casting for the population of the planet under attack. The planet, Helion Prime, is declared somewhat preachily to be a multicultural world where people of diverse faiths live peacefully side by side. That harmony is a bit shaken when one of the Bad Guys kills a man by allegedly removing his soul, but at least the crowd looks diverse. I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t do a good job of tracking the mercenaries, prisoners, and prison guards who made up the rest of the movie’s secondary cast.
The Necromongers, however, are pretty much white. It’s sort of amusing to think of the conflict as a bunch of monotheistic, fascist white men on a convert-or-kill crusade against a diverse and tolerant population with multi-ethnic Vin Diesel as their champion – and to carry that metaphor a bit further to current events – but I don’t know if that’s what the film’s creators had in mind. Even more amusing, I found a right wing blog entry from when the movie came out that interpreted the Necromongers as Islamic terrorists trying to impose their faith on others, and the blogger wondered why liberals weren’t outraged by the film.
The Chronicles of Riddick is awful, awful, awful on gender. However, it should probably get 2 or 3 stars for race. So I’m going to give it one star.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.