First published by Cinetalk
“I got sloppy, lost my edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all. I got civilised. So now, we reverse the clock… Gotta find that animal side again.”
These words, delivered in voice-over by Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) near the beginning of the (second) sequel to bear his surname in its title (following 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick), recapitulate something of the franchise’s spirit. Riddick may be ‘evil’, a total badass, a stone-cold killer who actually likes to kill (turning the act into something of an art form), and an object of legend and fear for the many bounty hunters who pursue him across the universe – but there is also something about him that suggests a softness around the edges. He tends to help the helpless, he cannot countenance the killing of children, and even as he positively relishes killing bad people, he usually spares the good. He never kills just for the hell of it, and he never (so far) has raped anyone either, male or female. Maybe he is not so uncivilised, so beyond the pale, after all. Maybe.
Riddick’s narration acknowledges this ambiguous aspect to his character – this potential for a soft centre beneath the hardened exterior – while at the same time it asserts his intention to return to atavism and to recover the bestiality that is a part of his personal mythology. Not that he exactly succeeds – for his very next action, after uttering these words, is to domesticate a wild pup that he has captured. It is an act that simultaneously reduces him to the level of an animal, and brands him as a civilising force – a Herculean tamer in the wilderness. Riddick is slippery: an eternal outsider, both literally and symbolically on the edge of the universe, beyond the usual bounds of civilisation (although this series is never anything but cynical about civilisation’s centre) – but also, just possibly, a pioneering bringer of human values to the outer limits. Not that he ever likes to admit it…
The shifting boundary between civilisation and savagery is a constant theme here, explored in both the words and actions not only of Riddick but also of the other people (two teams of bounty hunters) whom he summons in the hope of hitching a ride off this planet of terror. These teams divide (more or less) along these precise lines. The thuggish, treacherous brutes led by rape-happy murderer Santana (Jordi Mollà) come closest to savagery – although their youngest member Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk) is religiously observant and sympathetic (hardly by coincidence, he alone of them survives to the end). Contrasting with them is the more professionalised, altogether more decent crew of Boss Johns (Matt Nables), whose uniforms, cooperation (‘chain of command’) and general hygiene betoken their more socialised, civilised status (“I didn’t know there was a dress code,” comments one of Santana’s men upon first seeing Johns’ crew).
That said, Johns himself is a little harder to pin down. His treatment of the captured Riddick leads one of his own crew to ask incredulously, “We beating men in chains now?”; and later the whole question of whether Johns has “a strong spine” (resolving, by the film’s conclusion, into a term as much for moral fibre as for courage) will become pivotal to Riddick’s own survival. As the father of a decidedly uncivilised bounty hunter from the first film Pitch Black (2000), Johns’ character is always on the line for us, until he comes good in the end. It is Johns, in interrogating Riddick (and Riddick’s character), who articulates the film’s central theme: “Maybe for once in your life you want to be something more than a goddam savage!” Maybe.
While I would not wish to make extravagant claims for a film whose roots are knowingly lodged in planet B, I would argue that writers David Twohy (also the director), Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell show more nuance in examining this theme than some would allow them. Riddick, you see, has gone too far for some critics, who have condemned the protagonist as ‘misogynistic’, ‘rapey’, and ‘homophobic’ in his interactions with the lesbian character Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, of TV’s Battlestar Galactica), and who have tarred the film itself with much the same brush. This view has been most clearly and eloquently articulated by Empire’s Helen O’Hara (‘There’s no excuse for misogyny in space’) who decries, amongst other things, “that most obnoxious and homophobic of tropes, the lesbian who is ‘cured’ by a manly man”; and by freelance critic Stuart Barr (‘Don’t be a dick, Riddick’) who stresses (in highly censorious terms) the similarity of the language employed by Riddick to the sort of anonymous expressions of misogyny recently highlighted in the social media.
Although O’Hara and Barr approach their positions from somewhat different angles, they both fixate on the same sequences in the film: one in which an enchained Riddick declares, “Here’s what’s gonna happen… I’m gonna go balls deep into Dahl”, and then turns to her, adding, “but only because you ask me to, sweet like”; and a related sequence, near the end, when Dahl, straddling an injured Riddick so as to rescue him on a winch cable, echoes his earlier words with a smile: “Let me ask you something, sweet like”, and Riddick, as he is raised up, grasps her buttocks tightly.
Of the ‘balls deep’ line, O’Hara comments: “This is a pretty outrageous statement on Riddick’s part. He’s just met this professional mercenary and didn’t bother having a conversation with her or interacting in any way that wasn’t creepy stalking before making this prediction of future events. Suddenly Riddick’s gone all rapey.” In a similar vein, Barr objects: “This moment is totally out of character for Riddick. While an amoral, criminal badass, he’s never before chosen to use the language of a jock date rapist with a pocket full of Rohypnol.”
Now both rape and rapists are certainly thematised within Riddick. The film’s only other female character (played by Keri Lynn Hilson) is a captive (for bounty) aboard Santana’s ship who has clearly been subjected to sexual assault. Callously cutting her “60 kilos” loose only to shoot her in the back, Santana explains, “I was getting attached to her,” underlining his complete rejection of anything even resembling a human social relation. Unnamed, and barely a character at all, this woman is, as O’Hara puts it, ‘fridged’, existing merely to build (through her victimisation) the character of Riddick, who witnesses her cruel death, kickstarting his hatred and contempt for Santana – although I would add that she serves at least as much to define Santana as Riddick, and I would personally reject O’Hara’s suggestion that her fate is “for the viewer’s titillation.” Obviously I can’t speak for other viewers.
When Santana expresses his refusal to take orders from Johns’ “pet whore”, he is duly punched in the face by Dahl, who exclaims triumphantly, “I don’t fuck guys – occasionally I fuck ‘em up if they need it.” Santana needs it. Not long afterwards, when the others are gone, Santana jumps Dahl, saying, “I think we have something in common: I don’t fuck guys either!” Dahl leaves Santana bloody on the floor, explaining to Johns, “I had to kick his ass again. Sorry. Not really.” Shortly before this attempted rape and its sequel, Riddick was seen carefully passing a hand, unseen, over the naked body of Dahl (she is washing herself) to steal a mirror from her toiletry bag. If the image at first suggests rape, its outcome reveals our suspicion of Riddick to be misplaced. Unlike Santana in the scene that immediately follows, Riddick makes no attempt to assault Dahl, despite having every opportunity. The contrast of character is clear. And as much as Riddick is unlike Santana, he rather closely resembles Dahl. Both are kickass characters who can take care of themselves (and both easily overcome the likes of Santana).
So let’s get back to Riddick, and his relationship with Dahl. After killing some of the bounty hunters and leading the others on a merry chase without so much as being seen, Riddick announces his arrival over Johns’ radio, and just walks right up on open ground. “I don’t believe it,” says Dahl with a big grin as she sees him for the first time (the guy beside Dahl commenting, “The fuckin’ balls on this guy!”). After Dahl shoots Riddick with three horse tranquillisers and he keeps coming, she whispers, “Just go down”, in what might be regarded as a prelude to the highly sexualised discourse that will emerge between them. Once Riddick has been captured and bound, Dahl taunts him with the words (her first addressed directly to him), “Not that the chains aren’t a hot look, but no, I’m not going to straddle you in front of all these guys.” This sets a tone, and once Dahl has thrown the ball, Riddick is happy to roll with it. “What if I killed them first?”, he offers, adding, “Love those toenails, by the way,” – an open admission that he saw her in the shower. “Yeah,” Dahl replies, smiling, “predator pink,” – to which Riddick replies even more gamely with, “Matches the nipples.” It is only after this that the line about “I’m gonna go balls deep… but only because you ask me to, sweet like” is uttered.
It should now be evident that O’Hara is not quite correct in her claim that Riddick “didn’t bother having a conversation with her or interacting in any way that wasn’t creepy stalking before making this prediction of future events.” His prediction comes at the end of an escalating, heated exchange, in fact initiated by Dahl herself in strongly sexual terms (to a man in chains – she even references the chains – over whom she has total power). And yet, for all the ugliness of the language used by both interlocutors – direct sexual language tends to sound ugly, or at least uncivil – neither Dahl or Riddick seems shocked, outraged or in any way intimidated.
On the contrary, this discourse unfolds (amidst smiles from both parties) as a shared piece of cocky flirtation between consenting adults – and in contrast with her earlier treatment of Santana, Dahl does not punch Riddick for any perceived offensiveness in his remarks. Dahl and Riddick are both, uniquely amongst the characters in this film, speaking the same language, and enjoying it. Barr says of Riddick’s prediction: “The implication of the dialogue seems clear as murder to me, Riddick is going to rape the character straight, and ultimately because he is just so irresistibly masculine, she’s gonna like it.” It is of course possible, if you like, to think this, but the fact remains that although Riddick fulfils his other promises to the letter (including killing Santana within five seconds of being released, something that expressly impresses Dahl), he does not in fact rape Dahl – something that Barr himself concedes (“no actual rape occurs, nor (arguably) is [it] the character’s genuine intention”). Indeed, Riddick makes any future clinch with Dahl explicitly dependent on her consent (“but only because you ask me to”). Later, when Johns orders Dahl, under certain conditions, to “kill [Riddick] on principle”, she rejoins, “Is that before or after I’m supposed to fuck him?” – words suggesting that she, for one, saw her earlier exchange with Riddick as little more than ironised verbal play, and that she has no real sexual intentions towards him.
This brings us to the ass-grabbing scene near the end. On the one hand, it might be exactly as O’Hara and Barr regard it: a scene in which a lesbian is straightened by a he-man, and improbably grants her consent, with Riddick following through (by implication) on his previous word. Or on the other hand, another reading is possible: when Riddick is beleaguered by monsters, severely injured and ‘balls deep’ in trouble, Dahl, winching down to save him, recognises an ironised fulfilment of Riddick’s earlier words and resumes the banter. For, mounting him purely to secure the harness, she throws his words back at him (“Let me ask you something, sweet like”) with an arch smile, and he, once again following her lead, turns his (necessary) grip on her into a gesture as ironised as her own words and straddling gesture. Once again, these two kindred spirits, the film’s only characters who, in their way, express admiration and, yes, respect for each other – are in perfect synch, even though neither has any real sexual interest in the other. After all, Dahl is a lesbian, and Riddick does not really do sex (as is suggested by an earlier flashback to his aloof disdain for a harem-ful of beckoning, naked female Necromongers). Maybe.
In other words, there are two conflicting readings here: one that ‘reverses the clock’ on sexual politics and takes Riddick back to the Stone Age, and another that allows Dahl and him to engage in a sophisticated linguistic game together – and a game, unlike the aggressively neanderthal trolling that can be found on-line, that is conducted face-to-face by grinning interlocutors who know each other’s names and both give as good as they get. So there are (at least) two ways through this ambiguous narrative, in a film that has, after all, repeatedly straddled the fine line between savagery and civilisation. This, however, we do know: Dahl has been presented throughout as a character who can and does look after herself, who never allows herself to be victimised, who ultimately herself rescues (as opposed to being rescued by) Riddick, and who, the very last time we see her in the film, is both literally and metaphorically on top. All of which should give any viewer pause before reducing Riddick to straightforward misogyny. Discuss it, by all means, but do not simply dismiss it – for perhaps, behind all the brutish bluster and braggadocio, there is some sophistication to be found. It is possible, after all, for Riddick to get civilised.