For the second in my list of “perfect” (or near-perfect, anyway) genre movies, it’s a complete coincidence that both this one and its predecessor (Near Dark) have darkness as a motif. That one was pure fantasy—sorry, I don’t believe in genre vampires—and this one is pure-D science fiction! As of this month (it’s still February; this is a leap year!) the movie is 20 years old! If you haven’t seen it, read this—unless you’re afraid of spoilers—then check out your local streaming service. I believe it’s available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and a bunch more (but not Netflix, apparently).
The movie opens with an aerial shot of a passenger vessel, the Hunter-Gratzner, in deep space. As the camera pulls back to a rear view of the ship, the viewer can see that it’s headed directly into the dense tail of a “rogue” comet. Above and to the right, twin suns send a flare into the camera. Narration begins, a deep voice: “They say that most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side.” The camera is inside the ship now; it’s very shaky, and red-lit, except for irregular flashes of white light. But we can see a figure, shackled, face hidden in shadow, but blindfolded. As the narration continues we begin to learn things: “No wonder I’m still awake,” the narrator says. The implication is that the narrator is mostly primitive, animal; he tells us he’s being transported with—“sounded like 40 civilians,” he can tell by the sounds and the smells that there are women, and a “voodoo holy man on a pilgrimage.” We see the characters as he talks about them; he talks also about his jailer, the “blue-eyed devil.” But, as he says, it’s a long time between stops, when anything can happen. (This narration’s a good way to give the audience a short data dump without being too obvious about it.)
The ship is shuddering, and suddenly there are sharp sounds and holes appearing in bulkheads and some of the cryo-containers. The ship is encountering meteorites… alarms begin to blare, and a couple of the cryo-containers open and release their inhabitants onto the deck. One is the relief/docking pilot, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell); another is the co-pilot, Owens (Simon Burke). Fry recovers first and quickly evaluates the situation: the captain is dead, holed by meteorites in his cryo-container; the ship is losing oxygen from hull breaches, and has been thrown off-course into a nearby planet’s gravity well. She straps herself into the pilot’s seat and begins making emergency preparations for landing. Owens grabs another piloting seat behind her. Fry discovers the ship is too heavy in the rear section (gravity well has made balance a necessity; she needs to get the front section, where she and Owens are sitting, down). She dumps/purges the “ballast,” the very rear section, but the ship’s still nose-up. She begins preparations to purge the next couple of sections, containing most of the passengers, but Owens tells her she shouldn’t do it, and she reluctantly takes her hand off the purge lever.
The ship crash-lands, but the heat and violence of passage does what Fry was prevented from doing, and strips away all but the front couple of sections. Owens is fatally injured, and the only remaining people are Fry; a policeman named William Johns (Cole Hauser) and his prisoner Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel); a couple of miners/settlers (Claudia Black and John Moore); a boy, Jack (Rhiana Griffith), who’s got a really big secret; a Muslim leader calling himself Imam (Keith David) and his three young followers on hajj to New Mecca. And a somewhat effete dealer in antique weapons and wine, Paris Ogilvie (Lewis Fitz-Gerald).
After the crash, while the other survivors are shaken and taking stock of their situation, Riddick escapes. Johns warns the others that Riddick is extremely dangerous, having escaped from prison, hijacked a ship, and stolen a transport, killing everyone on board. They are now on their guard, and Paris has a stash of ancient weapons from Earth in the hold of the intact portion of the ship, along with some expensive, collectible wine(Figure 3). The planet is extremely arid; pretty much desert as far as they can see. There are some odd, twisted and somehow organic-looking conical shapes coming out of the ground nearby, that could signify life or water; and while looking out for Riddick, Johns spots some trees on the horizon. “Trees mean water,” he says. While the rest of the survivors start combing the wreckage for usable items, Zeke (Moore) sets out for the conical area with a weapon and a digging tool. He is obviously used to doing things for himself.
But Zeke disappears, and there is blood on the ground where he was digging a hole. The group suspects Riddick has killed him… but Riddick, appearing out of nowhere, tells them he is no longer the worst thing they have to fear. There is a struggle, and Riddick is recaptured. (He is momentarily incapacitated by having his dark goggles removed; thanks to his “eye stripping,” which he received illegally in prison in exchange for “twenty menthol Kools,” he can see in the dark, but is nearly blind in the daylight of, they discover, three suns. It’s a planet without night!)
While Riddick is tied up again in the wreck, Fry ties a tether around her waist and she and the others go to the hole where Zeke disappeared; she enters the hole and, while finding what’s left of Zeke, is almost eaten by something shadowy that moves very quickly and stays just out of visual range underground. She discovers the cones are hollow, and manages to escape with great difficulty just before being caught by whatever it was she barely saw, the things that killed Zeke. Back at the ship, Johns releases Riddick on his promise to work for the survival of the group. They all decide to head for the trees to find water.
Arriving at the “trees,” the group discovers that they aren’t trees at all, but giant tree-like bony growths extending from the spinal columns of many sets of bones, complete skeletons, of gigantic animals of some kind. One of the Imam’s boys discovers a solar-powered toy half-buried in the sand (Figure 5), and the group discovers an abandoned geological survey camp which includes a solar still, a solar-powered sand-cat and, wonder of wonders, a spaceworthy—they hope—two-seater shuttlecraft! Its nuclear(?) batteries are drained, however, and to use it to get to the spacelanes where they might hitch a ride on an interstellar craft, they will need to get batteries from the wreck. Frey also discovers an odd thing in one of the quonset huts of the survey site… an orrery of the solar system they’re in.
They also discover why the survey site is abandoned… there is a hole in the ground in the Core Sampling quonset. One of the three boys, Ali (Firass Dirani), is killed by a group of flying things that were living in the quonset, and the group discovers that the things—which can’t abide light—are the reason there are no people at the site. All the bones of the survey party are at the bottom of the hole. But it’s worse than that… Fry discovers, because the orrery is solar-powered, that every 22 years the giant double-ringed planet in the system aligns with all the other planets and the suns, and completely blocks light from the suns. And this is the 22nd year since the last alignment. Which means this group has a very short time to get those batteries before the things which seem to have wiped out all other life on the planet come swarming out of the ground!
I hope this has given you an idea and a bit of the flavour of this pure science-fiction movie—which is sort of a horror movie as well. Again, like all really good genre movies, it’s based on science as we know it (with a bit of extrapolation, of course), and it plays out through the interactions of the characters. They are revealed, psychologically, over the course of the first half of the movie; and not all are what they appear to be. We discover that Fry’s decision not to purge the passengers earlier has implications for her, for Johns, and for Riddick himself—indeed, for all the passengers. There is death, there is revelation, and there is redemption for several in the latter half of the film, leading to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Expected in one way, but totally unexpected in another. If you haven’t seen this, you owe it to yourself to do so. The “cult” status of this film has been steadily growing over the last 20 years, and it has spawned several sequels, among them The Chronicles of Riddick and one just called Riddick. Although Chronicles has Judy Dench and Karl Urban (among others) and the designs of my friend Miles Teves, it’s kind of cumbersome. The one just called Riddick is, to my mind, an extremely well done and satisfying sequel.
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