I made it about half way through the Chronicles of Riddick DVD two nights ago before I paused it to check my mail and see if there were any good conversations going on on IRC. I haven't watched the rest since.
I'll never be able to find a link for this because his website is nearly impossible to navigate, but Bill Martell had written one of his "script tip" articles which are far more than just tips, and this one was a literal dissection of The Chronicles of Riddick.
When I read it, I hadn't yet seen the movie, and I thought going in that Bill might have been a little too harsh on the film. Pitch Black is one of my favorite movies even though it really wasn't all that great, it did something a lot of movies don't tend to do: it pissed me off.
If you can elicit an emotional response in the audience, you're doing your job. That is unless you piss them off. Now that's one of life's half-truths. I was pissed off, and so it inspired me enough to complain about it, and that's a success of sorts because at least I am actually talking about it, as opposed to forgetting that it ever exited.
Pitch Black -- which was written and directed by David Twohy with a co-writing credit for Jim and Ken Wheat -- got under my skin by letting me identify with a character only to seem him turn into a complete scum and subsequently die. It was a necessary part of the story in order for the perceived bad-guy to "turn face" and become the good guy, we can all understand that, but you can't do that while letting the audience (even just a few of them) identify with the person who will go from looks-good-to-bad.
Despite this, I enjoyed the film overall. It was well directed, visually pleasing, and well scored. There was just enough story to let me get lost to the point where I didn't try to predict what was going to happen next, so that film gets kudos from me.
I liked it.
For the sequel, Twohy threw off his co-writers and took it upon himself to write the script by himself, which was obviously a mistake. With half of the film under my belt, I should understand everything by this point and we should be smack dab in the middle of the main struggle, or the middle act of the movie.
Unfortunately I don't have a clue what the main struggle is yet. Are the big scary invaders intent on converting everyone to their religion going to battle it out with our good guy until one of them perishes? Well, I don't know the answer to that. They were established as the movies bad guys, but when I turned the movie off, Riddick had just left the planet they were conquering, leaving behind a woman and her child that he had promised to protect and get off of that very planet just fifteen minutes before.
Alright, I can cope with that. He is supposed to be a heartless bastard and criminal, so he left them to die. I wouldn't have done that, and normally I'd actually consider it a rookie writing mistake where the writer simply forgot to wrap up a thread, and maybe that's the case. Or maybe he did it on purpose, who knows.
But why did he leave the planet? If he is going to fight them and the other things the good guy normally does, why have him leave? Why make the bad guys chase him? It's an unnecessary waste of time for a movie that ran too long.
By the time Riddick ends up at the prison (intentionally) he has run into what is now the only other surviving character from Pitch Black, the girl who was pretending to be a boy. At this point, the girl is now a fully grown woman who has an unfavorable attitude and hates Riddick.
First off, even though you want your characters to be different from each other and obviously not all of them can be good people, you still need your audience to identify with all of them to some degree. You absolutely must understand her anger and sympathize with it, or she'll just look like a spitefully bitch, which is exactly the kind of vibe I get from her.
This is key, because if you don't sympathize with and identify with characters at least a little, then you won't give the slightest damn what happens to them, and it sucks the tension and drama out of the entire film.
It was alluded to that she holds deep resentment over being abandoned by him sometime in between the first and second film, something that feels too manufactured considering that Riddick is supposed to be a merciless killer and all. What did she expect him to do, setup shop as her new daddy and role model? I don't buy into that, and it was Twohy's job to make me buy into it.
This is the point where things just stopped making thematic sense. There are two movies going on here and there just isn't room for the both of them. Riddick having to save the chick who hates him is kind of trite, but it is to be expected because (presumably) he will win her over and she will become his one and only ally (because everybody needs an ally.) If that was going to have a bearing on all of this, it shouldn't have required a full third of the film to unfold before it started because it's just too late for it.
As a television writer, you are taught to use the first act to establish all of the story lines you'll have going during the episode so that they begin to intertwine from the very beginning. If you wait too long, you'll end up looking like you just abandoned everything you had started, and your new thread will look out of place like it was some random thought interjected to fill out time.
This is what Chronicles feels like to me. This is what the save-the-girl thread feels like to me. Here we are over an hour into the film and that thread is just getting its sea legs. Because of that, I now feel like the conquest angle that was front and center just got kicked to the back burner in order to start an entire second movie, and that's bad because it gives you the impression that the film is wandering around, trying to figure out what it wants to be about.
Is it about fighting religious conquest? Is it about redemption for Riddick? Is it just about having as many young hot women as possible on screen? Is it just an excuse to show off the latest CGI? Am I the only person that feels like what Twohy really wanted to do was write the next Dune book?
And I suppose that's the good analogy here, that the script feels like it is probably the best polished first-draft ever written, because it has the feel of a script that is exploring different themes and ideas, but doesn't know where it's going yet.
That's fine normally, that's what you get with the first draft from anyone that doesn't have three or four Oscars sitting next to their computer monitor, but it is the very last thing you want from a shooting script.
Had I been there, I would have told Towhy that he had a choice. Either he could ditch one of these two threads, or rewrite the first act so that they began at nearly the same time. That way both threads could reach the meat of their conflict at the second act (or in this films case just about 1 hour in) and you could dart back and forth between the two for maximum attention.
While Riddick tries to save the girl, we see the previous planets destruction and the subsequent attack on David Kieth's planet begin. And the setup was there already -- the first scene with the mercenaries should have let directly into the prison scene.
Of course our main character can't be in two places at once so you have to decide which one to show without him, and obviously you can sustain the beginning of the main thread without his presence at all. Even so, I still would suggest ditching one of these threads and rewriting the script.
Since I haven't finished the movie, I don't know how either thread ends, and maybe they do come together in a natural way that is satisfying to the audience without dragging either one out for too long.
But I doubt it.
Think back to Pitch Black, where the story was continuous. They crashed, explored, found the abandoned outpost, found the evil monsters, tried to survive, and some finally escaped. Everything you needed to know was established in the first act.
Riddick is an evil criminal, the female pilot and the mercenary who acts like a cop were the good-guy counter points, and there were bad things on this planet that were going to sir up trouble. The middle act starts when someone actually dies, and ratchets up the the tension by killing one of the good guy but strong characters, until the third act: the escape.
Chronicles on the other hand doesn't establish much of anything, and just bounces around trying to find a coherent story to tell.
Again, is this about Riddick's redemption for abandoning the girl, or is it his random bad luck to run into a bunch of guys bent on religious conquest? Or is it about him exploring his races history? It can't be about all three, one of them has to be the main thread and it has to stick to it while wrapping the other two around it like a vine.
Maybe this is because Twohy's co-writers had the kind of professional experience and discipline that he lacked. He brought the cool story, while they honed the script into a coherent theme. If that is the case, then Twohy is probably a good story teller, he just needs help to forge those stories into good films.
I look forward to watching the rest of the movie shortly, but I think I'll probably be disappointed. If the movie can't find its way after the first half, it's highly doubtful that it'll find it in the end either.