“–Come on, Riddick. Don’t you want to rejoin the human race?”
“–Truthfully, I wouldn’t know how.”
Radha Mitchell and Vin Deisel (Fry and Riddick)
So a couple of months ago this guy in my writer’s group—I’ll call him John, because that’s his name—says to me, “There’s this movie out called Babylon AD and your novel reminds me of it.” I hadn’t seen Babylon AD or read much about it, but I had seen a trailer so I knew Vin Diesel was in it and a lot of stuff got blown up. I have to say that based on this, I didn’t see the similarities. Okay, I do blow up a train in my book. And a plane. And later on, a boat, but still. . .
I went home and researched the movie on the Internet. Then I had a choice: e-mail John and cuss him out with every bad word I knew, or put my head in my hands and weep at my computer for fifteen or twenty minutes. Why? Here’s why: Babylon AD—probably the worst movie to date of 2008; on the short list for worst movie so far of the oughts, and a contender, at least on some critics’ lists, for one of the ten worst movies ever. If Roger Ebert writes Your Movie Sucks, Volume II, Babylon AD will be in it. Yeah, so thanks for that comparison.
Why does my book remind him of this movie? Well, he said (he hadn’t seen the movie) he thought it was about a tough guy who is hired to escort a woman to safety, and bad guys are after her. Which is, by the way, the plot of my novel. . . and the plot of African Queen, True Grit, Tristian and Isolde, the King Arthur cycle where Lancelot is sent to escort Guinevere to Camelot, and even the book I just finished, The Quiet Girl. And a host of others. So there.
I opted for the head in hands weeping. No, I didn’t really. I sulked around the house for a while. Then I ate some chocolate and felt better. Not just because of the chocolate, though. I got to thinking about Vin Diesel (who, by the way, doesn’t like Babylon AD either, apparently).
I realized my main character, the “tough guy,” is like another Vin Diesel character. My character reminds me of Riddick. The real Riddick, the one that’s in the cheap little suspense/horror movie called Pitch Black.
Does John get points for making this intuitive connection? No, he does not.
Pitch Black is pure who-makes-it-out-alive horror in a space opera setting, with one of those unusual environmental things (like Dune) that seems cool and you shouldn’t think about too much. A battered interstellar freighter crashes in a desert. The survivors include the sociopathic killer/criminal Riddick, the bounty hunter who is taking him back to jail, a morally conflicted pilot, a religious man and his sons, a young runaway and a sarcastic antiques dealer. And a host of others, but they’re what you might call “red shirts.” The monsters, while not believable, are really scary and cool—think big, winged piranhas with these awesome, scythe-shaped heads– and the characters are plausible, multi-faceted, with real conflicts that spring out of diverse values. The plot is exactly simple enough to give us time to care about these characters. The. . . well, I wouldn’t exactly call it science. . the stuff about the monsters, and the desert planet and the eclipse that causes it all to go pitch black, doesn’t really bear thinking about. (Like, why would an indigenous life form recognize earth-based human blood as a source of nourishment? And if the planet orbits a binary star, how can one sun rise as the other is setting? And how does that whole eclipse thing work anyway. . .? Maybe it’s just me). None of that really matters. We care about these people and whether they live; and we are interested to see if Riddick can redeem himself at the end of the movie.
When I saw the movie, Riddick seemed to me like someone who had been in the foster care system from a young age. There was no security and no love in his early life. His code is survival-based, not societally or morally based, yet in the movie there are flickers of the person he would have liked to have been. I liked that. That’s the part of him I took and gave to my main character.
Pitch Black is low-budget, the language is rough and a lot of the actors were not well-known when it was made. All of that works for it.
Later, based on the surprising success of this movie, they gave the same director, David Twohy, way too much money to make a sequel about the Riddick character. It was called the Chronicles of Riddick—or, as a friend of mine put it, “The Chronicles of Riddiculus.” Twohy studied Pitch Black carefully, painstakingly identified all the things that made it a success, then threw those out, choosing instead to make a gaudy, puffy, wedding-cake-on-steroids spectacle that included Dame Judy Dench as a floaty, all-dressed-in-white-and-can-turn-invisible alien, and eviscerated Riddick by turning him from a survivor of a horror-show childhood to a messianic killer hero with a “destiny.” It had a barely comprehensible plot and sets so grandiose that they made the de Laurentius version of Dune look restrained.
It was probably the worst movie of 2004, on the short list to be the worst movie of the oughts. . . until Babylon AD.