I’ve never quite understood this movie’s appeal. It’s fine as a little sci-fi thriller. It works on a purely technical level narratively, but it’s not the most engaging thing in the world. It’s not terribly scary, or emotional, or thought provoking. It’s okay but over stylized and unfocused.
In the future, a commercial interstellar ship with everyone in cryogenic sleep and months away from their destination runs into a the trail of a rogue comet, killing the captain and sending the ship on a crash course for a backwaters planet in the middle of nowhere. The pilot, Radha Mitchell’s Fry, manages to crash land the ship safely enough to save herself and several of the passengers, even after trying to dump the entire passenger compliment in an effort to even out the ship. Together with the survivors, she has to find a way to survive and get off the rock.
What’s interesting about the film from a point a couple of decades removed from the original release and after the release of two sequels is that Fry is actually the central character. Marketing and the sequels would tell you that it’s Richard B. Riddick, Vin Diesel’s growling anti-hero with sunglass goggles perpetually attached to his head. Reading up on the history of the production, Fry being the hero extended to the originally scripted ending, but as production started everyone realized that Riddick had the potential for sequels instead of Fry, and they rewrote the ending to replace the focus on Riddick rather than Fry. This ends up feeling kind of unnatural to the story.
Fry has to learn to lead this ragtag group of survivors (all with different motives and desires, creating a discordant effect on the overall story that I find distracting), to go from trying to dump all of the passengers to fighting to save as many as she can. This is a strong arc to build a story on. That she’s suddenly cast aside in the movie’s final moments for a character that was obviously designed as a secondary character is odd. Riddick is an escaped felon and murdered, captured by Johns, a bounty hunter (“merc”), and released from his chains in a desperate effort to survive.
The group finds a geological research station nearby and an escape vessel that needs just enough power from their ship in order to fly, but no one is around. Something happened to the people who manned it, and with the escape ship still there, they didn’t leave. The planet is in perpetual sunlight with three suns, but they are due for a once in every twenty-two years eclipse that will send the planet in total darkness for a long time. Combined with the monsters they discover in the tunnels under the surface that flee from the sunlight, this is a recipe for disaster unless they can get that escape vessel running.
This is all fine. The coincidence of landing right before the next eclipse is the sort of things that stories are built off of, so I can’t complain too much about that. The stakes are clear and the path towards the resolution of the plot mechanics is unambiguous. My problems really are with the character based storytelling.
I think it was a mistake to have the group of survivors being so ragtag and unconnected to each other. There’s nothing connecting these people except the desire to get off the planet. Then they’re all pretty thinly drawn, and the path to the resolution doesn’t bring their desires together in any meaningful way. It doesn’t help that this is essentially an Alien clone and the object is to pick off characters in genre satisfying ways more than telling a story. Their base desires as characters never merge in the rare instance when they even come to the surface. Sharon is a tough woman who might be going to a new space settlement. Paris is an antiques dealer with a bunch of booze (that survives the crash in a sarcophagus somehow) who wants…to die in Paris? I think. Jack is a young kid that suddenly idolizes Riddick. Riddick is a convict who wants to be free of his chains. Johns is a merc who wants to capture Riddick for the money and, maybe, another unstated reason. This is chaotic, and I think it would have been better to condense a lot of these. Make it Riddick, Johns, Fry, and a small group of settlers. Interconnect their desires so they all want variations on something similar (like freedom), and make the fight to survive a fight for that, providing a far more interesting subtext. Instead there’s no subtext and it’s just random people getting picked off by aliens while Riddick growls.
There’s appeal to that. The aliens are interesting in concept and designed well, even if the late-90s computer generated imagery can only go so far. The kills are gruesome in a fun way. The clear line of the plot keeps things from getting unnecessarily confusing. I just don’t really engage with the film. It’s fine, but it feels wrong in a couple of ways. I spent half the movie bored and the other half mildly interested.