Riddick Me This: What’s Sexism Got to Do With Monsters?
It may surprise readers to learn this, but when I go to the movies, I still hold out hope that I will get what is advertised, whether it be an entertaining escape, a learning experience, a meaningful message, or enough explosives (or Kyrptonians) to take down a major city. But Hollywood continues to trip my internal alarms with its third installment of the Riddick series (if we are not including his forays into animated shorts or video games), starring the gravel-voiced Vin Diesel. What could have – and should have – been a good time with monsters, mercenaries, and R-rated gore is instead a motherload of sexist tropes and a weary third act. Tired yet? We’ve only just begun.
Riddick (full name Richard B. Riddick, which indeed sounds like a goofy school photo is hidden somewhere in his past) is having a bad day. Dumped on a backwater planet and left for dead by the antagonists from a previous film (the Necromongers), Riddick fights for survival and to find a way off the desert rock. The film does itself no favors with an opening half hour of its buff-and-tough big guy fighting creatures hand-to hand, amassing leather for clothing, and, no exaggeration, training a canine-like beast to be his loyal guard dog. The worst of the opening is probably the fact that this savage domesticity keeps better time than later sequences, which lack the tension of watching a protagonist down on his luck in the most extreme ways.
After chancing upon an empty way station for bounty hunters, Riddick activates the distress beacon to get ships to come to him. Undeterred by the reputation of the man they’re hunting, two mercenary crews show up armed to the teeth, and argue over who gets the chance to pull in the big catch. But everyone, including Riddick, has bigger problems coming, as an ominous raincloud moving overhead foretells danger for all.
The movie does little work to endear Riddick to watchers, despite his early, very literal, save the dog moment. Riddick may be an animalistic scoundrel, but he’s also the main character, and the movie needed to do more to actually make us root for his side. Riddick is utterly in control in the movie’s second half, playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the mercenaries and picking them off one by one. He’s so ruthlessly competent that it makes you feel a little sorry for the more upstanding merc team, even though they’re only here as creature bait. There were moments where I simply forgot who I was rooting for at all.
But I know precisely where Riddick lost me. At the near halfway point, the just-arrived mercenaries cut lose a female prisoner from their hold, citing an overage of weight if Riddick is captured. After implying physical abuse by the crew in her dialogue, she runs out of the ship, only to be gunned down by the nasty mercenary leader, Santana. He sneers that he’d gotten rather attached to her. An adult-rated villain who isn’t a closet rapist would be a stretch for Hollywood at this point, for the convention has reared its head in two of the last three recent releases I’ve seen.
There are other ways to make us dislike a bad guy, and the constant use of violence against women as emotional leverage for the audience is a cheap trick. Furthermore, in a film like Riddick, is narratively unnecessary. This isn’t forest spirits fighting Lady Eboshi, or even the X-Men fighting the Brotherhood of Mutants. Riddick isn’t going to Freaky Friday body swap with Head Evil Mercenary until they both learn a valuable lesson about seeing things from the other person’s perspective. We already know going in that the good guys are going to be good, and the bad guys are going to be bad. We’ve already been shown that these are evil bounty hunters who want to kill our hero and mistreat their prisoners. We don’t need rape and rape threats to be added to the equation, and when they are all that it really communicates to an audience is that women should expect to be raped and threatened with rape regardless of whether they are secondary characters or main character ass-kicking badasses. To put it another way: no matter how many skills or qualities you share with male heroes, the fact of your gender will always loom larger in the eyes of your opponents and cause them to think you are a sex toy.
Which brings me to how the introduction of Santana neatly coincided with the beginning of a steady stream of sexist commentary regarding Katee Sackhoff’s character. Sackhoff’s inclusion in the mix, as a tough mercenary (from a different group) named Dahl (unfortunately, it makes it sound like everyone is calling her “doll”), was a large reason I leapt at the chance to do this review. However, the constant negative references to her gender (even if they are by the “bad mercenaries,” as explained above) not to mention a specialty feature I will get to in a moment, started to make me wish she wasn’t there at all. The commentary – and in one instance, a physical assault, which the camera cuts away from so the viewer is unsure as to what has happened at first – includes direct and vague rape threats and aggressive, sexualized barbs, several of them delivered by Riddick himself.
And speaking of Dahl and Riddick’s interactions, though she all but declares that she’s a lesbian at the midway mark of her appearance, a detail that was as fascinating as it was curious, any points the movie gains for this revelation are rescinded as events play out. For, after enduring sexualized threats to her person for the whole of the film, Dahl has a moment at the end where she practically invites Riddick to bed, as per his crude prediction. Because a guy systematically and mercilessly killing off the team you are on is enough to turn any lesbian to him, right? As nonsensical as it is blatantly offensive, this piece of juvenile imagining doesn’t need to be there, yet somehow is.
Exercising these offensive tropes has zero to do with the plot, or the action of Riddick. It adds nothing, and distracts from the otherwise somewhat interesting, sometimes darkly humorous, goings-on. This means that the movie, like so many others, is going out of its way to lay down bad track. It expressively tells an entire section of viewers that this is not for them to enjoy, and never was. Riddick aims hard for its perceived young male demographic, outlining a snarling power fantasy that lacks real legs. In doing so, it misses an opportunity to be a fun, bloody mess that all fans of the genre could enjoy. Those sexist comments, like Sackhoff’s “turn”, are there because someone – the writer, a producer, the director – thought they should be there, that it would contribute something to the general proceedings. Instead, in a movie where people get eviscerated onscreen for our viewing pleasure, the moment that Dahl hits on Riddick during the weird, warm-hearted sendoff at film’s close, was the thing that had me recoiling in disgust.