The Unrequited Problem

In a world where nearly everyone is searching for love, why do do many of us end up infatuated with someone we can’t have?

Love is blind, so we’re told. It’s one of those casual little cultural lies to which we all subscribe. In reality, it isn’t blind at all. If anything, love is ignorant. We see the people we want only too clearly on the surface, and that informs our choices in ways that we often don’t take the time to understand. I’ve been tossing the notion around that love doesn’t exist at all, that it’s actually a form of self delusion based on convenience and gratification. That may be an over-simplification of complicated emotions, but there might be something to it.

We are inundated with love in our culture, from Nicholas Sparks novels to romantic comedies to entire aisles at the store filled with cupids and hearts slapped on cheap plastic. The concept of love is so pervasive that most of our lives are spent in search of something called a “soulmate,” as if such a thing exists outside the realms of mythical creatures and fairytales. “There’s someone out there for everyone,” we’re also told, the implication being that if you’re one of the majority who hasn’t yet found yours, then you’re not looking hard enough. And the loop continues.

We talk a lot about what we want in someone; caring, compassion, sacrifice, among others, but many of us are drawn to people who treat us like shit, use us and throw us away when they’ve exhausted our value. If love is truly blind in these cases, it’s willfully so to the people as they are beneath the surface.

At least in those situations, however, there is a tangible relationship, however awkward or difficult it may be. The worst byproduct of our love-obsessed culture, though, is the unrequited kind. I’m not referring to the creepy, stalker-types who don’t even know the object of their obsessions. That’s not love, more like straight-up mental illness. When I say unrequited, I’m referring to situations where two people have a connection, and feelings ensue but unevenly. One side sees someone they could be with forever but the other is perfectly happy to just be friends.

Keeping our emotions under control isn’t always the easiest thing. When faced with unrequited feelings, many of us hold on, hoping the object of our passions will come around. We’ll sit and listen to them complain about the people they choose to pursue, give them a shoulder to cry on, while we keep our feelings bottled up. We watch the person we want throw themselves at people who manipulate them, lie to them, hurt them with impunity and play the role of the steady advisor, just wanting to ease their pain. But our pain is far deeper. We can’t help but think “why not me?” as we watch them bounce from user to user when all we really want is to hold them up, get them to see the person we see. Eventually, those unexpressed feelings come out, when the frustrations and the longing become too much. Despite the fact that we know rejection from the ones we want most awaits the broaching of the subject, we do it anyway, hoping beyond reason that this will be the time they truly see us.

But they never do. They care about us, they say, but “our friendship is too important to risk.” That phrase is like a gut punch to the unrequited. First, it’s nearly always a lie. It means they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the emotional support you bring but in doing so, they inadvertantly devalue your feelings. They chase after dead ends in failed relationship after failed relationship but never give a thought to trying with the person who’s always there for them. Eventually, you end up being the one who patches them back together so they can leave you home alone while they find someone new to break them all over again.

In this narrative, you’re supposed to just swallow your feelings and be satisfied with 30% of what you want. Otherwise, they get upset. The other part of the lie is that, if they do find someone who gives them the emotional support they use you for, that friendship that was too important to risk will be over in a matter of weeks anyway. What it really means, far too often, is your friendship is too important to risk when they don’t have a ready replacement for it. Once they do, however, you’re out and left only to wonder what you did wrong.

They never realize the damage they inflict, because that line is really about them holding on to just the parts they want and puts the honus on you to ignore feelings they find inconvenient to that narrative of your friendship they’ve constructed. And even when they’re gone, they never really go away. They might vanish for months, but one morning there will appear a text message saying “I miss you.” Maybe you’ve just spent three months trying to forget them, grasping to make sense of a world where your feelings have no meaning, matter only to you and weren’t enough for the one person in the world you wanted them to be. But once you get that message, it all comes flooding back, bursting through the barriers you’ve built up just so you don’t implode from the feelings of loss and inadequacy. You find yourself wondering if maybe something went wrong, maybe they feel your absence as keenly as you feel theirs. So you reply “I miss you too” and try to arrange a meeting. Sometimes, even though they first contacted you, they don’t reply to this at all. Other times, they make excuses about being busy but assure you that you’ll do it soon.

Again, it’s a lie. Little more than a residual emotional reflex. Maybe they had a fight with their significant other that morning and fell back to you because you’ve always been there to hold them up. But by the afternoon, they’ve smoothed things over and you’re back to being forgotten or left behind. The whole brief experience is just enough to set you back to square one, forcing you to start rebuilding the barriers.

“The Friend Zone” may be popular fodder for television shows and romantic comedies where the protagonists just have to be persistent and sweet to break out of that box. In real life, it’s a prison and anyone who finds themselves trapped within its stone walls and steel bars has a life sentence. There is no parole in the Friend Zone. Being persistent only gets you pushed away. Being sweet only gets you used, and then pushed away somewhere down the line.

There’s an old adage that you can’t make somebody love you and it’s very true. But loving someone who knows what your feelings are yet still subjects you to the ins and outs of their failed relationships, someone who drags you out to bars where you end up sitting alone, drinking too much too fast just to numb the heartbreak you feel watching them fawn all over other people is its own particular slice of Hell.

So why do we continue to do it? Why do so many of us subject ourselves to the torture of being so close to what we want but with no chance of achieving it? We like to sit around and blame them for not loving us, condemn them for playing fast and loose with our feelings. But it’s not all their fault. Certainly, there are those who will take adavantage of our feelings, but mostly they just don’t see us as an option and their actions reflect that. They feel the way they do, there’s no requirement in life to love someone back just because they love you. And chances are, they’ve been honest with us about it. We’re the ones being dishonest, continuing to act as though just being friends is enough when it’s clearly not. In those cases we’re the ones faking it, not them.

Put the blame where it lies, on ourselves. Maybe we lose a good friend in the process, but our feelings have already cost us that friend, we just don’t see it yet. They’re only still around because we deny those emotions. Any sane person would walk away from a situation where their feelings get crushed every time we’re around them. Yet we continue to hope, we continue to seek out that crack in their denials that could open the door to what we want most. Worst of all, we find ourselves hoping their other relationships fail. Ask yourself, what kind of friend is that?

If we truly love them, we can’t want them to be miserable for our benefit. We need to suck it up, wish them the best, pick up the tattered pieces of our hearts and move on. Maybe we can rejoin that friendship somewhere down the line when our feelings aren’t so raw. Maybe not. But continuing to act one way and want something else entirely isn’t good for anyone, us or them.

I think we get in these unrequited relationships because, somewhere deep down, we don’t feel like we deserve to be loved. We may actually seek out situations where our feelings are guaranteed to not be returned. That way, we can carry on our personal torment, punishing ourselves for whatever perceived slights we feel. But really, we’re just window shoppers, standing outside with our face pressed on the glass staring longingly at what we tell ourselves we want most in the world while ignoring those who pass behind us on the street, some of whom might actually be the person who could or would return those feelings.

The only real answer is to walk away. We don’t want to lose them but eventually, as we all inevitably must realize, they are already gone.

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 7:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Riddick’s Latest Chronicle Should Have Gone Unrecorded

*Spoiler Alert! Actually, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that could possibly spoil this movie any worse than watching it. It’s terrible. But I may inadvertently give details of things you don’t want to know if you’re planning on still wasting your money seeing it. Little tip: set your money on fire instead. You’ll get a brief few seconds of warmth from it which is more than you’ll get in two hours at the theater.

Beware long awaited sequels to cult-following type movies. Lest we forget, there’s the damage done to Indiana Jones by the horrible Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or the sheer reputation-destroying wall of schlock thrown up by George Lucas in his second set of Star Wars movies to remind us. Sometimes it’s best to just leave well enough alone. Of course, both of those terrible affronts to iconic characters banked enough coin to encourage talk of an Indy 5 and spur Disney to drop the price of a small country to land the rights to produce the next series of cash-printing Star Wars films. But that’s the way of Hollywood these days; squeeze that franchise for every dime regardless of quality. And you don’t have to worry about killing the golden goose because you just hire new folks and reboot every decade or so. Great for the accountants but not so hot for continuity, coherence or character.

At least with those films, you have a solid bankable asset still in play with a large fan base’s fond memories of past success. That’s not the case with Vin Diesel’s labor of artistic love, Richard B. Riddick. A character, by the way, who only even has a first name or middle initial to prop up an offhanded joke near the beginning of Pitch Black, the first film in this now-trilogy. Riddick is a character so thin on nuance that even giving him a full name seems superfluous. But that was okay to me because the Riddick introduced in Pitch Black was mysterious, silently threatening and sneaky-clever beneath the veneer of a muscle bound dullard. In that way, Diesel fit his character, his performance naturally seamless from his personality and acting style.

Despite the money, accolades and string of Fast and Furious driven hits, Diesel is not a very good actor. He has one speed, and it works if the character he’s playing is firmly in that wheelhouse. Dominic Toretto is one of those, and the big difference that separates the B-movie, direct to video feel of the Fast films without him from the A-list blockbusters the one’s with him have become. Riddick, at least in the first two incarnations, was another, albeit sans the massive box office.

Pitch Black was released in 2000 to little fanfare. It was an atmospheric low-budget ($23 million) sci fi/horror movie, more in common with Alien than any kind of space opera. At its simplest, Pitch Black works well. Cold anti hero finds that little spark of humanity left within him, the crash survivors picked off “Ten Little Indians” style by the seemingly inevitable crush of the darkness-loving monsters. The movie hints at a larger universe, but keeps things vague enough that your imagination fills in the details of the world they exist in and allows the story to focus wholly on the man vs man/man vs monster battles for survival.

The second film, The Chronicles of Riddick, was much different. In place of the simple survival against long odds story was an overly-ambitious sweeping space epic. The budget for the film ballooned to nearly $120 million, and with it, expectations of box office success it just wasn’t capable of meeting. Despite the far expanded scope of the film, the Riddick character was essentially the same steely badass taking each fight as it comes from the first movie. He was given a sometimes incoherent backstory about his Furyan heritage and a prophecy he may have been born to fulfill but, much like his full name in Pitch Black, it felt like pointless exposition to set up the next scene of Riddick coolly wreaking carnage. And I was okay with that. Movies are what they are and this, in particular, was one not to get too hung up on the details or occasional dangling plot points.

After the relative box office bomb that Chronicles became, it looked like the accountants would do what all the space monsters, Mercs and Necromongers couldn’t and kill Riddick. The movie actually wasn’t a bomb in the epic sense. When all was said and done, and the International box office was counted up, Chronicles was dangerously close to break even. But for $120 million in 2004 dollars, break even was light-years away from good enough to green light any more chronicles.

After that, as part of the deal that brought Vin Diesel back to the Fast and Furious franchise, he swapped a cameo for the film rights to Riddick, a decision that now looks like it might be a very astute, and very profitable one. I waited anxiously for the nine years after Chronicles, sucking up every little piece of internet gossip I could find, hoping beyond good fiscal reason that a third movie would find its way to theaters. Hell, I’d have been happy with a direct to video. As imperfect as Chronicles was, and its imperfections are easily as epic as its scope, I wanted to see more. There were questions I wanted answered. And that sly little smile curling up on Riddick’s lips at the end of Chronicles as he realizes the implications of “you keep what you kill” was a supreme tease. This man was hard enough to handle on his own, what special kind of hell would he bring forth in charge of the entire Necromonger fleet? I wanted to see it.

When I finally saw the trailer for the long-awaited third film, simply named Riddick, earlier this year, I was so happy, I wouldn’t let my concerns about the film surface. This was gonna be awesome! How could it not be? All the years, all that work from Diesel to keep this dream alive? You don’t see people put that kind of effort in without good reason. Or so I told myself. When I bought my ticket and perched myself into that theater seat, I was so excited for what was to come. Then, as the film’s near-two hour runtime spooled out before me, I slowly realized there was one major problem here; the movie itself really sucks.

It isn’t bad in the same way Chronicles was bad, failing because their vision outpaced their grasp. It’s bad in the way Hollywood sometimes ham-handles series reboots. Riddick is part Pitch Black only without the atmosphere, tension or claustrophobic feel. And it’s also part Chronicles without the scope and even more incoherent backstory. Why the strong desire to go home for a man self described as born in a liquor store trashbin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck? Relive the good times?

Riddick is a movie that feels put together by audience survey. Riddick fighting monsters tested really well? Here’s 45 minutes of Riddick fighting monsters to open the film. Riddick fighting Mercs also tested well? Then we’ll double down with two competing Merc crews to battle. Riddick winning over the space cat from Chronicles tested well? Have 20 minutes of Riddick raising a vicious brindle space dog from a puppy. The Necromongers didn’t come off so hot? Well, we’ll wrap that plot point up with five minutes of flashback exposition. The end result is a clunky film that seems familiar, mostly because we’ve already seen everything in it done better in the earlier movies.

None of the characters are even slightly compelling. Even Riddick himself seemed less than before. His banter with Katee Sackhoff was blunt and crude, none of the sly allusions of earlier films. The Riddick of Pitch Black or Chronicles wouldn’t have used the phrase “balls deep”. Too coarse, too obvious. Too sexualized. The shot of Riddick’s bed full of naked Necromonger hotties was a stark contrast to the stoic feel of before. It was an attempt to add sex to the character that didn’t need to be. Before, it was subtle and implied. This was ugly and obvious.

The Mercs were hollow shells of their counterparts from the previous movies. Johns in Pitch Black was a far more interesting character, eliciting far more of a response than his father, the elder Johns who appears in Riddick searching for answers about the death of his son. Santana had none of the humor or presence of Toombs from Chronicles. Their respective crews were just to pad the eventual bodycount.

All except for Sackhoff, that is, who had the pleasure of playing the lone female character in the movie, with the exception of the aforementioned naked bed of Necros. This was perhaps the most disappointing part of this. There was an obligatory topless shower scene for Sackhoff, of course, being the only woman in a sci fi movie, that I’m sure the Battlestar Galactica fanboys will enjoy. But overall, she’s a stock character like the rest. Even worse, we’re expected to believe Riddick’s raw animal magnetism gets the lesbian to switch sides. People talk about sexism in sci fi, and this movie’s sure not doing anything to put the lie to that.

It’s particularly disappointing in that both of the earlier films had strong and/or interesting female characters. Pitch Black had Radha Mitchell as the docking pilot who grew into the role of Captain after the crash and Claudia Black’s take-charge prospector. Chronicles had Judi Dench, for god’s sake, an an envoy from a race called Elementals who oversee balance for the entire universe and Thandie Newton as the scheming, Lady Macbeth-type Dame Vacco, wife to the heir apparent to the Necro throne. And then there’s Jack/Kyra, who grew from the cowering girl dressing up as a boy in Pitch Black to the fully grown, ass kicking woman in Chronicles. Riddick’s universe went from strong female characters to a token woman who exists solely for Riddick to make lewd comments to. That, in this case, it happened to be a woman who did such a good job with a strong woman character in Battlestar Galactica makes it all the more disheartening.

Somehow, this film is actually being received fairly well. Rotten Tomatoes is showing a critics’ rating of 58, which isn’t gangbusters but is much better than this deserved. The viewers’ rating is even higher, at 73! Riddick was produced more in line with Pitch Black. It had a low budget, around $38 million. In just five days since the movie opened in the U.S., it’s already earned back close to $30 million. I think it’s safe to say, when all the receipts are in, the international box office added, and the inevitable video game tie-in or two, Diesel is going to have a nice pile of money for his troubles. That also means we’re very likely to see Riddick 4 and probably Riddick 5 over the next few years.

Back in 2004, after Chronicles bombed, I remember being disappointed knowing that, barring a miracle, there’d probably not be any more Riddick movies. Now, after seeing the new one and knowing with near certainty that there will be more, I find myself disappointed yet again. There’s millions of dollars to be made, after all, so these movies will exist, but by the time the money dries up, will anyone still remember why we watched the Riddick movies in the first place? Be careful what you wish for.

Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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