The Chronicles of Riddick, directed in 2004 by David Twohy and staring Vin Diesel, has always been a favorite of mine. It had a poor critical reception and its gross did not make back its production, marketing, and distribution costs. However it has since seen success on DVD and television broadcasts.
While the movie was set up for a sequel, its poor reception precluded the possibility. Until now. “Shock Till You Drop” posts on IMDB regarding the soon to come sequel: “Betrayed by his own kind and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before. Soon bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge. With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.”
So what was Chronicles about and why did I like it?
Back to the Arthurian Romances to which I have referred several times in my reviews on this site. (See particularly Wanted.) In them we see for the first time a vision of an inner moral sense in each individual. One of the most representative of the Arthurian figures is Percival, who appears in England in the tales of Sir Thomas Malory, in France in the tales of Chrétien de Troyes, and in Germany in the tales of Wolfram von Eschenbach.
In one of his quests Percival enters the castle of the Fisher King who has been wounded in the groin in a hunting accident, representing a loss of his generative powers. His wound will not heal and as a result, his kingdom becomes a wasteland. There is drought, crops will not grow, pestilence and disease are everywhere, all of which is symbolic of a disease of the soul. The wasteland comes about when one acts not out of authenticity, but out of the power of one’s position. In ancient cultures, the vitality of the kingdom was dependant on the vitality of the king. Percival, who had always acted spontaneously out of his own nature, for the first time remembers that a knight is not supposed to speak to a king until spoken to first, and even though he is moved to do so, does not ask, “What ails you?” the words that would have healed the king. He is escorted from the castle and when he turns to look back, it is gone. You are not supposed to get a second chance. Percival realizes his mistake and spends many years searching for the castle, during which time he comes to love Condiure, her name evoking “guide.”
Now we have something important. In traditional societies, including in the West until recently, marriage was usually arranged and was entered into in order to form political and economic alliances. The modern Western idea of marriage for love and friendship is new. But even love has changing meanings. Eros is carnal love, the biological urges of the organs for each other. Agape is spiritual love that we are told we should have indiscriminately for all. Unique to the West is amor, first celebrated by the troubadours of the Middle Ages. The medieval poet Giraut Borneil wrote “Love is born of the eyes and the heart.” One recognizes another individual person and the heart is moved. Love, for the first time, becomes specific and for a person, not the biological urge of the organs or the spirit’s longing for transcendence.
Now in this new kind of relationship to a woman, Percival again finds the castle, asks of the Fisher King, “What ails you?” and thus heals the king and restores the land. (This take on the Arthurian Romances comes from Joseph Campbell.)
This theme of moral character coming from within pervades our movies. We see it, for example, in the classic 1939 film, Stagecoach. The first of many John Wayne, John Ford westerns, it follows a stagecoach containing characters representing the spectrum of the American psyche: a preacher; a pregnant woman; a con man; an alcoholic doctor. The leads are Dallas, a prostitute played by Claire Trevor, and a fugitive, the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne. At the end of the movie, Ringo, having dispatched the bad guys who had killed his father and brother and stolen their ranch, asks Dallas to marry him. She says she can’t; having been a prostitute, she is a fallen woman. Ringo replies “So?” as he reaches down and pulls her onto his wagon. He has moved beyond vengeance and he will, in relationship with this woman, build a new life.
We take this defiance of the system by the individual so for granted that we hardly notice it in movies where it is routine, as we see, for example, in Stephen Soderbergh’s well received 2011 medical thriller disaster movie, Contagion. The movie follows the global spread of a highly contagious and deadly virus, the breakdown of social order, and the battle by medical scientists at the Centers for Disease Control to develop a vaccine. The scientists cannot begin their work on a vaccine until they can find a culture in which to grow the virus in the laboratory. A scientist played by Elliot Gould thinks he can do it, but, since he is in a remote laboratory that does not have the highest level of isolation to prevent the spread of the disease, he is ordered to stop all work and destroy his samples. He defies the orders, finds a culture, and communicates his findings to the CDC, thus helping to save the world. And we find many examples of Gould’s scientist in real world medicine, including Ignaz Semmelweis, Kate Campbell, Frances Oldham Kelsey, and Barry Marshall, all of whose stories you can find on Wikipedia
We also see the theme of the individual as moral actor in America’s favorite novel, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck believes that he will burn in hell for the sin of helping Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, escape. Miss Watson never did anything to harm Huck, although she had been given the job of “silizing” (civilizing) him. And he had heard the preacher speak against the sin of stealing a slave. But Huck finally says he does not care, he cannot help himself. He will assist Jim not only to escape, but also to steal his wife and child. “‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’… It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said.” Of course we know that Huck is acting nobly out of his inner sense of morality, a truer guide than society’s rules.
We see close rendition of the Percival story in the classic 1984 baseball movie, The Natural, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert Redford. Redford plays Roy Hobbs who has the potential to become the greatest baseball player ever, but is seduced and shot by an evil woman, and takes years to recover. He finally joins a corrupt losing team that is in the wasteland, comes full circle into a proper relationship with a woman from his past who, unknown to him is the mother of his son, and leads the team to victory. In the final scene he is playing catch with his son in a field as his father had done with him.
Raymond Chandler, in “The Simple Art of Murder,” writes, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” And then a thousand movies, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, Dirty Harry, The Bourne Identity, Salt, in which the protagonist acts with integrity out of inner authenticity, brings down a corrupt world, and, for a time, sets things right.
Note that this is a Western vision. In the Biblical tradition, the task is to re-hear and obey the word of God. In India, the task is to mold oneself into one’s role. In China the task is to come into harmony with nature and serve the larger cause.
Back to Chronicles of Riddick. The race of Necromongers is moving through the universe, absorbing populations or destroying them. Vin Diesel’s Riddick, one of the few survivors of a fiercely independent warrior-race called the Furyans, is drawn into the fray. He is diverted to a prison on the planet Crematoria to reconnect with and rescue a girl he had abandoned in a previous movie, and, after escaping, he confronts the Purifier, one of the Necromongers sent after him.
“We all began as something else,” the Purifier was saying gently. “All Necromongers begin as something else. Given the choice to live anew or die as we were, most accepted the offer and opportunity. I was confused, unsure, and translated that into eagerness to adapt myself. I’ve done unbelievable things in the name of a faith that wasn’t my own. The ability of the individual human being to adjust morality and beliefs to changing circumstances is depressingly common…. My alternative was to bend to the Necromonger way, or to die.” (From the novelization of the movie by Alan Dean Foster.)
Despite being a Furyan, the Purifier had not been strong enough to hold his own values and resist the Necromongers. How many of us make the decision not to resist in innumerable ways, large and small? The Purifier then steps out into the intense light of Crematoria’s twin suns:
Flames, small at first, then curling larger, began to erupt from his head, his arms, and all other exposed skin. As he walked, he talked, conversing with himself as he had been and as he was now. The last words Riddick heard him speak were, “If only I could still feel the pain…” Then he crumbled to his knees, and the flames and sunshine consumed him utterly: by his own hand, the Purifier had been purified. Riddick watched him burn until white bone began to show.” (Again from Foster’s novelization.)
Turing away from the easy decision to join the herd requires giving up a comfortable life the herd promises. Shamanism teaches us to burn away the flesh, leaving only purified white bones. We have already died, so we no longer fear death and we can be reborn. The Purifier is reborn into Riddick who will stop an unstoppable evil and bring balance back to the universe. The victory against the hive in Riddick is not unlike that in the final episode of the television series, Star Trek: Voyager, in which a parallel captain Kathryn Janeway dies killing the Borg Queen, who had absorbed all she encountered into her Borg collective.
In the culture of the Old Testament where Job submits, in Greece where Prometheus is bound to a rock, in India where Arjuna performs according to his role, in China where Monkey is caged, one is discouraged from, even executed for acting out of one’s inner moral sense. Today for us that inner moral sense provides the theme of just about every science fiction and police drama, in which the hero bucks bureaucratic authority to set the world right.
At the end of the 1982 movie, Conan the Barbarian, Conan, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, another muscled actor, slays the leader of the serpent cult and his giant serpent. We read in Joseph Campbell’s Flight of the Wild Gander about the movement of our culture from one defined, bounded, and secured by tradition, to one that is free: “Within the time of our lives, it is highly improbable that any solid rock will be found to which Prometheus can again be durably shackled…. The creative researches and wonderful daring of our scientists today partake far more of the lion spirit of shamanism than of the piety of priest and peasant. They have shed all fear of the bounding serpent king.”