NOTE: Pitch Black is an R-rated film, and as such, language fitting to that format will crop up periodically in this article for quotation purposes. Also, SPOILERS for EVERYTHING more than likely, so fair warning!
They say most of your brain shuts down in cryo-sleep. All but the primitive side, the animal side. No wonder I’m still awake.
Riddick’s story does not start with Butcher Bay. No, Richard B. Riddick comes out of a harrowing massacre. As a Furyan, his home world was destroyed by a race of fundamentalist fanatics known as the Necromongers. Serve and live to see the mystical Underverse which welcomes living beings unlike the harsh world in which people live; resist or reject the Necromonger ways, and find your soul sent to somewhere less than pleasant. The Lord Marshall, ruler and commander of the Necromongers, sees in a vision that he will meet his end at the hands of a Furyan child, and so do the Necromongers come to Furya. To call it a massacre puts it lightly; genocide seems a better fit. They killed everyone: men, women, children, and even the unborn. They wrap the baby’s umbilical cord around their necks and choke them to death, just in case.
Hey, I never said Riddick wasn’t a dark universe.
Riddick doesn’t know this, though, in the original film Pitch Black. Like any orphan raised on “the streets”, so to speak, he merely believes his mother tried to kill him and left him in a trash can to die. With that sort of context for your life, could you be surprised that he turned out as a mercenary, a criminal, and a murderer? Whatever the actual events that surrounded his birth, he chose to repress or forget them entirely. He knew the universe, and it wasn’t a place hospitable to him. He grew up in the penal system, and he only knows the language of violence, both through words and actions. It also didn’t hurt that Furyans retain their distinct predilection for combat and precise outbursts of coercive force; Riddick just prefers knives.
And this might sound strange, given the above, but Riddick’s not a murderer in the traditional sense. He fits more into the role of a “survivalist”, simply a pragmatic person who puts his own life above all else. If he needs to kill, then he will kill; if he needs to leave someone to die, he will. This task or that task remains a means to an end, a reinforcement of his “animal” nature. He frequently describes himself in these terms, and even refers to other prisoners as “meat” (as well as displaying a clear kinship with animal predators). Clearly, he’s either insane or there’s something else lying below the surface.
In Pitch Black, for example, he makes every attempt to manipulate every one of the survivors on the planet; after all, there’s no use in picking up baggage. Who would care whether these people live or die, especially the bounty hunter Johns? Riddick’s worth a lot of money, so why not kill everyone and leave no witnesses? Riddick surely should do this. However, his prison life teaches him that he must forge a balance between trust and distrust, pitting people against one another to remove his enemies by keeping them close. He waits for the right moment, sets his plans, and then strikes. He treats them as toys and playthings, screwing with their perceptions of things and demonstrating his quick wit in evaluating situations. He even blasphemes their religious beliefs, as in the case of the Muslim Imam. Imam offers to pray with Riddick for their continued survival, and he obviously refuses.
Imam: Because you do not believe in God does not mean God does not believe in you.
Riddick: Think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? Think he could start out in some liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe? Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God… And I absolutely hate the fucker.
For all his deception and deceit, Riddick conceals his emotions and his own scars. He cannot let others see, because no one would give him the time of day. After all, first impressions often work, so why not in the case of a hardened criminal? If we had to note a single moral concern of his, it would lie in children. He does not want them subjected to the same fate as himself, and does everything in his power to prevent it from happening. Still, when a child idolizes a murderer (as in Jack’s case), could he ever hope to avoid them becoming like him?
This “animal” nature frequently causes him to evaluate himself as rather worthless in the grand scheme of Riddick’s universe. As an abandoned child and a murderer, there’s no particular reason why he should continue to thrive and survive. Yet, he does. Through all films and all media, Riddick gets to know people, see them die, and then survive anyways. It doesn’t matter what he does, or how he tries to protect them: they all fail. He tries to sacrifice himself to save others, but literally cannot. The universe of Riddick demands that he become its savior and its hero, yet he refuses this time and time again. He isn’t worthy of the task, nor could we hold him as a paragon of virtue. He doesn’t inspire; he kills. Evil in Riddick’s universe must be defeated by a different kind of evil. Simone Weil somehow holds a similar view in the conflict against evil forces in her essay “Human Personality”:
When harm is done to a man, real evil enters him; not merely pain and suffering, but the actual horror of evil. Just as men have the power of transmitting good to one another, so they have the power to transmit evil. One may transmit evil to a human being by flattering him or giving him comforts and pleasure; but most often men transmit evil to other men by doing them harm.
Nevertheless, eternal wisdom does not abandon the soul entirely to the mercy of chance and men’s caprice. The harm inflicted on a man by a wound from outside sharpens his thirst for the good and thus there automatically arises the possibility of a cure. If the wound is deep, the thirst is for good in its purest form. The part of the soul which cries ‘Why am I being hurt?’ is on the deepest level and even in the most corrupt of men it remains from earliest infancy perfectly intact and totally innocent.
Egregious acts of supernatural good are the only way to awaken this sense of the good in the most corrupt of men – even in a tiny amount. When Jesus tells us of self-sacrifice, both for us and for His own, we’re not surprised that this would awaken a sense of the good:
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
In Pitch Black, we see Riddick confused and utterly baffled by Fry’s insistence that they save Jack and Imam from the creatures. Riddick, in his usual way, wants to leave them behind; the fact that she made it to the ship shows her survival instinct. Yet she insists that this isn’t the case; she came to him, criminal, to save the others. If I am interpreting this right, Riddick has never heard of such notions of self-sacrifice. She, in fact, becomes so dedicated to saving two straggler that she assaults Riddick in her desperation to save them.
Riddick: [Fry is fighting with Riddick, who wants to leave Jack and Imam behind] Would die for them?
Fry: I would try for them!
Riddick: You didn’t answer me.
Fry: Yes, Riddick. I would. I would die for them.
Riddick: [pulling off goggles] How interesting.
And you might say “Riddick merely sees this as a violent challenge”. But why else would he bother to go back? He could, again, kill her and leave them to their fates, but something changes. If only to observe this notion of “self-sacrifice”, Riddick goes to save them both. What happens to Fry in return? She is killed trying to save Riddick. Take this in line with Riddick’s low view of himself, and his words “Not for me!”, and you can see how strange this redemption story becomes. She does not give up on him. A single person doesn’t. And by saving other people, he inspires that same hope in others.
Later, in Pitch Black’s sequel, we see the consequences of saving these two people come to fruition, in both good and (mostly) bad ways. Riddick, previously the lone wolf, now finds himself attached to the people he saved. He can’t just let them die and leave Fry’s sacrifice in vain. What a strange turnaround! Of course, it’s fairly short-lived given the events in The Chronicles of Riddick, but it does say something. Even the worst human beings (and aliens who may as well be humans if they’re written that way) can redeem themselves in even the slightest of fashions. He is continually underestimated and judged from the outset by everyone, only to surprise them on a number of levels. That’s what makes Riddick so compelling as a character – at least to me.
Vin Diesel also reflects this in the interviews he’s given to multiple sources:
I enjoy playing a quintessential antihero. When I first read the Riddick character, I felt like I’d stumbled on an antihero I hadn’t seen to the point where there’s something therapeutic about playing the character. I know it sounds corny, but I feel like I learn about myself when I play that character. Going to that dark, isolated place produces some kind of vision about myself. He mirrors my own quest for identity, my eternal quest as a child. [Director] David Twohy asked me what I thought a Furyan was and depending on what day you asked, I would give a different answer.
An actor places himself into the role, and I think what he said above communicates well through the character. Pitch Black rocketed Vin Diesel to stardom even as a cult hit. The second film did poorly, but Vin Diesel waived a fee for a cameo in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift in order to regain rights back to the character. Then, he leveraged his house against the newest film in the series when bond problem forced him to invest part of his personal fortune into the project. Clearly, Riddick remains near and dear to the heart of the actor who plays him.
Can the anti-hero become the hero? That’s the question, I suppose, when we evaluate the Riddick series. Ultimately, it is a story steeped in a variety of different sources with varying degrees of moral questioning, but all pointing towards the enigma of this violent, sometimes strangely altruistic, character who seems both familiar and surprising. Butcher Bay fits within the context of a larger story, one that demonstrates his penchant for conflict and the results of his “training”. We need the rest to see the meaning of this individual part. The same thing works in Biblical hermeneutics, and the process looks no different here.
So if you hadn’t guessed, there’s reason both within and outside the game that make Riddick special for me. Whether or not you want to dismiss Vin Diesel as a stupid meathead playing a science fiction meathead is alright with me. Cynicism and pre-judgment, though, never worked for Jesus either. Depth exists everywhere if you look, search, and plumb the depths.