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Pitch Black: Survival and sacrifice

Last night on the Sci-Fi Channel, I caught a showing of Pitch Black, a 2000 sci-fi flick about a group of passengers on a transport who crash land on a desert planet infested with flesh-eating pterodactyl-like creatures that come out in the darkness. I must have seen this movie at least half a dozen times (admittedly, mostly the edited version they show on television, heh). I’m with those who think it’s a pretty descent film as far as science fiction films go (and I have hard time thinking of another planet-rise as amazing as the one in this film), but I think what draws me back has more to do with Riddick (Vin Diesel) and his story.

Riddick cuts a ruthless figure. When we first see him, he’s a convict bound in chains, like a buffed out Hannibal Lector. For Riddick, it is all about survival—his own. He kills without remorse* and walks through the film with a confidence that borders arrogance (except that his self-assuredness in his superiority is unquestionably justified in most cases, heh). If Riddick cares about anything or anyone else, he does so grudgingly. He really wants to be all about himself, but perhaps here’s the draw: he can’t.

Hats off to the folks at Hollywood Jesus who explore a tremendous amount of the religious and Christ-figure themes and symbolism associated Riddick in this film—and whatever I add here I fully acknowledge builds on their insights.

Like some of those at Hollywood Jesus, I too think there’s something to Riddick as a messianic figure. This film’s imagery and themes foreshadow what we discover about him in Chronicles of Riddick—that he’s the prophesized Furian who is destined to deliver the universe from evil and save us all.

But the Christ-like imagery in this film—particularly the crucifixion-like poses in which we find Riddick more than once—makes me think (as it does some of those folks at Hollywood Jesus) more in lines of Jesus words about taking up our own cross and dying to self in order to really live.

For Riddick, the struggle is one between survival instinct and self-sacrifice. While Riddick seems to adhere to his survival goal, throughout the film he makes choices to help others at risk to himself—but only in so far as he’s fairly sure he’ll survive and, in some cases, where their survival would help his own. (Caution: major spoilers ahead.) But this struggle comes to crux at the end of the film, when he taunts the group’s pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) with the temptation to save herself by leaving the only other survivors behind. No one would blame her, he says: It’s “survival instinct.” When she refuses—and goes as far to say that she would die for the others—Riddick not only finds it “interesting,” but it also gives him pause. And he makes another decision to put the interests of others ahead of his own—but this time, it’s at great risk to himself.

And for all the messianic imagery surrounding Riddick, ultimately it’s not Riddick who dies for the others but someone else who dies for Riddick—someone who has been transformed herself by the time she’s spent on the planet with the others. Some of the folks at Hollywood Jesus point out that we see this most notably in how Fry regards the people she crash-landed with. Initially, she regarded them as little more than cargo—that she actually tried to jettison in order to save the transport and her own life as she struggled to land the ship in the beginning of the film. During her time on that planet, however, Fry confronted her own darkness and “survival instinct” and chose to risk her life for the others in the group. But she dies specifically for Riddick.

And her willingness to risk her life and ultimately die to help him hits Riddick’s at his core. “Not for me,” he says into the darkness. “Not for me!” But we don’t get to choose whether or not someone sacrifices for us. And, when the depth of someone’s choice to sacrifice hits home, we are invited to change the way we think about ourselves and others. We are invited to “repent”—or as Mark Scandrette puts it in Soul Graffiti, we are invited to “call into question our previous ways and awaken . . . to new possibilities.” We are invited to change the way we think and embrace of a new way of thinking which will direct our actions. And, if we do, that will change who we are.

Interestingly, at the end of the film, when one of two other survivors asks him what they should say if anyone asks what happened to Riddick, he tells her: “Tell ‘em Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.” And, in some ways, he did. As those at Hollywood Jesus have already noted, Riddick goes through a rebirth in this film. He’s learning to love (i.e., put the best interests of others above his own interests) and "rejoining the human race" (as one character puts it)—and Fry’s own transformation and choices played a big role in that.

How deep do those changes go? Heh, Riddick is a work in progress—as are we all—but it’s interesting to note that when we next come across Riddick (in Chronicles of Riddick), he has spent the previous five years on a frozen and miserable-excuse-for-a world with the intent of staying away from the other two survivors of Pitch Black in order to protect them.

I can’t help but think of how all this invites us to consider our own lives. How do we struggle with survival instinct and self-sacrifice? Why do we have a hard time when someone else sacrifices for us? What happens to us when we witness sacrifice on our own behalf? What do we do with all that? And how does Fry’s sacrifice and Riddick’s responses help us understand our own reaction—and the reactions of others—to Jesus’ sacrifice (whose sacrifice not only invites and enables us to change but also brings real life)? And what do we do with that?

This film isn’t for everyone—it’s rated R for its violence, language, gore and adult situations. Take that rating seriously. But, like those at Hollywood Jesus, when I consider Riddick’s story and struggles, I find some interesting and thought provoking themes that bring God-talk into open spaces.

*Update: Caution, spoilers. In retrospect, I don't think I remember Riddick directly killing anyone in this film. In fact, there's even insinuation that the murder conviction against him was trumped up. (He does, however, intentionally set up one of the character's death in this film.) But when it comes to death, throughout most of the film, Riddick is unfazed (though a couple of times he does seem somewhat disturbed), approaching death like a curious or a unaffected observer. He literally stares it in the face, most of the time without fear. When Fry's death comes at the end of the film, however, he's visibly shaken--which I think goes to support a change within him by the end of the film (as small, heh, as one might think that change may be).

(Images: USA Films/Universal, via YouTube)