Best of Bad Movies, Good Ideas

All natural institutions of churches…appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

-Thomas Paine

Given the current volatile division in America between the faithful and the faithless, a social critic has got to have cast-iron…uh…resolve to tackle the religion juggernaut.

A preponderance of Amer’cans take faith very seriously. Think about it: Only the purportedly devout ascend to high political offices. A hefty percentage of the population would legislate traditionalist morality if it could. And, as some outsiders (i.e., the rest of the Western world) see it, the U.S. of A. constitutes the world’s largest fundamentalist nation.

None of this should come as any surprise-America’s per-capita churchgoing population is almost five times that of England and almost four times that of France.

For better or worse, numbers suggest that ours is, indeed, a nation under God.

In 2004, valiant writer/director David Twohey fashioned a sort of symbolic cinematic expos of organized religion. His film, “The Chronicles of Riddick,” figuratively lifts the veil from evasive American eyes, delineating the Church entity not as intrinsically righteous and divine, but as manifestly Machiavellian, elitist, hypocritical and imperialistic.

The film “chronicles” Richard B. Riddick’s (played by Vin Diesel) intergalactic quest to avoid mercenaries, save an errant female friend and overthrow the omnipresent Necromongers, a magisterial cult seeking to convert the universe.

The Necromonger moniker refers to a religion, a culture and a governmental structure-not a race. The Necros travel from planet to planet, absorbing resources, forcibly converting populations and slaughtering dissenters, a la the forced conversions of the historical Catholic Crusades and Spanish Inquisition. This “Divine-Might-Makes-Right” mentality echoes vintage Machiavellian thinking. “Adherents” assent only as a result of coercion or bribery, not bona fide belief; certain death proves potent leverage for conversion.

In the religious realm, nothing is reprobate. The ends always justify the means.

Beyond the artificiality of the converts’ faith, the Necromonger name itself implies an inherent insincerity of belief. It translates to “death seller,” indicating that the Necros have reduced religion to mere commodity, which is disseminated to expand the Necromonger Empire and garner more wealth for it. Thus this “religion” implicitly cares only about boosting its devotee numbers and amassing intergalactic capital.

Sounds eerily familiar…

Like certain real-world proselytizing religions, the Necros promise ecstasy and salvation, but welsh on the deal in temporal life.

It’ s all right, though.

Heaven recompenses all mundane suffering, and fortunately for the Necros, out of all religions, faiths and cults, only the Necromongers reach Underverse (heaven). I can’t think of a single Western religion that doesn’t tout itself as the One True Faith-a blatant assertion of superiority and salient evidence of elitism.

In Necromonger society, the Church is the State. The Necro autocrat declares himself a living prophet (in the vein of a certain proximate religion) and governs pitilessly. Omnipotent, superhuman and corrupt, he claims to be God’s mouthpiece. Just as Thomas More was killed for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England, those who refuse to bow to the leader are slain.

But there is hope, and his name is Riddick.

Superhuman in strength and cunning, Riddick represents the ubiquitous, prophesied messiah-figure. But Riddick is by no means a good guy. He’s a criminal: mostly heartless, quick to murder and on the lam for most of the film.

Perhaps this represents the dubiety of organized religion: It’s never pristine. Churches often exempt themselves from their own doctrines. For example, the Sixth Commandment forbids murder, yet most big Judeo-Christian-Muslim sects have always found ways to justify killing.

Light typically represents holiness, righteousness, piety, knowledge and justice-even when these concepts are belied by action. Riddick’s eyes are hypersensitive to light, hence his swanky goggles.

Perhaps Riddick is also sensitive to the hypocrisy of religious ideals, in that what is often touted as pious or righteous, or just holy, is nothing of the sort. There’s a defense for everything, and Riddick’s discernment transcends superficiality. He recognizes that sometimes what is considered right (illuminated) belongs in the same classification as the dark, which traditionally symbolizes baseness and corruption.

Darkness can sometimes be obscured by light and vice versa. Riddick’s eyes, in other words, enable him to detect the truth.

Religions’ need to force submission on the masses and violently assert superiority through murder, bribery and blackmail reflects a deep-seated insecurity. Perhaps adherents are so unsure of their beliefs’ verity that it is only through convincing others that their faith is best that they validate themselves and, more importantly, their faith.

What’s the easiest way to combat uncertainty? Twohey indicates that humans tend to surround themselves with like-minded, or at least equally worried, believers.

With boundless numbers comes boundless strength.

This has been Ben Zalkind reminding you that bad movies make you think.