Who are the villains? That’s always a key question in Hollywood’s grasp of the Zeitgeist. Are they Nazis? Communists? Overzealous anti-Communists? Greedy capitalists? War-mongering military nuts? Unfriendly aliens? Heartless humans who mistreat friendly aliens? Terrorists are always suitable, so long as it is clear that they are “splinter factions” of the IRA, the PLO, or some other group of legitimate freedom fighters.
The Chronicles of Riddick, a sci-fi flick currently at the megaplex, has a new villain in mind. The bad guys are a ferociously expanding join-us-or-die armada of killers called Necromongers. Having landed on planet Helion, noisily and with enough nastiness to win a seat on the U.N. Council on Human Rights, their leader, the Lord Marshal, summons Helion’s functionaries and gives them the sort of choice that Attila and Tamerlane used to offer to any hapless outpost of civilization they ran across.
Here the movie makes its mark. The Lord Marshal explains his noble purpose in incinerating some worlds and enslaving others: He is on a crusade to unite humanity, which has unfortunately divided itself into so many parts. United, he will lead us to the “Underverse”–a mysterious realm that sounds a bit like the footnotes in an old-fashioned edition of Paradise Lost.
No, say the peaceful Helions, we want none of your “unity.” We are a planet devoted to diversity and our highest value is toleration of differences. The speaker of this righteous indignation, of course, quickly goes to his reward in diversiphile heaven, and the movie proceeds as it must to the Lord Marshal and the Necromongers getting their comeuppance from the eponymous hero Riddick.
So much for the story. Sci-fi movies are what they are. This one has Dame Judy Dench playing a plasmic sort of entity, an “elemental,” who keeps dissolving into thin air. And Vin Diesel’s career playing multicultural tough guys gets a nice metaphorical twist. He was just a born “Furion,” and these guys are, you know, righteously angry dudes.
The Chronicles of Riddick may well be the first Hollywood movie in which the ultimate evil in the universe is moved by a vision of common humanity, and the ultimate good consists of people who worship diversity. “Worship” here is not a metaphor: Planet Helion is “the new Mecca,” and the leaders explain that “diversity” is, in fact, “our religion.”
Now I wonder what Justice O’Connor would say about that. A year ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger–the University of Michigan cases–and Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Grutter gave the diversiphiles what they had, until then, lacked. She gave them the Court’s permission to use racial and ethnic diversity as a desideratum in selecting which applicants to admit to college. More broadly, she recognized evidence she found demonstrating that such artificial diversity is intellectually enriching to everybody. And more broadly still, she allowed that the pursuit of diversity is so noble and important that it has blasted its own tunnel right through the heart of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Constitution and Congress both seem to have prohibited race-based admissions quotas, but one job of the Supreme Court is to reconcile fundamental principles when they conflict with each other. In Grutter, O’Connor discovered that our longing for equal treatment before the law regardless of race conflicted with the higher value of diversity, and she decided that the pursuit of diversity, within certain limits, has to prevail.
David Twohy, who directed The Chronicles of Riddick and also wrote the script, may not have studied Justice O’Connor’s opinion for the majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, but he clearly got the basic message. The death-loving, murderous Necromongers are the folks who believe that racial, ethnic, and social differences ought not to matter at all, as long as we are united in common belief about ultimate matters, such as liberty, equality, the rule of law, and the importance of individual striving. This presumably would include people like Samuel Huntington and Ward Connerly. The peace-loving, tolerant Helions who shudder at the very thought of such common values? You can find them in lots of places, but home base is the president’s office on almost any college campus.
Writer/director Twohy has a certain ear for cultural clichés. He did the screenplay for GI Jane, a movie that showed just what kind of grit it takes for a woman to earn her rightful place in the Navy Seals. And he wrote Waterworld (1995), in which, in the soggy aftermath of global warming, the bad guys are “smokers” who sail the high seas in the antiquated Exxon Valdez, still wreaking havoc all those years after its fateful encounter, on March 24, 1989, with Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. Twohy, in short, knows how to get on the sun-lit, politically correct, Helion side of a cultural divide, even if he does have some trouble telling compelling stories or writing believable dialogue.
But what I really want to know is what Justice O’Connor intends to say when the Necromongers arrive, attracted by the cosmic scent of happy diversiphiles. “Our religion is diversity” didn’t stop the soul-stealing half-dead Lord Marshal. In fact, “our religion is diversity” announces a kind of incoherence that the real Necromongers, like al Qaeda, find irresistible.
But I suppose it is too much to wish that Hollywood would have cast Islamofascism as the new enemy. When folks like David Twohy sit down to think about stuff, they find conservatives much more frightening than terrorists. The liberals’ new heart of darkness: the idea that common humanity and our nation’s core traditions matter more than diversity.
–Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.