Space Ghosts

November 2011 Silmarien Szilagyi

The science fiction movie I chose for this month’s article is not quite as sensational as Avatar, but buried beneath Vin Diesel’s rippling muscles and glow-in-the-dark eyes is a good deal of science just waiting to be discussed.

The Chronicles of Riddick is actually the second film in the Riddick Trilogy, but the first movie involved Riddick and others trying to escape a planet with creepy, carnivorous aliens, and the third movie hasn’t been released yet. Plus, part of the fun and actual science of science fiction are introduced when we glimpse different planets—one planet I’m going to cover is Crematoria.

But first, the basics. For those who haven’t seen either Pitch Black (the first film) or The Chronicles of Riddick, Richard B. Riddick is an intergalactic criminal who’s been imprisoned in some of most notorious slammers and escaped them. He’s Furyan, a race of human taken from Earth to the planet Furya, but he’s special; gifted with exceptional resilience and strength, he is known as an Alpha Furyan, which is just a fancy name for a Furyan who possesses an intense animal instinct. This fact allows Riddick to survive situations that would kill others, and it also explains his unusual eyes.

The plot revolves around the Necromongers, a death cult that is determined to convert or kill all humans in the universe to hasten the arrival of the Underverse, a universe parallel to ours (heaven to the nutso Necros). The Necromongers, despite being religious fanatics, are quite technologically advanced—this combination of cult-like devoutness and superior weaponry makes them incredibly dangerous. But I’ll discuss the Necros in more detail towards the end. First, planetary astronomy.

Sunshine. It sustains life on Earth, but on Crematoria, it destroys life. Crematoria is a maximum security prison-planet whose surface is uninhabitable because it experiences violent temperature fluctuations. During the day, anything organic on the surface is incinerated, while at night it freezes, so the prison is underground. Because the planet obviously rotates around its star, there are 20 minutes when the surface conditions are moderate enough to allow travel, but the only mode of escape is 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the prison, and who can run 30 kilometers in 20 minutes? Riddick and his ragtag group of inmates, apparently. A glaring but not astronomical error, pun intended. I’m more interested in the planet itself, which is flawed.

With its close proximity to its star, Crematoria should not have an atmosphere anymore, let alone a breathable one. Let’s examine a similar planet closer to home. Mercury is just a hot rock because it’s far too small and close to the Sun to retain an atmosphere. Crematoria is not a large planet either, so should not have an atmosphere either. It might be able to sustain an unstable exosphere (the uppermost layer of an atmosphere), but it would absolutely not include enough oxygen to make it breathable. Yet Riddick and the inmates can run 30 kilometers in 20 minutes without protective suits.

Another expected result of Crematoria’s nearness to its star is tidal locking, when the gravity of a large astronomical object “locks” the heavier side of a smaller astronomical body to it, causing the smaller object’s rotation and orbit to be of equal duration. Or, more simply put, it takes just as long for the smaller object to rotate around its own axis as to orbit around the larger body, so the same side always faces the larger body. This phenomenon happens with our moon, and it should also occur on Crematoria. But it doesn’t, as evidenced by sunrise and sunset; a tidally locked body does not experience sunrise or sunset.

And if you thought Riddick’s world-building isn’t up to scientific snuff, its villains are even more fantastical. Don’t get me wrong, I can think of a scientific explanation for the Necromongers, but they’re certainly biological oddities. Necromongers are quasi-humans who have been brainwashed by their leader, but they are still mostly human, unlike the Lord Marshal. Now he is something different entirely. Each Lord Marshal visited the Underverse and as a result was rewarded with inhuman powers and longevity; this suite of abilities is called Soulpower and includes separating the soul from the body. As a result, the Lord Marshal is a little like a ghost, so I’ve nicknamed him Space Ghost (yes, after the cartoon). Before I continue, it should be mentioned that all Necros possess a bit of Soulpower, hence their status as quasi-humans, but the Lord Marshal, especially this movie’s Lord Marshal, has it in spades.

There are two main aspects of Soulpower: extending one’s own soul and taking others’ soul—both of which only the Lord Marshal is capable of. He can use his soul as a sort of sixth sense to warn him when someone is sneaking up on him or to anticipate attacks, or as a means of swift travel by extending his soul forward and allowing his body to follow. Now you’re wondering, how is this even scientifically possible? My best answer is that Soulpower is actually a type of energy, like electricity or heat. Who knows what forms of energy other parts of the universe have? Humans on Earth can manipulate energy, albeit mechanically, so who’s to say that the Lord Marshals didn’t acquire a device that grants them Soulpower? Supporting this theory is the Necromongers’ primary weapon, the Ascension Protocol. When the Necros have converted humans, they’ll destroy the planet and anyone left on it with an intense energy burst. Perhaps this is the same type of energy, implemented differently, as Soulpower. This is where the fiction part of science fiction enters; there is a scientific basis (an energy source) that can blossom into something truly fantastical.

The Chronicles of Riddick certainly delivers in action, but its science, especially its planetary astronomy, falls flat. But if we wanted accurate science, we wouldn’t watch most science fiction. To its credit, Riddick created a unique race of villains that can be explained scientifically, albeit with plenty of conjecture. That’s the nature of science fiction, though, so in that respect, Riddick succeeds.