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What I Like About Serenity

For starters, it’s got space cowboys . . . in space! Joss Whedon (though not the first to play with the general idea) has taken elements of the quintessential American film genre, the Western, and teleported them into a compelling futuristic science fiction setting. The main character is even a ex-veteran, a Confederate war hero who now makes a living on the fringes of frontier society (and the law). There are six-shooters, rugged, dusty exteriors, seedy interiors, and the dialogue is a bizarre hybrid of folksy eccentricity and technobabble with a liberal dusting of Chinese profanity that somehow just works. The central theme is one of individualism and self-determination over centralized control, even if it is benevolent. The result, whatever else it may be, is a beautiful marriage of an exciting version of the past and a grim vision of the distant future.

Now, second, I know I just said the central theme is self-determination, and that’s more or less true, but a major part of that isn’t just political, it’s spiritual. I say “spiritual” rather than “religious” because the subject is dealt with in very vague terms in the movie. As one would expect from a civilization that speaks both English and Chinese, the primary religious influences are Christianity and Buddhism, or various blends of the two. Shepherd Book, the Christian-esque influence, says things like, “When I talk about belief, why do you always assume that I’m talking about belief in God?” and “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it.”

Now, this may sound somewhat milquetoast in one sense, but belief is treated very seriously in Serenity. The heroes are relentlessly pursued by a sinister character known only as The Operative, who is universally described as a fanatic. He cannot be bribed, dissuaded, or discouraged from his goal because he is a true believer in the absolute virtue of his cause. Unfortunately for him, and everyone else, that belief happens to be unfounded. However, what we ultimately see is that the only answer to that sort of staunch fanaticism is an equally powerful commitment to the truth. Only when the characters discover the truth and decide to put everything on the line in its service do they manage to save themselves (and the day).

This plays out primarily through the character of Malcolm Reynolds, whose cynical pragmatism has served as a contrast to The Operatives unshakable faith, but who now reconnects with the believer he obviously used to be when he is reminded of the importance of belief in a cause greater than himself. His movement from someone who is motivated primarily by self-preservation because he has been burned by belief (“War’s long done. We’re all just folk now.”) to a reconnection with his broken idealism is the primary character arc in Serenity. It is as reminiscent of Rick Blaine’s transformation in Casablanca as it is of the character’s more obvious relation to Han Solo of Star Wars.

All of this leads back into the question of self-determination when it turns out that the Alliance’s efforts to forcibly create what The Operative longingly describes as “a world without sin” have had precisely the opposite result. Again, it is not the ideal or its pursuit that are called into question here so much as the means of achieving it (and perhaps even whether it can be achieved). In this case, the end does not justify the means precisely because the means the Alliance employs will never lead to the desired end. River Tam, who is a sort of parallel to The Operative, is the one character who has been denied the opportunity to choose her own way.

When Mal says, “You all got on this boat for different reasons” to his passengers and crew near the end of the film, River is the glaring exception that proves the rule. Not only does she not make any decisions for herself, she has no foundation on which to base even the simplest rational thought processes. All of that has been removed from her by the Alliance. In this sense, her struggle is the most heroic of all, because she is fighting against her own internal programming. She faces the same challenges as all of the other characters, but she has her own will to overcome on top of everything else. Significantly though, what she accomplishes (and she is, of course, the key to everything the heroes manage to do) is done in spite of the Alliances attempts to mold and shape her character, rather than because of them.

Third, as I’ve already hinted at, Serenity is very character-driven, and they are great, great characters. All of them are different, but there isn’t one I don’t like, from dim, surly meat-shield Jayne and gifted pilot Wash (the self-described “plucky comic relief”) to the always-cheerful mechanic, Kaylee, and stone-cold, whip-smart Zoe (second-in-command to Mal and married to Wash). These characters are easy to fall in love with, and fun to visit and revisit innumerable times. This is as good a point as any to note that Serenity is the continuation (and conclusion) of tragically short-lived television series “Firefly.” I saw the movie before I watched the series, and enjoyed it immensely as a stand-alone story. I have since gone back and watched the show, and I enjoy the movie even more on that level. That’s no small accomplishment.

There’s a lot to be said (and I’ve said it) for deeply cerebral science fiction like Gattaca and Sunshine, but some part of me can’t get enough of the flashy, effects-laden sci-fi that Serenity, like the original Star Wars movies, does so well (and most others of its type attempt so poorly). I wish there were more of it, but until there is, this is one movie I’ll be returning to again and again and again. I could go on, but in the end, it all comes down to that visceral and all-too-rare level of enjoyment. The rest is just gravy.

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~ by Jared on September 21, 2008.

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