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Monday 3 October 2005

Doing Something Right: A Review of Serenity

Review by Gary Westfahl

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau

On the opening night of the recent War of the Worlds, the theatre was almost packed; on the opening night of Serenity, the crowd was considerably sparser. But I suspect that this film is going to stay at that theatre a lot longer than War of the Worlds did, and if there's any justice in the world, it will make a heck of lot more money.

It is a film, to be sure, that will appeal to two distinctly different audiences. For fans of the television series that it recreates, Firefly, its big-screen reincarnation will represent a heartening validation of their devotion to the series, a welcome opportunity to observe old friends going through familiar routines, a viewing experience to wallow in and cherish. Such fans, however, would have been satisfied by a mediocre exercise meeting the minimum requirements — the return of all the original cast members and the reappearance of all the original sets — just as Star Trek fans were satisfied (if not exactly thrilled) by the ponderous pageantry of Star Trek: The Motion Picture even as the film bored and alienated newcomers to the Star Trek experience. Surprisingly, writer/director Joss Whedon has managed to craft a film that is equally appealing to persons like myself who never watched Firefly and knew almost nothing about the series (which is why, by the way, persons interested in finding out how the film fulfills, comments on, departs from, or expands upon the original series will need to consult other reviewers for such insights). Indeed, Whedon begins the film by explicitly addressing the newcomers with a brisk infodump about its setting — a future solar system filled with dozens of terraformed planets — and a tour of the spaceship Serenity that introduces crew members Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillon), Zoe (Gina Torres), "Wash" (Alan Tudyk), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), Simon (Sean Maher), and River (Summer Glau) before they embark upon a series of missions increasingly focused on their opposition to the sinister Alliance that dominates their universe.

Serenity somehow contrives to be an engaging, even exhilarating film even though, upon sober examination, it is guilty of many of the flaws so conspicuously observed in other contemporary big-budget science fiction films, such as clichéd scenarios (again and again, the fate of the universe hinges upon which person wins a fistfight), contrived chase sequences and battle scenes that uncomfortably recall video games (Serenity is chased by an ominously larger spacecraft across the surface of a planet), and preposterously illogical plotting (an advanced civilization decides to perform its first test of a new drug on a planet of 30 million people in order to learn about its utterly disastrous effects). Still, instead of offering a detailed exegesis of the film's numerous deficiencies in these areas, I am inclined to give Whedon a free pass and confine myself to singing his praises.

Why? Well, one might simply refer to one line in the film: "If you can't do something smart, do something right." Perhaps Whedon can't do smart science fiction, with fresh, imaginative storylines backed by impeccably developed logic, but he certainly can do science fiction right, with consummate craftsmanship visible in all aspects of the film. But Serenity is also much more than an exercise to its creator, as suggested by what Mal tells River is the "first rule" of being a pilot — "love." If a pilot loves his craft, he says, that "love keeps her in the air when she oughtta fall down." Manifestly, Joss Whedon loves Serenity — loves its universe, loves its people, loves its ambience. Manifestly, this movie emerged from an individual's love for the material, and not the calculations of a team of accountants regarding what elements were needed to generate the maximum amount of profit from an investment in filmmaking. And this raw, naked love, oozing out of the pores of every scene, simply overpowers the would-be critic. Sure, you've seen this character — a tough guy repeatedly announcing that he's only looking out for number one while desperately struggling to conceal his heart of gold — dozens of times before; sure, you've seen this situation — a band of feisty rebels battling against a repressive space empire — dozens of times before. But Joss Whedon loves his characters and he loves their cause, and he's working overtime in every single frame to do everything in his power to make you love them too, and he's so dedicated to that goal and so darn good at what he does that he ultimately silences all rational objections and entraps his audiences in a film that soars when it oughtta fall down.

Whedon also wins a critic over because he cares about words as much as he cares about visually stimulating action sequences. Unlike other sci-fi shoot-em-ups, Serenity is distinguished by a well-written script full of memorable lines, and one hastily scribbled statement — "Half of writing history is hiding the truth" — has already been added to my database in case I am ever asked to edit a second, expanded edition of Science Fiction Quotations. Pondering what sort of line should conclude his film, the talented Whedon came up with several wonderful possibilities; and while he might be faulted for using every single one of them, one after another, he at least had the wisdom to actually close with the most irreverent one. And he even works some literary references into his script — most conspicuously, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" — to give critics something to do when they get around to analyzing his film in the scholarly journals.

Furthermore, while expertly playing to undemanding viewers who only want to go on a spectacular thrill ride, Whedon also seeks to give his audiences something to think about, and this should be duly appreciated, even if the issues involved may seem profound only in comparison to what passes for issues in other contemporary big-budget science fiction films. One conspicuous theme is that knowledge is power: the last part of Serenity involves the crew's frenetic race to disseminate some key information that, they know, will crucially weaken their opponents — a development that may remind science fiction readers of John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider and may remind science fiction filmgoers of Johnny Mnemonic (as already intimated, there is a lot in this film that you've seen before). Rather naively, such works assert that if you simply reveal the right sort of data to all the people, then that alone can bring an empire down, no matter how much firepower it possesses. The irony, of course, is that the crew of Serenity must constantly use every weapon at their disposal — guns, grenades, fisticuffs — in order to get that data out, but the point is nonetheless made that, without getting that data out, they would have lost their battle to opponents with a vastly superior arsenal.

Perhaps paradoxically, however, the film simultaneously asserts that certain sorts of knowledge should never be employed — specifically, knowledge that might be used to "improve" the nature of humanity. The problem with the evil Alliance, Mal explains, is that they think "they can make people better," and Mal disagrees: "I don't hold to that. I aim to misbehave." Of course, when the only evidence on hand of efforts to improve humanity is a drug that turns some people into inert statues and others into crazed cannibals, the film's deck is pretty much stacked against human-transforming technology, and one might also protest that "making people better" could be said to include putting them in spaceships and giving them terraformed worlds to live on, which nobody in the crew of Serenity seems to object to. But after all, science fiction films that overtly or covertly oppose scientific advancement are hardly a novelty and, in fact, include in their numbers many of the genre's most cherished masterpieces. To underline his point, Whedon names one important world Miranda to recall William Shakespeare's The Tempest, the story of a powerful magician who ultimately resolves to stop using his amazing powers, which is exactly what the film argues the Alliance should do.

Serenity is also a parable about abandoning spontaneity and learning how to plan and to be responsible. In two separate scenes early in the film, the key problem with River, and the key problem with Mal, is said to be their unpredictability. Characters repeatedly remark that they don't have a plan. The root cause for this aimlessness in Mal's life might be what Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) identifies as his unwillingness or inability to believe in anything; he tells him, "I don't care what you believe. Just believe." In contrast, his implacable but idealistic opponent, known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seems more powerful because, as he grandly announces, "I believe in something greater than myself." Ultimately, however, Mal is so repulsed by the Alliance's misdeeds that he openly announces he is now willing to act against them purely as a matter of principle, not profit, and that phrase "aim to misbehave" conveys a newfound sense of purpose in his life. Now inspired by something to believe in, he and his crew begin to make and execute effective plans to achieve definite goals, and in a concluding scene, as River takes the helm of Serenity, she says of becoming its new pilot that "That's the plan." (Still, the film's final line indicates that there will always be an element of the unexpected in the lives of the Serenity crew.)

To a science fiction critic, one natural approach to Serenity would be to sort out its various predecessors and their influence. True, pitching the film to a potential backer interested only in the bottom line, Whedon might have simply said, "It's Star Trek meets Star Wars!" That is, one begins with the basic premise of a spaceship crew traveling through space on various missions, and then heightens the drama by removing the benign Federation of Planets as a backdrop and replacing it with an evil Empire (and, as if sensitive to the charge of borrowing from George Lucas, Whedon does have the Operative say of the Alliance that it is "not some evil empire" — but audiences know better), Still, both Star Trek and Star Wars convey a fundamental sort of optimism about humanity's future that Serenity refuses to embrace, though it never descends to the ragged pessimism of the British series Blakes 7, another visible ancestor to Whedon's series and film. And the term Alliance may suggest some familiarity with the novels of C.J. Cherryh, also filled with cynical survivors in a generally oppressive galaxy who look out for number one while occasionally betraying their underlying altruism.

There is also a brief and puzzling visual reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey — a dream sequence in which an image of River is aligned with the Earth and the Moon, recalling the celestial alignments that began and ended Stanley Kubrick's film — which only serves to remind viewers of how Whedon's vision differs from many of his predecessors. Unlike 2001, Serenity takes place in a universe that was carefully constructed to exclude aliens and to exclude robots or advanced computer intelligences. Now, however much these tropes may be misused as pretexts for mindless entertainment (as in, for example, Predator or the film I, Robot), aliens and robots, as alternatives to humanity and as potential replacements for humanity, can also serve to raise intriguing questions about the nature of humanity and its eventual destiny (as in, for example, The Man Who Fell to Earth or Blade Runner). Joss Whedon doesn't want to deal with such questions. He likes humanity just as it is; he doesn't want humans to be changed, and he doesn't want humans to be replaced. Asked to envision an alternative to humanity, he is horrified, and he resultingly creates horrors: the cannibalistic Reavers, his story's weakest element, who are little more than replicants of the zombies in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and countless imitators. And, since Whedon is so visibly disinclined to engage in certain lines of speculation that are characteristic of science fiction, I tend to believe that, despite the undeniably triumphant skill on display in Serenity, science fiction is not really Whedon's forte. With this culminating film, he may have said all that he can say through the medium of this universe, so that film sequels or a return to series television, while still reflecting his considerable talents, would be sterile and repetitive. Instead of getting back on board Serenity, in other words, Whedon would be better advised to launch an entirely different kind of vehicle.

According to the Hollywood mindset, of course, when a filmmaker has a big hit, making one or more sequels is the only proper way for the filmmaker to behave. Yet, as Serenity and his other works indicate, the secret of Joss Whedon's success has never been his ability to adhere to the Hollywood mindset. Thus, if he wisely rejects calls to make a sequel to Serenity despite its probable success, Whedon will again demonstrate that he, like his characters, aims to misbehave.

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.