Two Views: Serenity

Reviewed by Mahesh Raj Mohan and Niall Harrison

Serenity: the official visual companion book cover

Serenity Now!: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying About "No Aliens" And Love a Kick-Ass Movie
by Mahesh Raj Mohan

By now, most people have probably become tired of reviews of Serenity that begin with some version of, "I have never watched an episode of Firefly". I sympathize with you. This is another one. I've never watched a minute of Firefly. I am a fan of Joss Whedon's writing, having enjoyed both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but an SF film is a different prospect to a TV show. Cinematic SF has had a checkered history, and I've left movie theaters feeling disappointed more than once. For Serenity I carefully dropped all expectations at the movie theater's entrance.

Whedon had a tough task. His first film has to work as an offshoot of a TV series, tie up some loose ends, but still stand on its own. So does Serenity succeed for someone who hasn't seen Firefly?

Yes.

I believe anyone (okay, any science fiction fan, at least) can watch Serenity and be thoroughly entertained, touched, and even inspired.

The film's "pre-prologue" explains the Serenity universe for newcomers: humanity has left an overcrowded Earth for a far-off solar system, terraforming the planets and moons they find there. The central worlds have formed the Alliance, building their government on a foundation of order, conformity, and the belief that people can be improved. This doesn't sit well with folks who harbor an independent streak--those who settled the solar system's outer worlds. War flares up, and is brutally ended by the Alliance. Skip forward a few years, and Serenity's main plot concerns a willowy seventeen-year old telepath named River Tam (Summer Glau). She is a lab rat for the Alliance, subjected to horrific experiments meant to turn her into an unstoppable psychic killing machine. It's clear that the Alliance likes to make people better by torturing them.

River is called one of the Alliance's "greatest successes," despite the fact that she has also been rendered mentally fragile. Thankfully, she is quickly rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), and they find their way to Serenity. (The story of their arrival on Serenity and some subsequent adventures apparently make up Firefly's first season.) The film's prologue also introduces a nameless Alliance Operative (well played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). River has been in the presence of the Alliance Parliament; she knows secrets they would prefer remained hidden. A vicious murderer cloaked in soft-spoken civility, the Operative will utilize every resource the Alliance has to silence River.

I thought the way Whedon chose to present the movie's backstory was a little lumpy. At the same time, since I hadn't seen the show, I didn't know anything about Simon or River, so her rescue came as a surprise, which is a good thing. The introduction of Serenity's crew is nicely done, with each character's tics and personalities easily established in a long one-take scene that meanders around most of the ship . The pilot, Hoban "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk), trades snappy one-liners with Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Mal, in turn, insults tough jerk Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin). Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the put-upon engineer carrying a serious torch for Simon. Adding to the richness of the back story, Mal and his second in command Zoe (Gina Torres) fought for the Independents during the war.

In the film, we don't learn why Mal fought in the war, but we know he was a volunteer, which tells us he's an idealist and a romantic. He may have adapted to losing the war, and done it on his own terms, and he's not exactly happy about what it's entailed. He knows there is no lucre in fighting for a lost cause, but there's a part of him is still itching to do it anyway. "If I decide to fight a war," he says at one point, "I guarantee you'll see something different." It adds a lot of dimension to Mal's character, and Fillion does an exceptional job relaying Mal's bitter acceptance of his circumstances.

I was also pleased that the film screws around with several action/science fiction film conventions. My favorite subversion was of The Fateful First Meeting Between The Villain and Our Hero. These meetings usually establish the near-omnipotence of the antagonist. The hero (and heroine) usually listen to their antagonist's speeches, then get thoroughly walloped and barely escape with their lives. This time around, when the Operative off-handedly remarks he's unarmed, Mal simply shoots him. Of course, the Operative doesn't go down, but Mal also studies his opponent's moves closely enough that it almost becomes a fair fight. The scene also reunites Mal with professional "companion" Inara (Morena Baccarin). It's hinted that she left Serenity because her relationship with Mal had gone all pear-shaped. This is apparently a common occurrence with the good captain.

The Operative makes a good antagonist because his twisted motives are still understandable. Like any good SF film, Serenity needs a foe that can be "Otherized" and used as a metaphor for humanity's unspeakable qualities. This is usually where aliens come in. In fact, the main reason I hadn't been interested in Firefly was Whedon's "no aliens" policy. While I can understand his aversion to the "rubber-headed" costume brigade that other science fiction shows employ, such a hardline approach seemed limiting. Turns out that Whedon don't need no stinkin' aliens: he has Reavers. If the Alliance is supposed to be humans at their "best," then the Reavers are the worst of humanity bundled into a savage, self-mutilated, stringy-haired, sharp-toothed package. The Reavers are also key to the movie's plot and central to the secret the Alliance wants to keep hidden.

The Reaver-Alliance-Independent conflict encapsulates the film's central idea: that any attempt to make people "better" just makes us worse. A healthy dose of "misbehaving," in other words, is a good thing. The crew of Serenity certainly struggle in the Alliance's overly-ordered universe, but the ship is their source of peace. They hate living hand-to-mouth, but they would rather roam as outlaws than conform to a sterile and imprisoned existence. It's a middlebrow theme, but hell, it works enjoyably well. Many of us live in an ordered and static world where we follow the rules and even impose them on others; our hearts are with the plucky and flawed heroes. They fight and don't always like each other, while we gleefully cheer them on.

My misgivings with the film are minor. Wash gets the film's best line ("I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar"), but I wish more time was spent on Zoe and Wash's marriage. I assume that stoicism is a major aspect of Zoe's character, but Gina Torres is an excellent actress, and I wish the script had allowed her the opportunity to show other shadings of the character. That said, I like the fact that the film spares the women Final Reel Wimp Syndrome. River's fight scenes are superior to all of The Matrix Reloaded's chop-socky scenes put together. In fact, none of the actors are slouches; like the actors on Battlestar Galactica, they take their roles seriously and infuse the characters with nuances (instead of campiness). Even though the syntax of this universe ("'verse") has obvious echoes of the Wild West, mixed with some Mandarin Chinese, the actors speak the argot in a way that is easy to follow.

But if there are further installments in the story, I still can't help but think how cool it would be to see Whedon play with aliens. Since he's using the themes of the Wild West, showing an alien race displaced and systematically exterminated by human expansion and greed would work well in this milieu. That said, any future forays into Serenity's universe will be welcomed by me. But first, I conjure, I'll need to pick up Firefly.

You Can't Take The Sky From Me: A Firefly Fan's View
by Niall Harrison

A film like Serenity, which arrives carrying heavy loads of both backstory and expectation, can be measured by too many criteria. Is it a good film? Is it good Firefly? Is it a good story? Is it good science fiction? For such a film, what you make of it may depend on what you bring to it, and what you want it to be.

Some of the criteria it can be measured by may even seem to be mutually exclusive: it is hard, for example, to imagine how any film could balance the competing demands of existing fans with the need to reach a new audience without upsetting someone. In addition, film is a different medium to television, with different demands; but every element of Firefly was tailored toward being a serial. Most noticeable in this light is the size of the cast. The ensemble was one of Firefly's strengths, and something it handled extremely well, but in a TV show the focus can shift on a week by week basis. Some characters get more time one week, some get more another, and overall nobody ends up short-changed. In a film you can't do that, and doing justice to each of the nine characters in only two hours seems—and of course is—an impossible task. Whedon does his best, but in the end it's the film's biggest weakness: you sense that newcomers may be bewildered by the accumulating mass of characters, or at the very least miss out on a lot of the film's emotional impact, while fans who already know the crew will be inevitably disappointed at the balance in some way or other.

Of the principal characters, for example, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is undoubtedly the meanest-served, virtually reduced to a token wise-man appearance (although to some degree his limited role was imposed by Glass's schedule). Everyone else gets at least a couple of moments, but Mal, Zoe, River and Simon get noticeably more than Jayne, Wash, Inara (you could blink and miss the reference to her profession) or Kaylee. It's not surprising, since Serenity, which takes place six months or so after the last episode of the series, is concerned with wrapping up loose ends, and the most prominent of those loose ends involves the Tams; but it's also clearly not the show we knew.

Interestingly, unlike the characters, the backstory is introduced almost perfectly. Some liberties are taken—it's clear that Simon knew more than he was letting on about River's condition, which changes the tenor of some of the early episodes somewhat—and the timeline given for the appearance of Reavers doesn't seem to quite match up with what we thought we knew. But, perhaps more than in any other film I've seen this year, there is a sense from the start of Serenity that you are in safe hands, and a large part of that is down to the way the film is structured. The opening sequence is a brilliant ascension through levels of reality: we start in a lecture, move to a dream, switch to a recording, then break through again into the real world. By the time we meet the man who would kill River, the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), we believe in Serenity's world, implausible astrophysics or no.

You could argue that later on this opening works against the film. There is a point at which the odds are so long, and the carnage so great, that your mind flicks back to that opening and wonders, just for a second, whether there is another transition waiting to happen, something more real yet to come. But such uncertainty may be deliberate, because the core of the film is an examination of belief. It's something that the original series, Firefly, promised—or at least something that Whedon promised in interviews before the show first aired—but never quite delivered on. It was there in Mal, the soldier turned smuggler at the heart of the show; implicit in everything he said and did, that his guiding star was "what's of use". But the show died too soon for the theme to develop.

Serenity takes that ball and runs with it. Its great strength is the same as that of Firefly, and before it Farscape and Blake's 7: its heroes are on the outside, doing what they have to do because they don't have the luxury of power. They are not noble in their exile; and when the Operative notes that "Nothing here is what it seems ... the Alliance is not the evil empire," he is right. This is unfortunately not as clear in the film as it is in the series, but it's still apparent that for all the evil some parts of the Alliance can do and have done, out of arrogance and its leaders' certain belief that they know best, it can still be a great force for good. Unfortunately, the side of the Alliance with which Mal and his crew are most familiar is the oppressive side, and in the face of it Mal has nothing to believe in. Serenity is Mal's journey towards belief, and he finds it in an unlikely place: in the cold, quiet outrage of a world called Miranda.

Meanwhile, there is that nameless, unsettling, obsessive Operative. He is in many ways Mal's opposite: a devout man, a man who "believes hard". He doesn't see the bad things the Alliance does, and he doesn't even care to know; he believes in a better world, even if what he must do to ensure it ensures in turn that he has no place in it. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a strong performance as a man who is, like Jubal Early in the series' 'Objects in Space', a human alien. A man who thinks differently to the rest of us (and differently to most fanatics). The Operative's eventual loss of faith is beautifully paralleled with Mal's discovery of the same, right down to the same revelation invoking opposing epiphanies. And it's striking that the film refuses an easy answer: the Alliance is not destroyed by the revelation of its secrets, and no new golden age of peace and harmony is ushered in. The regime is damaged, destabilised for a time, but still firmly present.

Of course, Whedon's traditional strengths are on full display, and the film can be enjoyed on that level: there's snappy dialogue, subversion of cliche (although not, sadly, to the same extent as the original series), and complex, layered scenes, set-pieces of character rather than action. A standout: the scene where Inara calls Mal, ostensibly to ask for his help, actually to warn him of a trap laid by the Operative. Neither would let themselves speak their feelings directly in the best of circumstances, and moreover Mal knows the rest of the crew will be watching, so the scene is funny; but the audience knows that Inara is being watched by the Operative, so the scene has a hidden menace. Throughout there is a sense of control and discipline to the storytelling that was not always present in Whedon's later Buffy and Angel episodes; the direction is always at least adequate, and frequently striking. Some of Whedon's weaknesses do sneak through, most notably in the worldbuilding. For a culture that has assimilated so much of the Chinese language, for example, there is a noticeable lack of Asian faces among the principal cast—and though the Reavers work brilliantly as a literal threat, and well as a demonstration of humanity creating its own problems, they fail if the story is considered as a reinvented Western. In that light, their role is clearly that of the Red Indians, or more accurately, a settler's perception of Red Indians; but they never have a chance to develop their own voice, they are only mindless savages. The plot, too, strains credibility when you look too closely. The macguffin at the heart of the mystery, while resonating with the film's thematic arc, is deeply improbable.

But for every flaw, and every sacrifice that had to be made to bring the film to the silver screen, there is a compensation. Those characters who do get screentime shine; this Mal, in particular, is darker and more conflicted than his small-screen counterpart, and Nathan Fillion's performance is the more interesting for it. Summer Glau, meanwhile, is a revelation. She was good in the series, but in the film she is luminous, combining power and grace in a way that is haunted and compelling. Moreover the film takes advantage of its enlarged canvas and budget. The obligatory space battle—in which Serenity is not a participant, but simply trying to scramble through—is one of the more memorable I've seen in some time. Perhaps most remarkably, apart from a too-neat wrapping up of every characters' thread in the closing minutes, Serenity really does feel like a film, and not a two-hour TV movie. Whether it is accessible in the way that an original film would be remains an open question; but if it's not, that is only a commercial failing, and not an artistic one. The end result is a Whedonesque action-adventure with more than its fair share of insight into some serious and current moral and political questions.

So Serenity is a good film, and decent science fiction; but lurking behind all its flaws and virtues is a regret. The film is busier than is comfortable—plenty of old questions answered, new ones asked—and you can see where the story would have benefitted from developing over a number of weeks, rather than over two hours; where the character beats come just a little too close, or the transitions feel a tiny bit rushed. The introduction and use of Mr Universe is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others. And as a result, as exhilarating as it is to see Whedon's crew still flying, it is impossible not think about what could have been. Yes, Serenity is a good film—but it would have made outstanding TV.


Mahesh Raj Mohan's previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found here, here, and here. He has finished one science fiction novel and is at work on another one, along with several short stories. He lives in Portland, OR with his wife. They've seen Serenity twice. He can be found on the web at http://moksh.blogspot.com.

Niall Harrison is senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons. His reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Foundation, and Vector. He blogs at http://coalescent.livejournal.com/, and still hates writing bios.