Thursday, May 24, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #45: SERENITY


I was drawn into Joss Whedon's FIREFLY universe by the fan-based campaign to get a movie made out of a failed TV show.  I admit I knew nothing about the TV show before that, even though I had been a huge fan of Whedon's earlier series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.  Apparently I wasn't the only one.... Fox essentially buried FIREFLY before it even got started, by airing the episodes out of order or not at all.  Against all odds, the series still caught on with a core audience.  The DVD release of the 12-episode series energized a cult following and prompted an intense fan-based campaign for the show's resurrection.  In 2005, Whedon fans (affectionately known as "Browncoats") got their wish.  Captain Mal Reynolds and his band of merry misfits returned to the screen in the film SERENITY.

From the start, Joss Whedon had his work cut out for him.  He had to make a film that could stand on its own (for those who hadn't seen the series) while expressing and deepning a mythology he'd already developed over the course of 12 one-hour episodes.  In hindsight, it was good training for THE AVENGERS.  Actually, it was probably much easier for the writer/director to sum up the history of FIREFLY than it was to sum up a few decade worth of comic book storylines.   Whedon takes his time rolling out the characters in THE AVENGERS, but SERENITY confidently cuts right to the chase.  With three scenes, ingeniously and seamlessly intertwined, the filmmaker gives us a history of the FIREFLY universe, introduces his central conflict, establishes a new villain and sets up various emotional dynamics between multiple characters.  An impressive feat that demonstrates Whedon's efficiency as a storyteller.

Whedon is just as effective at designing big-scale action sequences, but I don't think that's the reason he's been so successful.   The real reason is that he's great at developing likeable characters.  I wouldn't say that his characters seem like real people (they're far too witty)... but they are people I'd like to know in real life, because they have a lot of humor and a lot of heart.  The characterizations and casting of FIREFLY and SERENITY are exceptional.  There's not one single weak link, and I could talk about them all length.   For the sake of brevity, however, I'm going to focus on the three characters whose personal conflicts carry the major themes of the film.


First up is The Operative, played by Chiwetel Eliofor.  As his name (or lack of name) suggests, The Operative is a cipher -- a soldier who blindly follows orders, no matter what they are.   Another character explains that he is dangerous because he is "intelligent, methodical and devout in his belief."  He's willing to kill on command, without thought or hesitation.  Not because he is a monster, mind you, but because he believes in the supreme moral authority of the government that issues his orders.

With this character, Whedon obviously has an important point to make.  To put it in post-9/11 terms, The Operative is a violent zealot, an all-too-willing suicide bomber.  He is also a living, breathing embodiment of the Patriot Act.  Like Loki, the main villain in THE AVENGERS, he claims that a "better world" must place a higher value on servitude than on personal freedom.


The Operator's foil is loveable rogue Mal Reynolds.  Mal is not an easy man to know.  He's sarcastic, cynical and stubborn.  He is also, deep down, a selfless romantic -- and that's what makes him heroic.  In spite of his apparent bitterness, Mal ultimately fights for what is right.  More than that.  He fights for other people's rights.  And isn't that what America's all about?  Like many a cinematic Westerner before him, Mal's heroism is wrapped up in his rebelliousness.  He's a good citizen because he questions his government.  In a world overrrun by a military-industrial complex known as The Alliance, he reminds us of our responsibility to think critically and question those in power.

In SERENITY, Mal has more reason than ever to "misbehave," since he and his crew have stumbled onto information that could (and should) undermine The Alliance.  Crew member River Tam knows that the government tried to engineer a drug to pacify its citizens and turn them into dutiful subjects.  The drug didn't work exactly as planned... Instead, it created a race of bloodthirsty savages known as Reavers.

If you've ever seen John Carpenter's GHOSTS OF MARS, then you know what Reavers are... but I won't give Joss Whedon too much grief for appropriating Carpenter's idea, because frankly it works better in SERENITY, where the savages appear even more savage when pit against such vulnerable, romantic heroes... living, breathing reminders of the better angels of human nature.


The Reavers aren't the only product of the government's deadly experiments to gain power.  There's also River Tam herself... who, it turns out, has been training with Jet Li.  Actress Summer Glau studied dance for much of her early life, and Whedon makes the most of her experience here.  When River single-handedly takes on an entire army of Reavers, it's like watching the birth of a new art form.  Think of it as Zen Fu.

Like The Operator, River appears to be an intelligent, methodical and unstoppable machine.  There's a purity about both of these characters.  In a way, they are both blank slates and the government eagerly programs them as weapons of mass destruction.   Unlike The Operator (who has no identity outside of his capacity for hunting and killing), River is saved by the crew of Serenity.  They accept her into their family, protect her and teach her of what it really means to be human.  SERENITY was made before THE SARAH CONNER CHRONICLES, but it's hard for me to watch Summer Glau in SERENITY without thinking of her as the beautiful new Terminator.  In both stories, she's a killing machine reprogrammed to respect and protect the sanctity of life. And who better to teach those lessons than Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Book, Wash and Simon?

Seriously, I can't think of any other ensemble cast that I've grown so attached to.  When I was watching SERENITY in the theater for the first time, I started thinking of Mal as a variation on Han Solo and SERENITY as an update of STAR WARS.  By the end of the film, however, I had dismissed that comparison.  Though I am very nostalgic about the world that George Lucas created, none of the STAR WARS movies can compete with the emotional wallop of SERENITY's third act (beginning when the crew pits the Reavers against The Operative's war ships).  Even THE AVENGERS, for all of its success in drawing the humanity out of an elaborate top-heavy mythology, never achieves the same level of humor and heart.  And that third act gets better with each successive viewing.  When Mal sits in the cockpit of his battered ship and knowingly explains to River what it is that keeps them (and all of us) "in the air," I get choked up every time.

When Whedon's Browncoats -- onscreen and off -- say that you "can't stop the signal," they're not just talking about a plot point or a writer's strike or a campaign for more shows.  They're talking about the best qualities of being human... those qualities that shine through all the soul-sucking cynicism and warmongering political bullshit we see every day in the world around us.  They're talking about us.

And that's something worth believing in.

5 comments:

  1. Bravo on that final line and paragraph. I like the power of that concept and your assessment of The Signal.

    Yet, I think you are showing a real lack of faith in people there referring to people without wit. Okay, but I think I agree.

    Granted the power of people organizing on the streets isn't always on an intellectual level and many certainly don't have the smarts of a group like fellow browncoats. I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that.

    I never considered the political undertones as you have here and they are fine. I certainly tend not to agree with a lot of the Hollywood thinking politically. It's generally slanted and certainly extreme in its symbols and representations. It's still interesting.

    Secretly, I keep hoping The Avengers gives Joss carte blanche to do whatever he wants and that he decides he wants to renew Firefly or a sequel film to Serenity.

    Great to see you cover a movie like this that made you. Like you, I must say, I too am quite attached to loving the Firefly cast and story and you're right, Joss can tell a story. He has a real gift for it, dialogue and character.

    Specifically, as you note, Firefly is just filled to the rim with "humor" and "heart." It's pretty darn special.

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  2. Thanks for writing, Gordon!

    Regarding your note about my lack of faith in people's "wit"... I was thinking more of verbal wit than intelligence, but I think you've fairly recognized my own cynical streak. I have a friend who often jokes that "this world would be a beautiful place... if there weren't all the people," and some days I almost agree with him. And yet, without us, it would literally be a world without hope. Probably I dwell way too much on unrealized potential, and that's why I'm so inspired by a character like Mal, who seems genuinely pessimistic but still manages to be hopeful (and act accordingly) when it really matters.

    As for your note about politics... I almost didn't want to write this post, because I didn't want to reduce SERENITY to a politically-biased message. It's so much more meaningful than that.
    Of course it goes without saying that SERENITY has its roots in the western genre, which often tends toward a more Libertarian viewpoint. That's what I was thinking of when I wrote that Mal is "a good citizen because he questions his government." Maybe a better way to assess the political undertones of SERENITY, and of westerns in general, would be to note their yearning for a simpler time... a time when political discourse was more direct and uncluttered. That's assuming, of course, that there ever was such a time...

    I'd love to see Whedon return to FIREFLY. In recent interviews about THE AVENGERS, he has said that it's still the fictional world he would most like to re-visit. But I get the sense that he won't press the issue. I imagine he feels a bit like Chris Carter with MILLENNIUM... If Fox comes to him with a really big check and says "make this," he'll be happy to oblige. If they don't, he'll probably let it go.

    Of course the FIREFLY story lives on in Dark Horse comics, but I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read them. Maybe it's time to remedy that.

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  3. Perhaps I picked up on it because I understand where u and your friend stand. I feel much the same way especially when I hit a beautiful stretch of open road and mountains untainted by the carelessness of man. I like the libertarian mind set as well. I guess that's where I find myself most of the time. Anyway, well said above. Enjoy the weekend Joe. Sff

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  4. Wonderful piece for a series too short-lived and the film that initially hooked me into it. This is Whedon at his best (as 'The Avengers' has gone on to prove). Tell me, did you get a chance to re-visit it last weekend at the Hero Complex Film Fest? Nathan Fillion was there for the film's presentation and discussion, and of course it sold out. While I did catch WALL•E at the fest, I was too late for 'Serenity'. After reading this, I need to re-screen it and soon. Well done.

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  5. Hey Michael - Unfortunately I didn't get tickets to the Hero Complex screening. I took my wife to see THE AVENGERS instead... and then we felt compelled to watch SERENITY again, for what must be at least the tenth time. Somehow it never gets old.

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