Monsters to Destroy

Joss Whedon's "Serenity"
Fighting utopia in the black


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Three years ago, the Fox network briefly aired a series set 500 years in the future but without flying cars, benevolent aliens, or (with rare exceptions) energy weapons. Instead, the human colonizers on the outer rim of inhabited space had to rely on horses, guns, and even swords. As for the main characters, the collection of stereotypes usually deployed to highlight a principal hero was replaced by a dynamic ensemble of nine, each with an intriguing story of his own. The network that has sought to revise the lowest common denominator ever downward predictably canceled "Firefly" after airing only 10 episodes. To add insult to injury, Fox showed them out of order and often pre-empted them with baseball.

The irony was obvious. Just a few months earlier, explaining the premise of the show, creator Joss Whedon said, "This show isn't about the people who made history; it's about the people history stepped on." But just as the crew and passengers of the beat-up Firefly-class spaceship scraped themselves off history's sole and lived defiantly on, so did the 13 episodes of "Firefly" enjoy a second life on DVD, until Universal Pictures decided to spend a modest budget on a feature film. Hence "Serenity."

The premise of "Firefly" was libertarian: having fought on the side of Independent planets against the Alliance that sought to impose a central government, and lost, a sergeant by the name of Malcolm ("Mal") Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) bought a cargo ship and went into voluntary exile "in the black" — out in space, on the frontier, always a step ahead of Alliance authority: the only place he could be free. He and his first officer, Zoë (Gina Torres) were the only survivors in their company at the decisive and bloody battle of Serenity Valley, which ended the war. Mal named the ship "Serenity," for reasons never actually explained. It certainly appears to be a cruel joke at his own expense.

"Serenity" needed a crew. What it got was Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot who married Zoë; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a sweet young farm girl who can just about fix spaceship engines with duct tape; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary whose lack of loyalty, manners, and even common decency is balanced by his skills with guns and explosives. Mal would occasionally take on passengers, to provide a more steady income to his crew than could be made shuffling hot cargo between frontier outposts. "Serenity" thus ended up carrying Inara (Morena Baccarin), a cross between courtesan and Buddhist monk known as a "licensed companion"; Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher with a mysterious past; and Dr. Simon Tam and his sister River, fugitives from the Alliance.

"Serenity" the movie explores one particular story line interrupted by "Firefly's" cancellation: that of Simon and River, and exactly why they were fleeing from the Alliance. Simon had rescued River from a secret government research facility, where she had been brainwashed, surgically altered, and tortured in an attempt to make her an assassin. Whether as a side effect of the experiments or otherwise, she also turned out to be psychic. That is how she came into possession of a secret so terrible the Alliance would do anything to stop it from getting out.

In this case, "anything" involves an Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a nameless assassin sent by the Alliance Parliament who seeks to create a "world without sin" by committing mass murder, among other crimes. In one particularly powerful scene, he confronts Mal on screen after slaughtering a village where the crew had been hiding. Smiling, the Operative blames the deaths on Mal.

"I don't murder children," Mal snaps back angrily.

"I do," the Operative replies.

Thus made aware that running from the Alliance won't prevent slaughter, Mal decides to fight back. The confrontation is brutal and bloody, with many deaths of people near and dear — but the Operative is finally shown a "world without sin," of his precious government's making; it is the secret that had tormented River Tam into insanity.

It won't do to describe the horror in question or what happens once the Operative confronts it; that would give too much away and do "Serenity" a tremendous injustice. For this feature offers more than a great plot; it is also a great story about the people therein. It may take place 500 years hence and in outer space, but humans are still humans.

Whedon is a master of dialogue, bringing depth and soul to characters any other storyteller would be tempted to use as cardboard cut-outs. He also follows Anton Chekov's rule of drama: a gun you see in Act One must go off by Act Three; nothing in "Serenity" is superfluous. That is precisely why "Serenity's" message, while obvious, is not preachy. The Alliance is not self-consciously evil, but it does evil, in its pursuit of a perfect world. As River puts it at the beginning of the film:

People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads, and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome.
What was done to River is just the tip of the iceberg; after seeing the Operative's brutality, and finding out the secret buried in River's mind, the crew of "Serenity" come to understand that someone has to make a stand — and it has to be them. Mal tells his crew:
Sure as I know anything, I know this: In a year or maybe ten, perhaps even on this very ground, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people better; and I don't hold to that.
If he did hold to it — if they did — they would not be out on the hard-scrabble frontier, instead of enjoying the comforts and conveniences of Alliance-controlled planets. In their world, comforts come at the price of freedom — and that is a price none of them is willing to pay. In the final analysis, life is cheaper than liberty. And should it not be?

October 25, 2005

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