Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dir. by Joss Whedon

The most awaited, most daring, most gripping science fiction film of 2005 featured a saber-wielding protector of the galaxy engaged in a duel with a renegade warrior that won’t just alter the balance of interstellar power, but will cost the loser his very soul. Oh yeah, and there was a Star Wars movie out too.

OK already! Stop with the hate mail. I LIKED Episode III, I just happen to think that Serenity should be recognized as a space opera of supreme drama and a political tract of remarkable insight.

The story picks up where Firefly (the tv series) left off. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the crusty war-vet is still leading his band of misfits across the ‘verse. Inara (Morena Baccarin) the companion he loved (though he could never admit it) has left as has Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). An increasingly irascible Mal is at odds with his crew. The focus of much angst is Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), on the lam since Simon liberated River from a secret government lab where experiments to turn her into a psychic killing machine rendered River quite insane.

The Feds are out to get River for good and they’ve put a nameless Operative (Chewitel Ejiofor) on her track. If that ain’t bad enough, the Reavers, cannibalistic, interstellar pirates are on the move, killing, raping, and eating their way ever deeper into the settled areas. The need to unearth the secret River holds in her damaged mind leads to a collision between all these forces.

Serenity is a marvelous mix of comedy and film noir wrapped up in a cotton candy confection of space opera. It also has the prime ingredient of science fiction: ideas. While Joss Whedon will not be winning any prizes for scientific extrapolation (I’m still not sure if his ships go faster than light or if lots of planets are really close together), Serenity does make some daring philosophical points. Only liberal Hollywood could produce a movie so steeped in conservatism. I found myself thinking of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and its intense distrust of plans to improve mankind's lot.

Mal is a man of the outer planets, backward, truculent, and ruggedly independent. The Operative is a duly appointed defender of the interstellar order, he carries out his orders without personal rancor or thought for advancement. Though he kills, it is with a detached compassion for his victims. He even sports a samurai sword for crying out loud. Just as the Jedi sprang from the Lensman, the Operative is a twisted Jedi, an assassin with a code. The Operative is the Hero of his story, alas his story is not the only one. Perhaps the most touching moment of the film is the scene where the Operative insists that his goal is nothing less than a Utopia. But it is a Utopia that he can never have a place in, for he is conscious that he has forfeited it by his deeds of blood. The Operative has an all-embracing vision of a perfected social order, an earthly paradise that is just a few corpses down the road.

Mal on the other hand shoots unarmed guys and doesn’t sweat it greatly. He is a smuggler, pirate, and hooligan. His loyalties don’t extend beyond his crew, their welfare is paramount. To Mal, ideology, social improvement, and apparently, law and order, are bunk. The inescapable fact that confronts the viewer of this tale is that a loser redneck outlaw is less of a threat to society than the monstrously arrogant experiments of the enlightened liberal establishment. The road to heaven travels through Stalin’s Gulags and Pol Pot’s killing fields. Mal is not battling an evil empire, rather it is a democratic order that has forgotten the basis of democracy in its willingness to boost man to perfection on a bayonet.

Serenity is a film to watch more than once. It’s non-stop thrilling action, superb ensemble acting and daring treatment of politics make it one of the finest films of 2005.
-Dave Hardy


StevieB said...

While Joss Whedon will not be winning any prizes for scientific extrapolation (I’m still not sure if his ships go faster than light or if lots of planets are really close together) The planets in the Serenity 'verse are very close together, there is no FTL drive.
"Serenity" was well received by the critics and won several awards, among them the prestigious "Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form".
There is also an interesting litle article at "iTWire"

Dave Hardy said...

"Serenity" certainly earned the Hugo. Though I expect it was for storytelling, not scientific exposition.

Thanks for the clarification on the worlds. Well, if it satisfies the hard-science mech-heads, all the better.

For me, even if Whedon's 'verse is sheer fantasy, I can't help but admire his ability to tell a tale.