Finding Serenity

In a previous article, I reviewed the TV space-western Firefly as a preview for the theatrical release of Serenity, the film based on the series. If you are unfamiliar with the show, I recommend you read that article first. Firefly is one of the most explicitly libertarian themed shows to ever be broadcast, and the good news is that Serenity retains and expands that theme. It is now playing in theaters across the country.

Don’t be afraid of the movie if you have never seen the show, but also be prepared to pay close attention. The Matrix and Star Wars films have created something of a “thrill ride” mandate for action-adventure movies. Audiences now have an appetite for cinema that matches the non-stop pace of video games. This sets up a tricky balancing act for writer/director Joss Whedon. Is it possible to quickly educate those unfamiliar with the show whilst maintaining a break-neck pace? Whedon manages to walk the tightrope, but I wouldn’t recommend you get up for popcorn; you might miss a crucial piece of explanatory dialogue. Serenity, it turns out, is an ironic title for a film with nary a serene moment.

Set five centuries hence, Serenity is the name of a transport ship, home to Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his band of dysfunctional misfits. As much as possible, they try to avoid the Alliance, the meddling central government with designs on keeping all colonized planets under its jackbooted instep. The Serenity crew takes honest fetch-and-carry jobs when possible, and when not they work as guns-for-hire. They are not above thieving if the mark happens to be the Alliance.

Hiding out on Serenity are siblings Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau). Simon is a brilliant young doctor who has rescued his even more brilliant sister from an Alliance school, the curriculum for which could have been devised by Joseph Mengele. River has literally had part of her brain removed, the part that controls the ability to filter emotions. The goal of this was to unleash River’s latent psychic abilities and ultimately turn her into a human weapon that the Alliance could control. But the procedure has also put her on the precipice of complete madness. Except for brief periods of coherence, she is a panoply of odd behavior and bizarre non-sequiturs.

As the movie begins, we learn the Alliance has an even more compelling reason for finding River: she holds a secret that could embarrass the Alliance leadership and lay waste to their crafted image as busybodies for the human good. To prevent disclosure, the Alliance dispatches an Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to ensure this secret is never revealed. When the Operative is forced to unleash River’s full potentials in order to locate her, he also releases the secret buried in her subconscious. A thrill ride ensues as the Serenity crew races to exploit this secret before the Operative closes in.

The original cast of the series returns for the movie, and there are a couple of interesting new characters. “Mister Universe” (David Krumholtz) is a hacker on the Cortex, the galactic version of the World Wide Web. This character is a simultaneous salute and dig at the computer nerd. His skills are invaluable and his efforts heroic, but he still can’t date a girl unless he invents her himself. Also new, in a sense, is the character of River. Because of her madness, she was often a marginal player in many of the series episodes. She was initially shown to be a frail and delicate creature, constantly in danger of breaking. Only later are there hints of an inner strength and, as we find in the movie, a paradoxical invincibility. And then there is the Operative. No mere assassin, the Operative is the arch egg breaker for the Alliance omelet.

As a villain, the Operative is closer to Madelyn Albright than Darth Vader. He is a calm, courteous, diplomatic monster. He is a “believer,” someone with such total faith in the government design for living that slaughtering children is “worth it” to bring about the happy new paradise. At the same time, he knows that there would be no place for himself in the Brave New Universe. As a living sacrifice to the government-as-god, it is a small step for him to sacrifice anyone else on that alter. There are no fancy light sabers for dispatching his victims; he prefers cold steel, along with a dose of ritual that harkens back to the Roman Empire.

The Operative is formidable, but finds the Serenity crew no easy prey. Like the Alliance itself, the Operative counts on the shock of his brutality to keep the sheep in line, but is stymied by an opponent who is both clever and jaded. He admires Reynolds, in much the same way that James Bond was admired by his many adversaries; Bond and Reynolds are not above ruthless killing. The Operative might like to imagine he and Reynolds are of similar cloth, until Reynolds inconveniently brings up the dead children.

Fans of the TV show might find a few disappointments in the movie. The familiar theme song of the series is not to be heard. All nine original cast members have returned; but with so many, it is inevitable that they might not all get the screen time fans would wish for. Though the TV series was conceived as a western in space, the movie has a much more science fiction emphasis. There is also some language and suggestive situations that some might find objectionable.

As mentioned earlier, the frenetic pace of Serenity may not be for the attention-span challenged, especially if you have a weak bladder or prefer a slower pace la Solaris. But if you are a freedom lover who doesn’t mind white knuckles, it doesn’t get much better than this.

October 5, 2005

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