Remember when Joss Whedon was good? There was a time when he ruled the late 1990s, with such well-known shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in the early years of the 2000s with Firefly. It is this last series on which the 2005 hit Serenity is based. Maybe “hit” is overselling it. While Firefly enjoyed a measure of popularity, it lasted only one season. The subsequent film was the result of a passion project on the part of Whedon, the cast and crew, and fans. None of this is meant to detract from any of these iterations of this science fiction story. It is quite good, and I wish there were more like it.
One of the problems with movies that continue other tales is that they tend to trade on the audience’s knowledge of what has gone on before it. It is understandable. Writers only have so much time to say what they want, so they cut corners. That is not the case in Serenity. It introduces you to its universe by starting off with a flashback that overviews the basics: humanity left Earth for another solar system where they made a bunch of worlds there inhabitable; the ones at the center of this system are the Alliance (think the Empire from Star Wars) and there was a rebellion of people who called themselves the Independents; and finally there is a separate group of renegade people called the Reavers who raid at will and eat their victims. It takes minutes, and is part of a dream being had by River (Summer Glau), a psychic who is being turned into a living weapon by the Alliance. She is freed by her brother Simon (Sean Maher). The recording of their escape is viewed by the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an agent of the galactic government who believes that their are too many secrets locked in her addled brain to let her live. River and Simon find refuge on the Serenity, the eponymous spaceship captained by Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Mal takes in the brother and sister not only for their abilities (Simon is also a talented doctor), but because Mal fought as an Independent and has no love for the Alliance. Them, along with the rest of their crew, make a living throughout space by doing odd jobs on either side of the law that pays at the moment. After stealing money from security forces tied to the government, a task during which River is put in danger to Simon’s angst, the siblings decide to leave the boat after they collect their reward. However, in the bar where the transaction takes place, River is triggered through a subliminal message and proceeds to beat up everyone around her. Before going berserk, she utters the word “Miranda.” Mal decides to bring them back aboard, but that word leads them to a mystery surrounding a planet the Alliance does not want known. Further spurring them on is the fact that the Operative is killing all their known associates, and this is the secret he is trying to keep. When the crew of Serenity get to the planet called Miranda, they find a recording of an Alliance scientist who reveals that the authorities had introduced a molecule into the planet’s environment that caused most of the population to basically quit living, and the rest to turn into the Reavers. Mal’s band then decide to broadcast this confidential information to the entire galaxy, which they accomplish, but at a terrible cost.
Serenity is a quality film not just because the story is simple and the good guys win. Actually, the most interesting character from a Faith perspective is the Operative. The world of this film seems to be a continuation of our own, and Christianity is alluded to here, and not in a good way. The suggestion is that the Alliance is made up of religious fanatics, and the Operative follows their directives unquestioningly. That does not fit with the history of the Catholic Church. Look at the lives of the saints. St. Francis of Assisi is one example, and a useful comparison to the Operative. The two were both soldiers (of sorts), a career that involves unflinching dedication to authority. But when a higher truth is revealed to them, they turn away from their chosen path and against that authority. Contrary to popular belief, a life of Faith is not about blind obedience. There is a great deal of Spiritual growth that can come out of rigorous discernment of convictions, and the movie is a testament to this fact.
Serenity does have a good measure of violence, but nothing too far afield from its PG-13 rating. One little tidbit I appreciate about it that helps tone it down a bit is the fact that it changes a common blasphemy to “Gorram it!” When you think about it, it is amazing how easily these words are placed in the mouths of the characters we consume in our culture today. It is so unnecessary, so I thank Whedon for this little consideration. Language aside, this film is solid through and through, and I wish more movies would copy its style.