Film Review: Serenity

This review contains spoilers.

My brain keeps sort of sliding off Serenity, Joss Whedon’s filmic sequel to Firefly, which I think illustrates nicely the level of canonicity I mentally ascribe to it.

Plot-wise, it’s essentially an embellished retread of Objects in Space. A brutal, nameless Alliance operative hunts the Serenity in an attempt to regain River, who, it turns out, has been subliminally programmed to be an equally brutal killing machine. She’s also psychic (as established in Objects in Space; it’s to Whedon’s credit that this decidedly fantastical device never quite destroys our suspension of disbelief), and has been inadvertently exposed to one of the Alliance’s most terrible secrets, which involves an outer planet called Miranda. The rest of the film sees Mal and the gang travel to Miranda, discover the secret and attempt to broadcast it to the ‘verse – all while evading the Operative.

There are obvious themes here which carry over from the late episodes of the series; in particular a kind of discussion of the social construction of the other. In particular, Whedon picks up on the idea that Jubal Early is weaponised by the very Alliance which constructed him as Other in the character of the Operative, who is quite literally only a tool (nameless, pastless, hobbyless); never is he granted full personhood. (Is it troubling that both Jubal Early and the Operative are black? Or is this a wry comment on processes of marginalisation that look like acceptance?) The problem with the Alliance, the film suggests, is that it sees people as units to be controlled and used; not as full, rounded individuals with social links and histories. And this social construct is a source of othering: one of the great revelations of Serenity is that the Reavers, the bands of crazed spacefarers carrying out unspeakable acts of violence, murder and rape on unwary spacecraft and outer colonies, were created by an Alliance experiment in crowd control gone horribly wrong. So not only does this othering harm the othered; it harms the society it’s supposed to protect and keep stable.

And though this is an interesting (and unexpected) tack for what is essentially a sci-fi blockbuster to take, my feeling is that Serenity elides a lot of the complexity of the world of Firefly. Firefly’s Alliance has never really felt like a dystopia, as it does in Serenity, and I think that’s one of the show’s strengths: it looks at social processes that happen in our own world, on planet Earth, and unrolls them on a slightly different canvas. Firefly takes place in a world in which evils are made worse by oppressive government; Serenity takes place in a world in which all evils are created by Secrit Gub’mint Conspiracies. Firefly‘s world is one in which heroes and villains are just a hairsbreadth apart. Firefly is a show in which small and contingent victories are the only victories you can hope to gain. Serenity is a film in which large victories are the only victories that exist.

There are complexities to Serenity, it’s true: the Alliance is not brought down by the broadcasting of Miranda’s secret, only weakened; beloved characters are, notoriously, killed; Mal and Inara’s romantic tension remains unresolved. And these darknesses are, again, unusual to see in an SF film of this type. I liked Serenity. I had a Firefly hangover for about a week after I saw it. I just think that the kinds of stories Firefly told are not the kinds of stories that are particularly compatible with the explosive demands of Hollywood film studios.

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