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Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, David Kurmholtz

(Universal; US theatrical: 30 Sep 2005; 2005)

Less Simple

I am—and always will be—the biggest fanboy. I write from a fanboy place: what would it be great to see this character do?
—Joss Whedon, New York Times (25 September 2005)

The powers that be in Serenity are looking to run the ‘verse. Not in an overt or conventionally imperial way, but through well-considered commerce and a practice that might be termed overwhelming ownership. The movie begins with a little history, to catch up those unfamiliar with Joss Whedon’s beloved, short-lived tv series Firefly: the universe is being colonized by humans, because, according to the lore, “the earth that was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many.”

And so representatives of the race have gone forth, terraforming planets in far-flung solar systems, jumpstarting civilizations in their own image, and wreaking havoc based on assumed values and prerogatives. The havoc, in particular, is a problem, and two sides have sprung up in its wake: the mighty Universal Alliance and the scrappy independents. The fact that former is baffled by latter’s mere existence (“Why do they fight so hard against us?”), reveals the arrogance that makes the resistance so dug in. For the Alliance is not only interested in colonizing worlds, but also minds and bodies.

It’s not hard to tell where Serenity‘s moral druthers lie: much like Whedon’s Scoobies, the crew of the ship called Serenity—led by practical-minded, suspenders-wearing Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion)—is an enthusiastic, energetic, and sometimes ornery bunch, loyal to one another even when they’re arguing over who made the latest wrong decision.

Take, for instance, the decision to accept a couple of paying passengers, the earnest young doctor, Simon (Sean Maher), and his 17-year-old sister River (Summer Glau), an extra-sensitive telepath, brainwashed in Alliance classrooms as a child, then electro-refitted in an Alliance lab until her brain essentially blew out. She wears gauzy goth dresses and teeters between anxious passivity and deadly accuracy, able to climb walls, cling to ceilings, leap and crouch and break bones like Buffy. Fugitives from the Alliance ever since Simon broke River out from the lab, they’re obviously a risk to be harboring. And besides, the glowering girl is trouble, part moody child, part lethal weapon. Mal’s crewmembers—especially the outspoken Jayne (Adam Baldwin)—worry she might “go off,” as she’s apparently triggered into weapon mode by, among other means, secret messages inside anime (as they witness during a brief time-out at a way-station bar).

As if this isn’t enough, getting River back is the particular project of a government assassin known only as the Operator (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a true believer. Dedicated to the idea that his brutal efforts will lead to a “better world,” the Operator warns one colleague (before he has him literally fall on a sword in order to achieve a “good death”) that the situation facing the Alliance with reference to River is “less simple than you think it is.” Indeed, this might be the watchword for all that goes on in Serenity.

The Operator follows the crew along the “raggedy edge” of the ‘verse, killing everyone who even thinks about helping them to survive (including the altogether good Shepherd Book [Ron Glass] and his simple-living flock). The Operator’s fierce determination and cunning mean that Mal and company—along with Jayne, the warrior Zoe (Gina Torres), her partner and ship’s pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), and mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite)—are pushed into areas they might otherwise avoid, namely, a debris-strewn zone occupied by the Reavers, ferocious, flesh-eating, ringwraith-like creatures whose origins are initially unknown. Embodying the worst aspects of this future, they are only dedicated to their own immediate needs, engaging in unruly consumption and committed to instant gratification. They’re the Alliance at its logical, implacable, nightmarish endpoint.

While much has been made of Whedon’s affection for B-movie thematics and effects (made for just $40 million, Serenity recycles unused footage from the series and takes up a tv-episodic shape) and Western-in-space conventions—Mal and crew tend to use the phrase “y’all,” kick back in saloonish joints, and find themselves caught between rugged individuality and Wild West chaos—they also seek community, even if only on Mal’s ship (which, he reminds Simon, is his home, where the doctor and his sister are guests, even if they have paid cash money for transport and safe haven). More interesting, however, is the cowboys’ relation to the Alliance, which falls somewhere between Lucas’ Dark Side and the current U.S. Administration in its crass expansionism and willingness to exploit any and all resources to achieve its short term goals.

And so, in its political allegory, at least, Serenity kicks ass. If the brutal, brave, confused adolescent is a favorite trope for Whedon and his fans, the tormented but also irredeemably fated River is also here a sign of possible resistance. Her violent capacities make her a formidable girl hero, and her learning curve makes her especially compelling to watch, as she discovers her skills, she provides all sorts of great fun action-sequencing, and the awed responses of her fellow travelers give you some perspective as well.

River’s telepathy—which makes her (seem) crazy and grants her way too much information pertaining to everyone around her—is related thematically to the film’s most idealistic notion, that media exposure—via a character with access to all angles of dissemination, Mr. Universe (David Kurmholtz)—might save the /verse. It was a quaint idea in Three Days of the Condor, and it’s quaint now. But it does hint at where some responsibility might lie, with regard to current quagmires. Freedom, Serenity argues, is all about access, to information before anything else.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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