Serenity (2005)

So here is us, on the raggedy edge.
— Mal (Nathan Fillion), Serenity

I love to hear myself write, and everybody talks too much.
— Joss Whedon, Commentary, Serenity

Joss Whedon is a terrific DVD commentator. You know that already, but it’s worth restating, because its his self-awareness, sense of humor, and general brilliance that make the Serenity DVD a remarkable thing. While the film, which only did so-so business in theaters, already has a place in Firefly fans’ hearts, the DVD helps to elucidate why that’s so. Smart, allusive, and full of salient details, Serenity is that rare movie that rewards multiple viewings.

The film takes up Whedon’s usual interests — power, friendship, and betrayal — as these shape daily life, however wildly reimagined that life might be in his films. Here the villains — that is, the powers that be — are looking to run the ‘verse. Not in an overt or conventionally imperial way, but through the overwhelming force of well-considered commerce and gobbling possession. The movie begins with the short version of the tv series’ history, wherein humans are colonizing the universe because, according to the lore, “the earth that was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many.”

Terraforming planets in far-flung solar systems, jumpstarting civilizations in their own image, and assuming values and prerogatives, the voracious Universal Alliance has inadvertently produced its opposite, a band of scrappy independents. The former is baffled by latter’s mere existence (“Why do they fight so hard against us?”), underlining not only their absolute arrogance, but also the seeds of their eventual collapse. If you can’t anticipate a potentially different future, you are bound to repeat your imperial past.

Among the scrappiest of these independents is the crew of the Serenity, led by charismatic, suspenders-wearing Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He’s an “earthy” guy, indicated by his brown clothing, and he’s “everything [the Alliance is] not,” according to Whedon: “He’s homemade, and he’s kind of a schmo a lot of the time.”

Enthusiastic, energetic, and sometimes ornery, the team is loyal to one another even when they’re arguing over who made the latest wrong decision. The latest of these concerns 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 when Simon breaks River out from the lab (when this scene cuts from River’s warning to Simon, “They know you’re here,” to a shot of nasty-looking extras, Whedon observes, “And it’s Picard and the guy from the Fine Young Cannibals, which means they’re in trouble”).

Once River and Simon are on Mal’s ship (“Obviously a tenth character,” says Whedon), the vengeful Alliance has it in for the whole lot of them. And the crew, especially outspoken Jayne (Adam Baldwin), is less than thrilled about the risk posed by the glowering girl, part moody child, part scary monster. She lurches from deft and stretchy martial arts explosions to dire depression (even then, she exhibits a perverse, delightful poetry, as when she asks Simon to kill her: “Bullet in the brainpan, squish”). As her doctor (Michael Hitchcock) puts it just before Simon cocks him, “She’s not just a psychic. Given the right trigger, the girl’s a living weapon,” as well as “a creature of extraordinary grace” — in other words, Buffy in space, with less self-confidence, at least for now.

As if all this isn’t enough, getting River back is the assignment of a government assassin known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a true believer in the Alliance’s cause. Dedicated to the idea that his brutal efforts will lead to a “better world,” the Operative is, according to Whedon, much like River. “His connection to her is something that is very important to me thematically… because he is so intuitive as to be almost psychic himself… He’s a perfect product of the Alliance, or rather, what’s wrong with the Alliance.”

Whedon also describes the Operative’s genesis, at the urging of the studio, who wanted a villain to offset the passel of series regulars. “What I decided I needed was someone who was so kind and so decent and so caring that you actually would start to root for him right before he was going to massacre everybody.” This, says Whedon, is “the exact opposite of the hero,” and, by the way, wholly embodied by Ejiofor, who, Whedon says, “brings such depth and soulfulness and regret to everything he does.” Just so, the Operative’s face turns pained when he warns one colleague (before he has him literally fall on a sword in order to achieve a “good death”) that the situation created by River is “less simple than you think it is.” Indeed, this might be the watchword for all that goes on in Serenity.

Granted, the DVD lacks extras that delve into what goes on: these include nine decent deleted scenes, outtakes, and three making-ofs — “Future History: The Story of Earth That Was” (backstory of the ‘verse), “What’s in a Firefly?” (special effects), and “Re-Lighting the Firefly” (Whedon talks about the transition from tv series to movie). But the film does mostly speak for itself, with regard to politics and complexities, and, as he’s fond of reminding you — Whedon does tend to go on, entertainingly and helpfully.

The Operative 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 Operative’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 crushing-on-Simon 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 Whedon surely loves B-movie thematics and effects (made for just $40 million, Serenity recycles unused footage from the series) and Western-in-space conventions — Mal and crew tend to use the phrase “y’all,” kick back in saloons, 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). Aside from his ship, Mal loves (and feels tormented by) the courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin), whose plea for help partway through the film leads inevitably to trouble (and Mal’s brief appearance in a dress, a decision Whedon doesn’t explain so make seem funnier than it is).

What the film does well is establish a political allegory of some urgency. The Alliance, part Dark Side and part current U.S. administration, is devoted to expansion and exploitation. While this occurs without fanfare, it does involve dry wit (the best kind in a genre picture). When the Operative, for example, tries to intimidate Mal by insisting, “You can’t make me angry,” Inara chimes in from the background of Mal’s shot, “Please, spend an hour with him.” And when Wash, ever the team player, hears that River might threaten the Alliance, he wonders, “Do we care? I mean, are we caring about that?” Mal, meantime, can only claim his authority by telling Jayne that he can’t run the ship. Because.

Mal is not noble or even particularly likeable; rather, he’s pragmatic and mostly moral (this despite the fact that he shoots unarmed men, for reasons that do seem good enough), a possible foil for the ruthless Operative. If the brave, fierce, confused adolescent is a favorite trope for Whedon and his fans, the tormented, irredeemably fated River is a provocatively dark figure as well. As she discovers her skills, the awed responses of her fellow travelers provide useful perspective. She’s not easy.

River’s telepathy makes her (seem) crazy and grants her too much information pertaining to everyone around her. But it’s 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 suggest where responsibility can lie: the press and media more have work to do when confronted by aspiring empires. Freedom, Serenity argues, means access, to information before anything else.