Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I aim to misbehave.
Serenity is the movie that continued Joss Whedon’s stunning Science Fiction/Western Firefly. It doesn’t fall short of that series.
[Note: the following review will have SPOILERs.]
Admittedly, the transition from television series to movie is not a perfect one. Besides the alterations done to the world’s and characters’ backstory, the change in format from successive forty minute segments to a single two hour block requires a vast shift in pacing and in focus. Here, we have a far faster pace that frequently explodes into violence and often delves into darkness. Of course, all the strength and mounting emotional destruction of the movie is still offset by Whedon’s omnipresent humor, here manifesting itself in countless one liners and fantastic reaction lines. One particular choice bit near the beginning has the ship plummeting down to the planet below when Mal tells Wash to just get us on the ground, to which Wash responds: That part’ll happen pretty definitely. Still, The laidback, horses and towns under the hot sun feel of Firefly that brought out the Western elements is largely absent, swapped out for a greater focus on the epic and the Science Fictional.
Along with the aforementioned changes comes the shift in focus away from the ensemble cast and towards Mal’s character. Some of the others, like Wash, still manage to define themselves in an iconic scene or two without taking much screen time. Others, like Jayne, never get to do a great deal but are still a notable presence. But some, such as Kaylee, end up becoming part of the background; her role in the movie is pining after Simon and just about nothing else. Furthermore, the shift pushes some unresolved questions from Firefly into the abyss. Mal and Inara get a few small interactions but make no ultimate progress. Book, meanwhile, responds to Mal’s you have to tell me about [your past] sometime with No, I don’t, which, when one considers his brutal death not long after, rather shuts the lid on our ever knowing.
But while I might wish we could have a few more stories in the world, I certainly don’t mean to cast aspersions on the power of this one. In two hours, Whedon takes River’s storyline and manages to fully develop it and her in a fashion that, even if it’s not completely consistent with the hints we received in the show, is nonetheless satisfying and resplendent with awesomely choreographed action. It’s Mal’s development, though, that makes Serenity truly excellent. Here we finally see the exploration of evolution of Mal’s philosophy and character, and we see it in stark contrast to the Alliance’s Operative that pursues him to slay River.
In his pursuit of Mal, the Operative does great evil. This is not a subjective determination necessitated by nothing but the camera’s choosing to follow Mal, rather than the Operative, around. No, the Operative owns up to his evil. In fact, it defines him. When Mal accuses him of killing the innocent, the Operative proudly, determinedly says: I do [murder children]. If I have to.
The Operative is fighting because he believes in something, because he believes in a better world […] without sin, and he will commit any crime to reach that world. Of course, he is stained in the process. The Operative knows this. His and the Alliance’s morality is black and white, but it is not a black and white so selfishly twisted as to color their own actions white. The Operative will have no place in the promised land he brings about; his role, rather, is to create it by destroying those foes, like Mal, that stand in its way.
Mal, needless to say, is not the black that the Operative thinks him. He cares deeply about his crew and ship, and, as we saw demonstrated innumerable times throughout the series, will put his life on the line to save the innocent. But neither is he white on some alternative spectrum that the Operative fails to see. Mal had his morality, once. In the first episode of the show (confusingly enough also entitled Serenity), we saw the last vestiges of his faith in man die in the Battle of Serenity Valley, die when free men failed to fight their oppressors and, overmatched, bowed before them.
Since, Mal has been a rogue and a smuggler, capable of identifying evil and loving to prick it and save the little man from it but knowing he can do nothing against it. As he says: War’s long done. We’re all just folk now. And he has committed crimes of his own. His code allows any actions needed against those that stand in his way and don’t have the luck of falling into his few protected categories. In Serenity, we first witness him in a heist. When things go wrong, when the Reavers storm the town, he finds himself with a choice: he can save the loot or save an innocent man. He keeps the loot and gives the man a mercy killing.
In Serenity, Mal is forced out of subsistence and back into the larger conflict. He is forced to, as Abigail Nussbaum discusses in her piece “Oh Captain, My Captain: MalReynolds, Anti-Anti-Hero,” become a force for moral good in an amoral universe. At no point does he regain his faith in men or in grand causes. But the Operative’s relentless hounding, the Operative’s slaughtering of all those associated with Mal and all those associated with them, the Alliance’s crimes and refusal to let anything stand before them or stand untouched and unmanipulated by them, force Mal to take a stand against them, even if his stand is more one against evil than one directly for good. This ability – the ability to be a force for right, even without direct guidance as to what it might be – was espoused by Shepherd Book throughout Firefly. And, through Book is sadly almost absent from Serenity, he does get to crystalize that view in the movie, telling Mal: I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it.
Mal comes to stand opposite the Operative and the Alliance, but the axis he opposes them on is not the black/white or good/evil that they operate upon; it is, rather, that of freedom/oppression. The Alliance has taken the political independence of the worlds. As we saw in Firefly, its reach is ever expanding, deeper and deeper into space, limiting and meddling on every world. But its reach is not just political. The Operative speaks of a world without sin, and the Alliance has taken steps to achieve that world. On Miranda, they pumped gasses into the atmosphere to render the population docile, to strip them of their aggression. As the report says: The people here stopped fighting. […] There's 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die. Those that didn’t die went mad with rage and became the Reavers.
It is this kind of control, the control that takes people’s very emotions and humanity from them, that Mal is against. It is, ultimately, the idea that people can be progressed beyond themselves. As he says, the Alliance holds the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. At the movie’s climax, once Mal has beaten the Operative and restrained him, Mal broadcasts the knowledge of what the Alliance did on Miranda. Hell, I’m going to grant your greatest wish, Mal tells the Operative before showing him the footage. I’m going to show you a world without sin. There is, indeed, no sin amidst the corpses on Miranda and no humanity either. Mal is fighting for man as they are, not for man as they might someday be twisted into being.
Though the freedom/oppression battle waged here also comes to, by the end, seemingly coincide with our conventional definitions of good/evil, it is a mistake to limit its impact to that of that axis and to try and shoehorn all that Mal is into the role of white knight. The darkness we see in Mal’s character in the movie’s opening is not banished with his shift from survivor to warrior. It is no coincidence that Mal’s first words after his conversation with the Operative that forces him to accept his new role are, Get these bodies together […] I want them laid out on the nose of our ship. It is immediately after his transformation that Mal engages in his darkest acts. He disguises himself as a Reaver, takes on the guise of ultimate evil to fight the Alliance’s oppression and desecrates the corpses of those who died for him in order to do it. In fact, in his role as warrior, Mal abandons his previous code as a survivor. By going toe to toe with the alliance, he puts his crew, the family he would do anything to protect, into mortal danger and ultimately kills Wash (and, if you’ll allow me to unprofessionally fixate on that for a moment, what a death scene it is!).
Of course, the eternal championing of freedom, and freedom uncomplicated by good/evil morality, bears with it a few problems. Chief among them is the issue that, for all a world without sin may be an inhuman proposition, there are terrors yet inherent in sin that Mal seems to be removing the safeguards from, as Abigail Nussbaum (well isn’t this turning into the essay for referencing her?) writes in her “Well, Maybe You Can Take That Part ofthe Sky.” I am not, ultimately, sure that Whedon is as unaware of this problem as Nussbaum seems to suppose. Many of the problems seen in Firefly were caused by relatively small time criminals and crime lords just as on the run from the Alliance as Mal. Admittedly, Mal gives the poor folk oppressed by this lower level of evil little thought in Serenity, but I wonder if that might be more a product of Whedon’s compression of his idea into two hours rather than dozens of episodes than it is a product of Whedon’s actual vision. Still, giving Whedon points for what I think he might have later wrote is growing untenable.
And, within, the bounds of what we do see in Serenity, I found myself incredulous at how Whedon dodged the consequences of Mal’s actions. After Mal’s heroic defiance of authority and acceptance of the death that would likely result, Whedon grabs that seemingly inevitable result back off the table, leaving, despite a few cursory words about a possibility to the contrary, the Alliance’s vengeance one forestalled by them all suddenly turning into very reasonable chaps who are quite aware when they are beaten. Arguing that, if we are just heroic enough, we may get spared the consequences of our heroism seems to be a questionable proposition.
Such gaps and questions leave one wishing Whedon had gotten more time to play with the universe of Firefly. But what he has given us is mighty indeed. Serenity is an excellent Science Fiction movie, one that brims with wit, boasts a plethora of simply awesome sequences, and explores and evolves the philosophy of character of the enigmatic and fascinating Mal.