Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A Christian Evaluation of Serenity (2005)

Having posted before on this great film, I thought I'd share the extended version, which I recently wrote up for NTI...


Serenity is a feature film developed from a cult sci-fi series called Firefly, broadcast by Fox in 2002. Disappointed at the axing of the series after only 14 episodes, fans and the scriptwriter-director (Joss Wheedon, of Buffy and Angel fame) lobbied the industry for funding to a least get a film made, if not more episodes of Firefly. The New York Times verdict on the original series was, ‘A very funny, very hip, very terrific sci-fi show’, which is about right, and in my opinion the film is even better. Serenity works perfectly well as a stand-alone story, though it is enriched if you are familiar with Firefly, so I shall confine my analysis to the film, with occasional reference to the world described and explored in more detail by the earlier series. This world exists hundreds of years in the future, when ‘Earth that was’ has been abandoned by the voracious and fecund human race, who have colonised many other worlds. Their galactic culture is a neat blend of American and Chinese – the more rural settings often look like the Wild West, as do some of the weapons and costumes, and the dialect English they speak is redolent of 19th century America; however, the urban settings are like the seedier parts of Hong Kong and the characters usually swear in Chinese! The writing is all in letters and pictograms. There are no aliens!

Plot Summary
This is the 100-word version: for a fuller summary see the Appendix. Better still, stop reading this and watch the film so you can enjoy the unfolding story as it was intended!

Lead by charismatic rogue Captain Mal Reynolds the crew of Serenity, a smuggling ship, stumble across a massive state cover-up concerning population pacification technology, the murder of millions, and the creation of human monsters. The key to the mystery is locked away in the memory of a traumatised teenage girl (a fugitive, with her brother, on Serenity) who has been psychologically conditioned to turn her into a weapon with the right trigger. Pursued by a sinister and ruthless Parliamentary Operative, after various adventures, battles and tragedies, the crew overcome self-interest and succeed in broadcasting the information at great personal cost.

The script is successful at a macro level, with the plot developing through tension and resolution, propelled by various contingent and necessary motors. The challenge of introducing those who have never seen Firefly is overcome nicely. Occasionally there are clunky moments are a lot of information is shared with us through a conversation (e.g. 6 minutes in when the Operative discusses Simon and River with the doctor responsible for her conditioning) but in most cases we learn what background we need through odd phrases and through action. A fairly conventional meta-story (a rag-tag bunch uncover a conspiracy and through adversity being largely thrust upon them discover the courage to sacrifice for a greater good) with several stock characters (muscle-for-brains, repressed rich boy, cool British villain) is enlivened through cinematic and directorial splicing techniques on display from the start. Serenity opens with a narrator over documentary footage explaining human history since the exodus from ‘Earth that was’, which is revealed to be the voice of a teacher in a gazebo-like garden classroom of 12-year-olds, which is shown to be a flashback-dream in the mind of crazed River, strapped into a sinister lab chair just before she is rescued, a dramatic sequence which itself turns out to be a holographic recording of said rescue as viewed by the Operative on their tail. Russian dolls eat your heart out!

The script is even more successful at the micro level, as Wheedon manages to bring out his characters with their flaws and their humour through a convincing dialect version of English. The language has enough grace and charm to conjure up centuries past where eloquence was valued more highly, while still being comprehensible to modern viewers. Combined with effective set design and sparing use of quality CGI Wheedon projects a world that grabs the audience. Nothing is too grand or too clean. Making a virtue out of the necessity of budgetary constraints, there is general celebration of parvus pulcher est, which is also an important theme within the world of the film.

The cast perform extremely well. Each of the characters is rendered consistently and the actors are completely believable while more than coping with a demanding script that ranges from flippant to deep grief and is peppered with cod-Chinese curses. I was engaged by their relationships and moved by their struggles and tragedies. The stock characters are given their own flavour through great facial expressions, quirkiness and costume idiosyncrasies.

Serenity pays homage to a great many other films from a variety of genres, notably Westerns and spacebound science fiction. Labouring the intertextual links would be wearing so I’ll mention just a handful. The use of the Universal Studios logo in the first scene recalls Waterworld, another futuristic human survival story (considerably more expensive and less successful!) River and Simon’s escape through a lift shaft into the belly of a spaceship honours Star Wars (episodes IV and V). Mal Reynolds is Han Solo, only better (“Heresy!” I hear you cry). The climactic and claustrophobic desperate rearguard battle with its high attrition is both Zulu and Aliens and more… This film is an artistic gem and a lovely example of how to work within a tradition but with originality.


A great many themes are picked up by Serenity in passing, many of which can be celebrated by Christians (in modified form), several of which cannot. Eccentricity and individuality in community is a major concern of the film. The crew have to deal with their differences and learn to recognise that fellowship is more important than ego or point-scoring, something they are not always successful at. Heroism expressed in sacrifice, not for the sake of glory but for the sake of others, is a clear theme; the crew, particularly Mal, learns that self-interest or feigned amorality as regards politics will not suffice in a fallen world if justice is to be done, even in a limited historical sense. 

There is a right suspicion of empire and human power, which chimes in with the Bible’s perspective, as does the recognition that people are in no way perfect. An optimistic/utopian belief in human ability to engineer goodness actually drives the plot. The explicit clash between this belief and the liberalism of the ‘Independents’ (neither blind obedience to the state nor chemicals can solve the human condition) occurs in a powerful piece of dialogue before the final act. Against a background of the slaughter of the innocents, Mal confronts the Operative on video phone about their respective motivations…

O: You should have taken my offer, or did you think that none of this was your fault?
M: I don’t murder children.
O: I do – if I have to.
M: Why? Do you even know why they send you?’ 
O: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
M: So me and mine gotta lay down so you can live in your better world?
O: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I’m a monster. What I do is evil, I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

As Mal stirs the crew to embark on a probably suicidal mission to broadcast the suppressed data he says of the state, 

They will try again… [t]hey’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I don’t hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

What Serenity lacks, however, is any answer as to how people are to be made better – by implication a celebration of diversity and resistance will be OK, but this is a serious aporia in the worldview. 

In its opposition to tyranny, Serenity also displays abhorrence of cover-up. The crew struggle, as we all would, with the cost to them of exposing the truth, but there is no doubt as to the morality of what they settle on. Mr Universe’s motto, ‘they can’t stop the signal’ displays a faith in exposure and in final justice, the idea that someone, somewhere is watching crimes and that the truth will out. CCTV and other technology along with independent-minded vigilance provide the all-seeing eye here, but Christians know that someone more reliable will provide ultimate justice.

 Several of the undercurrents or explicit messages of the film are less susceptible of a Christian embrace. While we can be grateful for a film in which the ‘Christian’ characters are neither pushovers nor hypocrites, the Christian faith of this galaxy is pretty bland, and the crew are happy to exploit this religiosity, carrying out their payroll heist during ‘Sunday worship’. The character of the Shepherd, representative of a deeper religious commitment, is ultimately called upon by Wheedon to be the mouthpiece for a kind of content-less will to transcend the self – as he urges Mal, with his dying breath, to fight on, he says ‘I don’t care what you believe, just believe it’. The clash between the Operative, ‘the kind of man who believes hard’ and Mal is ultimately a clash between the adherents of political philosophies who prove willing to die for their beliefs. But which belief is right? And is the morality of belief really to be reduced to the strength of feeling in the believing subject? Serenity appears to suggest this at the emotional climax, while of course undermining it in the case of the Operative and his beliefs.

 To put it another way, the gospel according to Serenity is that salvation can be had through cunning, decency and fighting for freedom with a strong dose of ‘belief’. Salvation is needed because people are not perfect but especially because big governments are tyrannical. The ‘fall’ was the formation of the central planetary Alliance at some point in the past. The moment of regeneration, as it were, comes with the enlightenment of knowledge – so long as we have unmediated access to information about everything (‘the signal’) we can deal with the evil. The major idols of the film are personal liberty and self-determination.

 Furthermore, while it may seem a little moralistic to bring it up, the crew are a bunch of crooks! Our heroes make their living from crime, and to argue that their hearts of gold make up for this is to veer towards Gnosticism on the one hand ('what you do doesn’t matter, it’s who you are'; as if such things could be separated) or anarchism on the other (power is bad, authority is bound to be worse than independence). Serenity thankfully does not endorse a revenge ethic – the one moment where revenge briefly captures the grieving Zoë, she becomes reckless and endangers her companions – but, rather, a libertarian and pro-prole approach to society. Petty crime and prostitution are OK, so long as it’s only the rich that are made to pay. 

To conclude this section I want to consider Serenity’s take on two old chestnuts, sex and violence. The film stands in an ambivalent relationship to the interplay of these most misunderstood of human activities. Final answers on whether certain levels of violence in a film are gratuitous or whether particular costumes/scenes constitute soft porn (or a prelude to it) are not easy to settle on. In a general sense as regards film I am not entirely happy with my current stance of feeling slightly uncomfortable while trying not to be puritannical, but neither general flight nor general embrace are satisfactory. 

There is a lot of violence in Serenity, but with two exceptions our heroes only use it defensively. Their spaceship is not armed. Male strongman stereotypes are in some ways upset: although physically brave Mal is in fact an expert at getting beaten up; hard-case Jayne is knocked out twice by River; the Operative is a martial arts expert but clearly of a very cool Oriental variety in contrast to the generally less effective and more blustery ‘Western’ style fighting. Across gender lines, the upsetting occurs in a surprisingly conventional way. Ex-military Zoë is an Amazon figure (something of a trope in science fiction) who is in fact happily married and demurely dressed; River, effectively invincible in combat, conjures up Artemis – a (teenage) warrior maiden who really is a maiden. But better than Artemis, she is clothed and not the object of anyone’s desire. The action scenes featuring River in fact cast a shadow on efficient martial arts even as we marvel at the physical skill of the ‘dance’. The first time she uses violence it is on a room full of innocent people – a dark parody of the typical cinematic bar-room brawl. Serenity thus just manages not to revel in violence and furthermore succeeds in dissociating its violence from sexuality – no mean feat amid the genre expectations of ensemble sci-fi/fantasy not designed for kids. There are relatively reasonable standards of modesty in female dress, and only occasional lewd jokes. Prostitution is treated as a fact of life in the film, and barely mentioned – whereas in the original series it was seen as somehow a noble career choice (perhaps one reason why Fox axed Firefly was its willingness to discuss the hypocrisies surrounding prostitution in modern society without condemning the prostitute).

Use value
An important measure of whether or not a work of art is “good” is what it can be used for. An aesthetic (structuralist or technical) analysis is only part of the picture of assessing artistic value. A moral analysis adds more but the morality of the art does not exist in a static or abstract fashion – it is blended by the artist(s) and is appropriated by the audience. So we need a third approach to the artwork in order to answer the question of its value.

Serenity can be used as entertainment. There is nothing wrong with diversion and entertainment in themselves (although in fact there is no such thing as entertainment-in-itself, we are always entertained in and by something), and along with the quality of the story what Wheedon asks us to enjoy is largely positive – heroism, sacrifice, humour, mocking the proud, valuing eccentricity, anger at oppression, and so on.

 Serenity can also be used as a way in for analysing culture and commending the gospel. I would suggest that the following questions could be asked of non-Christian co-viewers who are interested in exploring the film more deeply.

(1) What is meaningful “faith”? Can it simply be, or must it be in something or someone?

(2) Is there any hope for the future (personal and species) other than quick wits and whatever resistance we can muster to oppression?

(3) Is the centralized state really our biggest problem? Is the Operative right to suggest that sin is the problem? Given the flaws in his solution,

(4) How then shall we be made “better”?

(5) What is “the signal” in the real world (e.g. supposedly unmediated access to information, or divine revelation)? Can anything stop the signal? Do we need the signal?