“Do you know what your sin is, Mal?”
“Aw, hell. I’m a fan of all seven.”
“… it’s about the right to be wrong. It’s about the idea that you cannot impose your way of thinking on people, even if your way of thinking is more enlightened and better than theirs. It’s just simply not how human beings are. And you take that further and you say the idea of sin is in fact outmoded, is in fact more archaic than anything that Mal believes in. When he says, ‘I’m a fan of all seven,’ […] he’s saying that sin is just what people are; it’s been codified, it’s been given a name, but all of those things we take as faults are also the source of pleasure and decency, and we should perhaps rethink it.”
That first quote is from the film, and that second quote is from Joss Whedon’s director’s commentary, and it tells us two things: 1) Whedon has heard of subtext but has trouble grasping the practicalities, and 2) that Whedon is writing a manifesto. More than any of his other work, Serenity is a step-by-step explanation of what Whedon thinks is right and wrong. Television gives him the scope to find nuance and character within his worldview, but film forces him to do one thing and one thing only, and so I think Serenity is the result of him cramming an entire TV show’s worth of ideas into two hours; this is his Zodiac, the purest expression of Whedon.
You can see how his need to get out a moral statement in the way that he sacrifices both plot and character for it; many people have noticed that Mal, Simon, and Jayne’s relationships all seem to have been reset, and beloved commentor DJ JD has noted that the scifi explanation for the Reavers we get doesn’t completely hold together with what we saw in the show. And some of the plot itself runs on luck – we’ve never heard about Mal’s injury moving his pressure point until after it became convenient, which is how Mal defeats the Operative, which is how he gets off his big Heroic Speech at the end.
“I won’t get et! You shoot me if they take me!”
[Mal aims his gun] “Well don’t shoot me first!”
It’s not all bad though. The need for efficiency means that the movie just blasts through story, never losing pace and never getting boring – the opening twenty minutes are three (or four, if you count the oner that introduces us to the crew) sequences that introduces us to the Verse in general, River and Simon’s origin, the Operative, and the day-to-day life of Serenity, leading us into the plot without missing a beat. The filmmaking and action, never Firefly or Whedon’s greatest strengths, are all kicked up a notch; there’s no time to waste and nothing is without purpose.
“Zoe, ship is yours. Remember, if anything happens to me, or you don’t hear from me within the hour, you take this ship and you come and you rescue me!”
Where Whedon’s desires, the needs of the story, and the enforced discipline all really come together is in the Operative. I’ve been complaining in my coverage of the show the whole time about the presentation of the Alliance as cartoon bad guys who can be easily dismissed just on the basis that they’re uncool assholes. By reducing him to the core ideals Whedon is attacking, he creates both a legitimate threat (the Operative cannot be argued or humiliated into submission) and a genuine argument to engage with. The Operative doesn’t do what he does because he’s too stupid to know better; he honestly believes he’s doing a necessary thing. Chiwetel Ejiofor always has a pulp sensibility about him (probably why he gets cast as the hero in things like 2012), and he brings a confident purity to the Operative that elevates it further. The only way to destroy him is to destroy his ideals, and it’ll take a lot to do that; even if you don’t agree with him, he’s extremely cool.
“You want to run this ship?”
“Well… You can’t.”
The thought that I keep coming back to, though, is that Whedon is being a hypocrite. The movie opens with River denouncing an Alliance representative as ‘meddling’, and her response is “We’re not trying to tell people what to think. We’re just trying to show them how,” which just about sums up my description of Whedon’s intentions, and in fact is how Mal defeats the Operative – give him the same information as Mal, and the Operative comes around to Mal’s point of view. I presume this is the reaction Whedon was expecting; that the viewer, given all the information of the show and the film, would peacefully come around to an anti-Alliance anti-authoritarian worldview.
“And are you willing to die for that belief?”
[ownage] “‘Course that ain’t exactly Plan A.”
But the hypocrisy doesn’t actually bother me as much as the Sisyphean uselessness of Whedon’s goal. On one level, you have people like Miller, who totally reject Whedon’s philosophy on the face of it and all the expressions thereof; on another, you have people like me, who go out of their way to hear out and sympathise with alien viewpoints, and who even sympathises with Whedon’s viewpoint specifically… and still comes out disagreeing, or at least finding holes in the way he presents it. I often draw on stories as a how-to guide to living, but consciously writing a how-to guide relies on your audience being at the right time and the right place to accept what you’re going to hear.
Also, it relies on you being someone worth listening to. I suspect the Operative wouldn’t fuck women behind his wife’s back and then lie about it.
- The Firefly Verse is much filthier and grungier in the film than in the show – the lighting is edgier, the clothing more ragged, and everything looks more used. Normally I prefer that sort of thing, but I prefer the show’s niceness.
- Glenn Howerton is the guy Mal shoots during the opening sequence. I leave it to you to make the It’s Always Sunny In The Verse jokes.
- Ruck Cohlchez observed that he couldn’t unsee the women in the show as male fantasy figures; I found it nice in the film that it felt more like Simon was the fantasy figure for the more easy-to-identify-with Kaylee. “To hell with this! I’m gonna live!”