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My Thoughts on Serenity

If I weren't running out of things that I felt like writing about, I might have blown this off, because after all the things that I said about Firefly and Serenity in the months leading up to the movie, there just aren't that many things that I have left to say. I will point out, though, that if you want to see it on the big screen ... and you do ... and you're in St. Louis, after tonight you are officially out of time; it leaves the theaters Friday morning. But now that I've not only seen it twice, but seen it in its final form, I do have a couple of things left to say about it that I didn't know or couldn't say before. And given that it's leaving theaters, after a three week run, I don't feel particularly inclined to spoiler-cut it.

About those Deaths: After the very first round of preview screenings, die-hard fans of the series set out to organize a worldwide boycott and protest campaign if Joss didn't change it so that Wash lives. Nobody especially wanted the Shepherd to die, but most reasonably sane people agreed that it was a perfectly reasonable end to his story arc. But the idea that Joss would make a widow out of Zoe didn't sit well with a lot of people. A lot of them also made the point that killing off both Shepherd Book and "Wash" Washburne strips the ship of both of the only two people on it who have a conscience. I don't agree with that point, especially in light of the current state of the Inara storyline. But at the heart of the objection seems to be the feeling that it was pointless. Having had more time to think about it than many of you, I don't think so.

One of the things that several reviewers have speculated about, and I wish I'd thought of it first, is that it seems an awful lot like Joss Whedon knew, on some level, that he wasn't going to get his second and third Firefly movies. And on the off chance that was going to happen, he had to squeeze into this episode all of the character subplot endings that he couldn't bear to leave hanging. If that's so, then it makes sense on a certain level to kill off Wash; it was certainly foreshadowed over and over again. By very early in the series, it was increasingly obvious that Wash was a man torn. He absolutely would not leave Zoe. And Zoe absolutely would not leave Mal. And he knew, knew, knew that Mal was going to get them all killed. If they were going to be what he originally hired onto, a smuggling crew, he was their man, but they hadn't been that since the end of the pilot episodes. Now they were outlaws and gunmen, and Wash was, to put it bluntly, way too much of a physical coward to survive that life, and he knew it. So for Wash's constant worry that Mal was going to get him killed to turn out to be true, but for it to happen in such a way that first he got to make an incredible hero out of himself by doing the impossible under combat conditions, was the perfect end to his storyline.

Some people were complaining that killing off the Shepherd meant that we were never going to find out what, exactly, the Shepherd had been before he took up holy orders. I thought so too, until I saw a review that, once again, made me embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it first. He did tell us. Remember the warning he gave Mal about what a Parliamentary Operative was and how they operate? Mal says something to the effect of, "And someday you have to tell me how you know so much about such things." And the Shepherd says, and his tone says more than I thought about at the time, says harshly and unkindly, "No I don't." At the time, I took that as him being literal minded and just as a reminder to Mal that he wasn't on Mal's crew any more, he doesn't have to take Mal's orders. At least two other reviewers have read that line, and I think they're right, as meaning, "No, you moron, because I just did." And in hindsight, having him be a retired Operative actually makes more sense than any of the other hypotheses I've heard rattling around, including my own.

About the Difference Between the Two Movies: Night and freaking day, and not just because of tighter editing, improved SFX, and a finished musical soundtrack. Some of those scenes were so thoroughly recut that it's obvious to me that he didn't even use the same "takes" that I saw the first time. One of them is storyline significant: I'm pretty sure that Inara's answer at the end, where she hints that she hasn't made up her mind whether to go back to the Order or stay with Mal, wasn't in the preview screening I saw. Another important one is that they used an entirely different set of takes for most of River's fight choreography in both of her big fight scenes, and cut them a lot smarter, and I think even digitally enhanced the big one against the Reapers to give it a darker, spookier lighting scheme that really helped. But the biggest change almost single handedly saved the movie, in my opinion.

In the original cut that I saw, they land on Mr. Universe's moon, survive the crash, and there's a long moment of celebration that they all made it down in one piece ... and only then does that huge metal spear crash through Wash's chest. The obvious intent was to get everybody in the audience to relax and think that the danger was over for now, and then hit them with a jack in the box. That gag is so freaking old that had they left it that way, audiences would have not only felt cheated, they would have felt cheated by an amateur. In the final version they cut that whole gap out, so that Wash dies in the same combat sequence as the landing, which makes a lot more dramatic sense and is a lot less of a "cheat."

A Weird Thought About the Reavers: The obvious interpretation is that on some small percentage of the population, the Pax gas causes a paradoxical reaction; instead of erasing all violent impulses (and all impulses altogether), it amplifies all violent impulses, and all depraved impulses as well. And that's a perfectly ordinary science fiction interpretation. Me, I wonder if there's an alternative explanation that might be more interesting, and I wonder if Joss Whedon intended it? What if the Pax does work on the Reavers? What if what makes you a Reaver is not that the gas screws you up, but that you realize just barely in time that the gas is screwing you up? What if the only way to not lie down and die is to amp yourself up to such a feverish pitch of anger, hatred, viciousness, and self-loathing that it cuts through the fog of the Pax and makes it possible for you to actually stay alive?

Did You See Joss's Obnoxious Visual Pun? The vehicle ID number on the crashed Research and Rescue vehicle was C-57D. Which also happens to be the serial number of the Starcruiser in the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. And where did they find Research and Rescue unit C-57D? On Miranda, a forbidden planet.

My Biggest Remaining Complaint about the Movie: It would have been a lot better movie without those last five or ten minutes.

Go back to the original Star Wars. Only after the Death Star blows up, remove the award ceremony. Now add scenes in which someone explains to Luke that this isn't the end of the Empire, that the Starfleet and the Clone Army are still powerful and loyal, so they have to go back into hiding at once. Now cut in the first several minutes of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back showing them on Hoth, and Vader ordering the launch of the probe droids to track them down, and the Rebels peering out into the snow wondering if the Empire has found them yet. Rather ends the movie on a down note, if you do it that way, doesn't it?

If he is ever going to get his sequel, he could have included the scenes of the Operative's men rebuilding Serenity, and Mal's exchange with the Operative about how the Alliance is weakened but not gone, in that movie. If he isn't going to get his sequel, was there any reason to bring us back down after moment of triumph, after the Operative orders his troops to stand down, any reason at all why the movie has to end up back where it started? I think that more audiences would have gone out of the theater a lot more pumped up than they were, and a lot more excited about recommending it to random strangers, if they had left the theater feeling better about Mal's victory.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 20th, 2005 08:17 am (UTC)
For me, Wash's death was just such a shocking moment, over the top and pointless. But that's how death is. I was sitting there thinking, omgwtf just happened? I didn't want to believe he'd been killed for several seconds. Probably the most powerful moment in the movie, IMO.
Oct. 20th, 2005 08:21 am (UTC)
Oh, and I think rebuilding Serenity would have been the perfect moment to go out with. I know I was worrying what would happen to the ship, so that was a big relief.

Another thing: Click! What do you think about that?
Oct. 20th, 2005 09:47 am (UTC)
I think they hadn't managed to get paid for something like 3 jobs in a row. I think that when Mal sent Wash out with the last of their money to refuel for the previous mission, the one in the comic book, Wash asked "What am I supposed to fill her up with? Dirt? Cheap dirt?"

The crew are all in a much darker mood than we're used to when the movie begins because, as I mentioned in the summary of the comic book, they're starving and the ship is falling apart because Mal's leadership has really sucked for months now. So yeah, that they would use aerobraking to save money on fuel doesn't seem at all odd to me.
(no subject) - loosechanj - Oct. 20th, 2005 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2005 08:26 am (UTC)
And, of course, Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest and Prospero's daughter in the play is called Miranda. She has a famous line: "O brave new world that hath such people in't."
Oct. 20th, 2005 08:32 am (UTC)
Cocksucker! LJ-cut, man, I still haven't seen the movie!
Oct. 20th, 2005 09:44 am (UTC)
... and apparently weren't going to, since in not much more than a couple of hours it'll be out of the theaters.

Three weeks after an event picture hits the screen, spoiler warnings seem pretty stale to me, like giving people spoiler warning for the Lord of the Rings. (Frodo lives.) There comes a point where it's unreasonable for those of you who keep putting it off to expect the rest of us to whisper and stifle our converstation for you.
(no subject) - davidcook - Oct. 21st, 2005 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Oct. 21st, 2005 10:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2005 11:08 am (UTC)
Meanwhile, over here in Europe, the movie hasn't even been released yet.
Oct. 20th, 2005 12:44 pm (UTC)
On Book: Wasn't that obvious? I thought the way he delivered the line (and the "Trouble like you've not known" bit as well) made his past plain without saying as much.

On Wash: I agree with your interpretation of Wash's dramatic arc. Also, by killing one of the most likable characters in the cast right at the star of a major showdown, Joss ramped the suspense through the roof. After that, you know that anyone here can die - and just might! And unlike on Buffy and Angel, there are no resurrection spells in the Firefly universe. That, to me, made the climax far more powerful. Also, the deaths of several major characters ripped straight through the old Star Trek "red shirt" paradigm. In most genre series, you know that no major character is actually going to die. The fact that Joss periodically kills off major characters gives his adventures a greater edge than most genre series possess.

On the last ten minutes: I disagree. One of the reasons I love Joss' work so much is because he refuses to go for the feel-good ending. He's not afraid to get his hands bloody and let you know that it's NOT okay at the end. If you watch Wheadon's oeuvre - even the Toy Story films - there's a pervasive sense of heroic survival rather than complete triumph. Joss gets damned dark sometimes, and that's one of the great strengths of his creations. An ending in which everything ended on a high note would have been dishonest to the series... and to the themes that he was getting at. It's not at all hard to see the critique of our current socio-political situation in Serenity (rendered, I might add, in a far more graceful and effective fashion than in Revenge of the Sith), and to wind up the film with a smiling-happy-people moment would have undercut the message: we're not out of the woods yet, people! Joss writes about survivors, not superheroes.

Besides, with Wash down, Zoe hurting and even Kaylee looking a bit worse for wear, a (largely healed) River now has a solid place among the crew in case the much-desired new episodes emerge.

Given the film's crappy performance at the box office - a PROFOUND blight on SF fandom! - I don't expect to see more theatrical films based on Firefly. Given the series' hardcore following and critical acclaim, however, I think Sci-Fi Network would be insane not to pick up new episodes. Currently, that network throws its money and cred away on pathetic offerings that disgrace the name of sci-fi. Adding a revitalized Firefly to its roster would be a major coup for a channel that desperately needs a Sopranos-style hit. Will the exes take the hint? Stay tuned... Either way, Joss said what needed to be said. If the series ends with Serenity - which would be a huge loss - he has still left us with a profound, if brief, chapter in modern SF.

Oct. 20th, 2005 12:55 pm (UTC)
Given the film's crappy performance at the box office - a PROFOUND blight on SF fandom!

Have I mentioned how FUCKING furious I am at SF fans lately? They'll go and dump piles of cash at the Altar of King George (no matter how badly he repeatedly shits on them for it), excusing the staggering vapidity of the last three Star Wars films. Yet for reasons ranging from the understandable (I haven't seen the series) to the absurd (I'm not gonna see it because its fans tell me I should), SF fans refused to support Serenity in great numbers. That people who will see Revenge of the Sith ten times despite its flaws stay home when a genre film of quality, depth and love appears, it makes us all look like the superficial geeks we're generally assumed to be.

I hate a lot of my fellow "fans" right now. For the first time in years, a genre film appears that shows what that genre is really capable of saying - a film made with obvious devotion and thought - and it grosses less in a month than Dukes of Hazzard makes in its opening weekend. You want to know why Hollywood foists off contemptuous shite as entertainment? Because that's what people support with their cash.

I don't want to hear any further whining from so-called "fans." You had your opportunity and you blew it.
(no subject) - mythworker - Oct. 20th, 2005 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - satyrblade - Oct. 21st, 2005 01:10 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - orangemike - Oct. 20th, 2005 07:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2005 02:55 pm (UTC)
You really should put spoilers like this behind a cut. There may actually still be people out there who haven't seen the movie and want to.
And Soylent Green is people. - boc_imaginos - Oct. 20th, 2005 09:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: And Soylent Green is people. - kinkyturtle - Oct. 21st, 2005 09:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: And Soylent Green is people. - phierma - Oct. 21st, 2005 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rowyn - Oct. 29th, 2005 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Oct. 30th, 2005 10:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rowyn - Oct. 30th, 2005 12:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 21st, 2005 01:32 am (UTC)
Last word I heard is that a sequel actually looks likely.
Oct. 21st, 2005 08:05 am (UTC)
...actually, I hadn't seen it, and I'm honestly kinda pissed because your first paragraph really ruined part of the film for me.
Oct. 21st, 2005 12:26 pm (UTC)
This didn't kill the movie for me, or suddenly make Joss Whedon a hack, but I admit that as a newbie to the 'verse, I had real trouble believing in the Reavers. A spaceship isn't a bicycle; it's a remarkably complicated machine with a billion fiddly requirements to function - Wash and Kayleigh got to make that very point. From what was seen in the movie, it's hard to imagine Reavers cooperating to fly the thing, keep it going, make decisions about where to go next, etc. etc. I'd think they'd just find it simpler to eat each other.

It reminded me of the Voyager episode where, after we see Master Pilot Paris sweat a few atmospherics landings, a couple of half-savage Kazon who'd nver seen a Federation control interface in their lives nail it on the first try.
Oct. 21st, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC)
As a fan of both the series and the movie, I have to agree with you. That's probably the biggest suspension-of-disbelief item in the whole canon.

I can't imagine Reavers being able to cooperate in the kind of prolonged fashion required to a) run a starship, b) plan tactics and strategy for raids or c) do anything except destroy each other.
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:04 pm (UTC)
I disagree with you about Book and the supposed satisfactory resolution of his story arc. I knew that he'd been some shady character, whether assassin, military man, whatever. This was not the hook to his character.

The hook was that something had happened to him that turned him religious. Giving a title or general description to his position is not going to resolve unanswered questions, it just gives those questions a name. The real interest in his character is why he gave up a life of violence or whatever it was, to become a shepherd. That was the one thing about the movie that didn't sit right with me. That line "No, I don't" seemed more of Joss Whedon being a smart arse and telling you subtly "This man is going to die".
Oct. 24th, 2005 06:59 pm (UTC)
what else would a believer do?
Think of believers as having an addicitive personality. They would substitute another belief system instead. Book became a Shepard, probably when he was confronted with something that shook his belief in the system. I would imagine that this other operative, after being confronted with a face full of awful truth will probably lock himself away in a similar manner for a couple of decades and then reach out to where he is needed.

Also there is probably a similar homage being made to Earnest Hemingway, and more importantly to the Hemingway Code. Get out your old Junior High English Lit notes...

If Mal is Code, having survived impossible odds, and Wash is NOT CODE, having been a physical coward as Brad put it, then Wash's death occured right after he became code. If you want to see an example of this, go read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Wash is no longer a coward after being a leaf on the wind, and just pulled off an incredibly brave stunt. Yep, heesa gonna die.

And for you mamby pamby "OHMYGODHETALKINGABOUTTHEMOVIE" anti-spoiler mavens, Shut up. You have officially missed your chance in the American theaters. For those of you who are worried about having the movie spoiled for you, I would suggest you lock yourself up in a barrel and avoid any media whatsoever until you can go out and get the DVD.
Re: what else would a believer do? - jahbulon - Oct. 24th, 2005 08:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: what else would a believer do? - thesigother - Oct. 24th, 2005 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )