Serenity and Firefly (movie review)

A review of a seemingly little-known science fiction film called ‘Serenity’. Serenity is the creation of Joss Whedon, who is also the creator of the TV shows ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’. I didn’t follow either show, but occasionally tuning in, I found the dialogue and plot lines to be good.

So when a friend of mine bought the DVDs to the precursor of the ‘Serenity’ film, which was a TV series called ‘Firefly’, and loaned them to me, I was interested enough to give them a try. I ended up watching 14 episodes in about 3 days.

The TV show aired on Fox in 2002 and was cancelled before its first season was through. Its creators blame ‘reality tv’. In fact it was quite demanding of the audience.

The series and movie are of interest to me because, like any pop culture, I impose my own political views on it. The premise of the show is that, 500 years in the future, an ‘Alliance’ has ‘unified’ all of the inhabited planets (inhabited by humans, there are no alien races) of the galaxy in a massive war. On the other side of this war of ‘unification’ were the ‘Independents’, or ‘browncoats’, who fought for – well, independence, presumably. Among these independents was the main character of the show, captain Malcolm Reynolds, and his first officer, Zoe. Six years after the war ends, the show’s action starts – with the two of them and a handful of others doing small-scale smuggling operations and other little jobs and avoiding the Alliance.

It was so interesting to me because the captain is a character with really profound principles who had given up on the possibility of changing the world – the time for fighting had past, and he had to accept that his side had lost. Given the way the alliance forces look and act, the ‘independents’ had a kind of anti-imperialist flavour, to me. So how does one live one’s principles if one has already fought and lost? It’s interesting to watch it all play out.

The movie, ‘Serenity’, seemed to me in some ways to break with this a little. I hadn’t seen this break until a friend called attention to an ‘inspirational speech’ the captain gives the crew before they embark on a risky conflict with the Alliance. A friend of mine suggested she could almost see the American Flag unfurling in the background as the captain finished his speech. I didn’t see it that way and I’m still unsure whether that was there somewhere in the writer’s consciousness. From a war of colonial liberation, I wondered whether I had to recast the war between the ‘Alliance’ and the ‘Independents’ as a historical parallel with the American Civil War. That makes the captain an ex-Confederate soldier – which, for someone like me, makes him somewhat more difficult to identify with or admire.

The series, and the film, remain ambiguous enough that I believe one can impose one’s own politics on them. Like ‘Lord of the Rings’, which I know in some respects is probably a white supremacist fantasy about beating back the brown hordes – respects I decided I would ignore so that I could enjoy the story and the film.

If anyone’s watched it, I’d be curious what you think.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

6 thoughts on “Serenity and Firefly (movie review)”

  1. Remember that Tolkein was an
    Remember that Tolkein was an Anarchist so the Lord of the Rings as white supremacy is a wee bit off (for god’s sake the story’s about throwing away the ring of power).

    Anyway, Joss Whedon, the mastermind of Serenity/Firefly is known as one of the most outspoken progressive/liberal/leftist/feminists in Hollywood, so there’s that.

    But I really think that like good SF, he really tries to build the Firefly’s politics off of what would service the story and not what would mirror his own views. Mal Reynolds, though once upon a time an armed anti-imperialist/autonomist/confederate :), spends the series and movie as a hardline anarcho-capitalist, something I’m sure Joss would personally object to. But because the story’s about Mal, it gets shown with a very AnCap perspective.

    The movie’s about Mal’s return to the world of those who give a damn, and it’s well done, but Mal still hates government and communalism with a passion. Which Joss doesn’t.

    But I think both the writer and character would condemn US imperialism in Iraq. “Chickens come home to roost” got a big reaction from the hard-left theatre I saw it in.

  2. I thought the “we meddle”
    I thought the “we meddle” line at the start of the film was pretty telling. Similarly the stuff about government’s trying to pacify the population isn’t without parallels.

    I was also struck while watching the trailers preceding the film, by how many of this year’s films deal with themes of oppressive government and more unusually, resistance to it. Serenity, is perhaps quite circumspect about this (we only hear vague allusions to “the Parliament” and our only real contact with them is through “the operative”). Land of the Dead (which you *need* to see if you haven’t already, is much less subtle and resonates very strongly post-Katrina in my opinion. Aeon Flux and V for Vendetta look like they’ll follow a similar line with the protagonists being what we in modern parlance might all “terrorists”.

    I can’t help feeling that this isn’t a coincidence, particularly when viewed alongside the upsurge in politically concious music. Perhaps right-wing, authoritarian, warmongering governments really do generate the best art. (That said, I’d make do with an infinite number of American Pies if it meant Iraqis didn’t have to get their limbs blown off.)

    For what it’s worth, I really liked Serenity. Like one of my friends said, you can imagine George Lucas watching it in tears. This is what Star Wars Episodes 1-3 could have been if they weren’t crap.

  3. hey, thanks for the
    hey, thanks for the comments. william, i disagree about tolkien. the story can be about throwing away the ring and also white supremacy, and if mal reynolds can be an ‘anarcho-capitalist’, surely tolkien can be an anarcho-racist! some lines in the book that stuck out included the one about the big ‘black men like trolls’ with their white eyes and big red tongues, the easterling who died with his ‘brown hand still clutching his sword’, the orcs calling the rohirrim ‘whiteskins’… you can look at rhys-davies’s take on tolkien for an example. in fact, there’s stuff online about how the tolkien estate had to fight white supremacists to convince people that it *wasn’t* a white supremacist parable… but in general small numbers of handsome whites slaughtering large hordes of black monsters, coupled with all the ‘royal blood’ stuff… Boromir dies because he forgets his place, Faramir remains loyally subordinate to Aragorn and lives… etc. etc.

    But in any case, your comments on Serenity and Firefly definitely affirm my feelings on it as nicely ambiguous. Nice to know the stuff about Whedon.

    DK, I have been told to check out Land of the Dead. I guess I’d better… good point on suffering American Pies in exchange for mitigation of atrocities. I actually like that song a lot (sigh).

  4. Actually I meant the film.
    Actually I meant the film. (I too have a soft spot for the song, but not the Madonna version).

    BTW your comments thingy seems to be operating strangely. It’s taken a dislike to my url. Discerning machines perhaps…

  5. Folks, I just read an
    Folks, I just read an interesting refutation of the accusations that Tolkien’s stuff was racist:

    Pretty good stuff, especially the letter he supposedly wrote to the Nazis, etc…

  6. FYI, Joss Whedon based
    FYI, Joss Whedon based Firefly in part on Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel ‘The Killer Angels’.

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