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FireflyFirefly - "Serenity" Movie - Televisionwithoutpity.com Review
Wednesday 22 February 2006, by Webmaster
If you haven’t seen the show, please do. It’s nice. But this recap doesn’t assume that you have — and in that, we’re being a touch nicer than the movie. And meaner, considering the best characters get routinely shit on. If you have seen the show...I hope I’ve done justice. You deserve it.
The Universal logo globe becomes Earth-That-Was as we hear the prologue once again. This time, though, it’s from the Alliance side. See if you can decode the propaganda: "Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many." We see ships bound out from what is left of Earth-That-Was. "We found a new solar system: Dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed, a process taking decades to support human life. To be new Earths. The central planets formed the Alliance." We see these new Earths, all different, all interesting. One looks a lot like Naboo. "Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened, and refused Alliance control." One looks a lot like Tatooine. "The war was devastating. But the Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe." We pull back to reveal a screen, diagrammed with a visual representation. "And now, everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization." The teacher speaking is Tamara Taylor, a wonderful Toronto actor who is maybe best known here for her role as Michael’s ex on Lost, and she’s speaking to kids in various kinds of dress, Asian dresses and Mormon shirt-and-tie, kneeling at desks with styluses in an open tent. Outside them is a beautiful garden.
This is smart because it’s always been easier to explain the show in terms of a physical spectrum: toward the center, the Alliance, absolute control. Spinning out into the prairie, absolute chaos. Chaos, control. You like? And at the extremity, in the black, the Reavers: just as bad as the Alliance, but in a completely different way. (If you fall on the Farscape side of the argument: compare the cold, rational energy of the Sebaceans with the brainless inner fire of the Scarrans.) And this is the point of the show, and the film: petty criminals or not, the men and women of Serenity, of all the worlds outside the Core Planets, are people, not extremes, not symbols, and they have to live somewhere on that spectrum, which means they’re fucked either way.
"Why were the Independents even fighting us? Why wouldn’t they look to be more civilized?" History is written by the victors. Another child speaks, only to be interrupted: "I hear they’re cannibals." "That’s only Reavers!" The children fight over whether Reavers exist — it’s a standard point that the Alliance planets have a vested interest in not believing in Reavers, and I always thought that was because of the chaos/control stuff, but as we’ll see in this movie, it’s a bit more involved than that. Same war, different battle. "Full well they are. I heard they attack settlers from space and kill them, and wear their skins, and rape them for hours and hours." Succinct, you creepy little kid. The teacher shouts in Mandarin, asking them to button it. "It’s true that there are dangers on the outer planets..." Toward the back of the class, a cute but severely baggy-eyed little girl is doing amazing things with her desk, tapping it like a hummingbird, making it dance and bleep. "So with so many social and medical advancements we can bring to the Independents, why would they fight so hard against us?" And the spooky, funny little girl, genius River Tam, gives the child’s answer, no less right for being blunt: "We meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes, and in their heads, and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome."
And the teacher gives the authority answer, no less wrong for being logical: "River, we’re not telling people what to think, we’re just trying to show them how." She leans in and stabs something deep into River’s forehead. We jump-cut to an older River (Summer Glau, the River you know already), where she’s being experimented upon in a cold, blue laboratory, needles in her brain, strapped in a chair. The world of you watching a movie has become the world of a history lesson, has become the world of a history class, which has become a nightmare. She screams. Dr. Mathias registers that she’s in REM, "off the charts," and wants to "amp it up." He turns to a freakishly beautiful Alliance inspector, a guy named Simon we know from the show, who’s holding a strange-looking device and looking at him intensely. Simon does everything intensely.
"See, most of our best work is done when they’re asleep," the doctor explains to the guy. "We can monitor and direct their subconscious implant suggestions. It’s a little startling to see at first, but results are spectacular. Especially in this case. River Tam is our star pupil." The man, whose name is Simon, has in fact heard that. The doctor refers to her suitability for "defense deployment, even with "the side effects." Yeah, the side effects are a bitch. "Tell me about them." She unstable, clearly, due to the "neural stripping" somehow fragmenting "their...reality matrix." This gobbledygook is basically manifested as "borderline" something. "What use do we have for a psychic if she’s insane?" This Simon man is wearing a flattering uniform. "She’s not just a psychic. Given the right trigger, this girl is a living weapon." She screams and moves, in the chair. He doesn’t seem to notice. "She has her lucid periods. We’re hoping to improve upon the...I’m sorry, sir, but I have to ask. Is there a reason for this inspection?" Simon, who is creepy on a good day, asks if he’s making Mathias "nervous."
"Key members of Parliament have personally observed this subject," Mathias equivocates. "I was told that the Alliance’s support for the project was unanimous. The demonstration of her power is..." Simon asks how she is doing physically, but Mathias thinks he means her physical performance: "Like nothing we’ve seen." Simon stalks the room. "All our subjects are conditioned for combat, but River — she’s a creature of extraordinary grace." True that. She is one of those girls that is acceptable-looking at rest, but becomes beautiful when she’s moving. River moans, and Simon looks directly at her, something Mathias basically has yet to do. "Yes. She always did love to dance."
The man in uniform hits the floor with his strange device, kneeling. A head-level shock wave drops all the doctors and aides and soldiers in the room. "River, it’s Simon. Please, it’s Simon. It’s your brother." In terms of the philosophical framework of the show, it’s important to note a few things that will help us make sense of the unholy mess that is this movie: the linguistic difference between "River" and "Reaver" is negligible at best. That’s always been the point, but it becomes medically precise in the movie. Likewise, the difference between "Simon" and Core Planet "Sinon" is similar, if softened. She’s nuts, he’s anal-retentive, but he’s older, primary, so he wins. The centrifuge of the ’verse keeps it all centralized, and that is — not some kind of weird obsession with the Southern side of the American Civil War, as some seem to think — the point. Chaos, control. This is about Reconstruction, as Joss ever is, not slavery. Or it is about slavery, but not like that. Point being, Simon’s shiny and beautiful but broken inside, she’s visibly nuts, but knows the truth about everything — it’s just that nobody can understand when she speaks. Her signal-to-noise is ugly at best. They are the spectrum, and between the two of them, they fuck up everything they touch. He unstraps his sister and she’s pretty wobbly. He gets up and runs to the door, taking off his armor. Suddenly, she’s standing right behind him, across the room, freaking him out.
"Simon. They know you’ve come." Cut to the hands-of-blue guys, whom we won’t be seeing again, in a pink-lit room, acting creepy and mobilizing some forces. He sends her to find a escape hatch at the sound of doors. "Find out." As the second wave of soldiers comes running down the hall, we pan up to see River, legs braced against the walls, against the ceiling like Spider-Man. It’s beautiful and cool. Simon forces a door open onto a wide shaft, open to the sky. Red lasers of death go clunch, clunch, clunch as the tunnel up is sealed off one level at a time. A small ship appears overhead — Simon’s collaborators in the rescue — and lowers a platform as lots of guys shoot and try to force their way into the shaft. Simon and River climb onto the platform and a voice calls, "Stop. Backtrack. Stop." The image of their escape runs back, and the Operative, Chiwetel Ejiofor from Dirty Pretty Things and She Hate Me, walks through the image of them — which self-consciously mimics the first Star Wars poster, that iconic image of Leia crouched and her brother standing above — and is interrupted by Dr. Mathias: all of this was just another level of the image. The world of the lab has become the flashback. Note please that there are enough cameras in the Alliance worlds to create a three-dimensional image of this escape: the Alliance world is one of constant surveillance; Serenity moves through the spaces between-times. As we all do, criminals or no.
Dr. Mathias tells the Operative that he’s not allowed in the "Records Room" without permission, and asks for his clearance, which turns out to be "Parliamentary override. Full access." Again we see Dr. Mathias backtracking and eating shit. "Apologies. An operative of the Parliament will, of course, have full cooperation." Mathias notes that the Operative’s clearance ID notes neither name nor rank: "I have neither. Like this facility, I don’t exist. Let’s talk about the Tams. River was your greatest success. A prodigy. A phenomenon. Until her brother walked in here and took her from you." Mathias protests that it’s not that simple, even though it...kind of is...and makes a bunch of excuses: "The boy spent his entire fortune developing the contacts to infiltrate this place. Gave up a brilliant future in medicine as well. It’s madness." The Operative corrects him, pointing to the scan image, Simon’s face looking down at her: "It’s love, in point of fact. Something a good deal more dangerous."
Mathias asks why the Operative has come, and the Operative takes him through it slowly: "Because the situation is even less simple than you think. Do you know what your sin is, Doctor? It’s pride." He runs back to the conversation with Simon, Dr. Mathias explaining, "Key members of Parliament have personally observed this subject. I was told that the Alliance’s support..." The Operative looks at him coldly, standing completely still. "’Key members of Parliament.’ Key. The minds behind every military, diplomatic, and covert operation in the galaxy, and you put them in a room...with a psychic." River stares out at us, from the image. And yeah, that’s quite the boner, but the feedback on a redundant bureaucracy is like that, so it’s not out of the question. She’s a weapon of mass delirium; she’s her own Valerie Plame, interrogating herself, reporting on herself, hunted down by a terrified government caught with its pants down and the kill order still in its hand like a copy of Mandate. "If there was some classified information that she...she never spoke of it. I don’t know what it is." Neither does the Operative, but... "Judging by her deteriorating mental state, I’d say we’re both better off. Secrets are not my concern. Keeping them is." Dr. Mathias starts getting nervous. It’s a great performance, this ongoing ass-covering and self-justification. "Whatever secrets she might have accidentally gleaned, it’s probable she doesn’t even know she knows them. That they’re buried beneath layers of psychosis."
The Operative gives him a history lesson: "In certain older, civilized cultures, when men failed as entirely as you have, they would throw themselves on their swords." My emphasis, for now, but he’ll explain himself way better later on. Suffice it to say that if the Alliance and the fringes are two ends of one road, the Operative and the Captain of Serenity, who we’re about to meet, are two sides of a coin in the middle of it, about to get run over. One mimics the control of the Alliance with an existential understanding that his deeds are irredeemable, the other mimics the madness of the outer planets with a value-free nihilism born of disappointment in every part of the system. The Operative reacts to the disorder in his society with a counterintuitively rigorous system of belief, Captain Reynolds reacts by denying belief of any kind. Dr. Mathias is too dumb to do the work, so he just gets snotty: "Well, unfortunately, I forgot to bring a sword." The Operative helpfully pulls one out, schwing, and smiles at it, turning slowly. Mathias has no idea that that was the worst possible thing he could say — followed, of course, by: "I would put that down right now, if I were you."
The Operative holds it out handle-first, asking if Mathias would rather "be killed in [his] sleep, like an ailing pet" — he has no way of understanding that the answer is "Um, totally?" Guys advance and he kills them abruptly and beautifully, and into the hallway he pursues Dr. Mathias, giving him a nerve-pinch that causes him to stand stock-still, wavering slightly on his feet. Down the hall, a scientist lady squeaks due to the giant sword. "Young miss? Young miss, I’ll need all the logs on behavioral modification triggers. We’ll have to reach out to River Tam and help her to come back to us. No matter how far out..." He kneels in front of Mathias, his back to him, sword blade up. Mathias drops onto it, sliding down slowly, disgustingly. The Operative comforts him without looking: "This is a good death. There’s no shame in this in a man’s death. A man who has done fine works. We’re making a better world. All of them better worlds." There’s a cruelty that pertains to this, because Mathias can’t be expected to understand or approach this situation from the Operative’s highly-developed code of bushido or whatever, because of the sword slowly sliding through his guts and stuff, but it’s essential to the Operative that he maintain his point of view regardless of what happens next. Compare the Mayor on Buffy, his often-hilarious obsession with etiquette and germophobia — everybody builds these walls so they can live, but only heroes can see over them. He looks at him without feeling anything, pulls it out, cleans the sword as he walks down the hallway, tossing orders over his shoulder without looking back at the terrified woman. "Young miss, I need you to go to work now. I think I may have a long way to travel." To the image: "Where are you hiding, little girl?"