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Serenity: My Defense of the Film’s Initial Choices (Part 1)
Some viewers have complained that director Joss Whedon changed the characters’ behavior in the film vs. the TV series. I believe they are mistaken.
I watched the movie Serenity (2005) long before I ever watched the series, and I fell in love it. Some people have complained that, because Joss Whedon couldn’t decide between writing the film for the fans of the preceding TV series Firefly or for a new audience, the movie was hard to follow. This was not my experience, although I didn’t know the backstory and thus didn’t understand the significance of some of the events of the film. But these events help explain why the movie Serenity never got its long-desired sequel.
The movie opens with Simon rescuing his sister River from the lab where she was held captive. This event had actually been recorded by the security archives and the recording is being played by the movie’s villain, The Operative. (I had originally thought that the bounty hunter from Episode 14 would reappear but apparently not.)
The Operative is a government agent who works for the Alliance. Not much is known about this character; he is described as a believer but what he believes in is never specified. All we know is that he has been sent by the Alliance to find River Tam because it turns out that I was very wrong about her psychic powers.
During her operation at the lab, her ability to read minds has been enhanced and she has picked up a variety of government secrets. One such secret threatens to destroy the Alliance’s reputation. It is so terrible that it caused River to become unstable while undergoing these various surgeries.
The reason I missed this the first several times I watched the movie is because so much emphasis is placed on her skills at combat. On top of eliminating her brain’s ability to filter information — which was established in the series — the surgeries have also made her a sleeper cell, something reminiscent of the MK Ultra experiments performed by the CIA.
If she receives a certain subliminal signal, her inner capabilities will be unleashed, and she can overpower almost anyone. But it’s important to note that her physical prowess is not the reason the Alliance wants her back; rather, it is secrets contained within her brain — although, she does not consciously remember them.
The next scene opens with Mal and the crew of the Serenity. Much has changed since the last episode of the series. The Shepherd and Inara, the Ambassador, are no longer with them. And since Mal discovered River’s talents in Episode 14, he has decided to use her mindreading capabilities to see if she can pick some useful intel on their next mission. Simon is not happy about this and he and Mal get into an argument. But because Mal is the captain, he gets his way and River is taken along on the mission.
The mission goes smoothly until the notorious Reavers show up — which River detects because of her psychic connection to them, a detail that is elaborated on later in the film. The crew escapes the Reavers, and Simon then confronts Mal for endangering his sister. This fight causes Simon to decide to leave the Serenity, so the crew flies to the nearest planet to drop off the doctor and his sister.
However, as Mal and the others are discussing their next mission with a group of local criminals on this planet, River wanders into the bar. It turns out that the Alliance is playing a significant subliminal signal on the televisions inside. She mutters the word “Miranda” and begins beating up everyone in the bar. River and Mal are about to start shooting at each other when Simon runs in and screams a series of words which instantly puts River to sleep. Seeing as how the situation has escalated, Mal takes River back to the Serenity, and demands to know how Simon can just shut her down like that. Simon explains that he was told the words to use in such a scenario by the contacts he developed while trying to rescue River. But doesn’t know how his contacts came across the information nor why these particular words are necessary.
Before moving on with the rest of the plot, I want to take a moment to defend some of the film’s choices up to this point. There has been a number of complaints launched against Whedon for seemingly changing the nature of his characters during the film. After watching the series and the movie back-to-back, I don’t believe this is the case. For one thing, the escalation of stakes helps explain why the characters act in such an irritable and aggressive manner. It’s important to remember that during the series, River was an unknown quantity and every decision she made — even when she was volatile — was something they didn’t understand. No one realized that she was a “reader” or proficient with weaponry until the last episode of the series.
Also, the tension between Simon and Mal had been steadily building. It wasn’t outright, but the two almost never saw eye to eye and Mal frequently berated Simon. It stands to reason that Simon would eventually have had enough of this. Mal putting his sister in harm’s way was the final straw. So, it makes sense for his character to stand up for himself and his sister.
The reason the tension and the fight seem so odd to many viewers is that these events happen within the first few scenes of the film. While the escalation in emotional tension makes sense within the context of the preceding TV series, someone who hasn’t seen it in a while could find the change in temperaments jarring. I was not bothered by these scenes when I first watched the movie because I’d had no prior experience with Firefly and just took these initial events to be the result of the character’s regular dynamic. But a fan of the series could find the change alarming. Because the stakes had not yet escalated within the film, it could be interpreted as Whedon changing the fundamental personalities of the characters. But again, I don’t think that is the case. We’ll continue with the film’s story in Part 2.