It was years ago that I first watched Serenity. I haven’t been back since, but as I’m running low on TV at the moment (although I’m open to suggestions), I thought it’d be fun to re-watch.
In particular, I wanted to do something that I think Robert McKee recommended, which is thinking about each scene, and how it moves the narrative forward – what each character is seeking from the scene, and what happens as a result.
This is where my title, ‘notepad jottings’, becomes a little more relevant – these are more my rough notes, a useful way of thinking a little bit about plot in a movie I enjoyed, rather than a polished review. But, I’m always interested in your thoughts.
[SPOILER ALERT: From here on out I’m talking plot points, through to the conclusion, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to come back after you have].
The opening is beautiful – just exceptionally done. It sets up several things at once; the broader conflict that exists between the Alliance and those who dream of something different, and one of the driving quests in this movie – River and Simon Tam to escape the Parliament’s ‘Operator’, who’s seeking to kill River because of the secrets she knows.
But it’s also a beautiful set of scenes because of how they bleed into each other, each one encapsulating the narrative that preceded it. It moves beautifully.
Once we open on what is sort of, the other opening, there’s instantly a challenge – the Serenity is trying to land. As that’s happening, Whedon introduces another conflict that’ll drive the first part of the plot – a conflict between Simon Tan and Mal. That, in turn, is a starting point for another challenge for the whole crew: stealing a payroll from a security firm. In turn, that’s upended (after a few slight challenges and successes), when Reavers arrive. Through it all, Whedon does a great job of introducing characters. Not in depth, as one review noted. Fans of the TV show will appreciate the characters in much more depth. For others, they’re likely to just be a supporting cast for Mal.
This idea of each challenge being either successfully or unsuccessfully resolved kicks the plot down the road. Simon punches Mal because he put River in danger, and decides to leave the ship. When he and River do, that kicks off the next challenge, as River is activated, and the Operative draws closer.
Some of the challenges are successfully resolved – they find Mr Universe the first time (a nice early hat-tip to a character with an ethos that’s reminiscent of Wikileaks, although the movie was released before the latter was established). Some aren’t. But in each case, the challenge creates a new one, something that the characters – particularly Mal, but the crew as a whole – have to respond to.
It’s also interesting how Whedon uses different narrative threads. The conflict between Mal and Simon is crucial in the first part, but then dies away as other conflicts come to the fore. But importantly, the different narrative threads feed each other – a response to a life threatening situation throws forward the interactions within the ship. In turn, their fights and decisions throw them into more danger.
A final thing that I thought was somewhat interesting, was the different levels of conflict. One idea that perhaps wasn’t as clear, or simple as it might have been, was the internal conflict – how big is the circle of people that Mal cares about? In turn, that plays out for a small group of people around him – the crew – but in the climax of the movie, it matters for the entire ‘verse.
The scene where River fights the Reavers is one I always find a little touching. There is so much emotion bound up in it, but so much beautiful cinematography as she transforms into this intense silhouette of pure kinesis, blood dripping off her axe.
A final thing I enjoyed about Serenity was the language. As Roger Ebert puts it, ‘Some of the dialogue sounds futuristic, some sounds 19th-century, and some sounds deliberately kooky’. But like the movie, it’s a lot of fun.