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Serenity (2005)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Can't stop the signal.”

This movie came from a television show: Firefly. The story of Firefly's run on television doesn't belong in this review, but judicious use of your favorite search engine should turn up plenty of web sites to fill in that history. Like many other fans of Firefly and its offspring Serenity, I didn't see the show when it ran on TV. However, when it came out on DVD, I joined the devoted fan base. To understand the movie, one need not have seen the television shows. However, it surely won't hurt to see them. The movie and DVD set complement each other nicely, but both can stand alone. Most, if not all, regular readers of my movie reviews should enjoy this film. It has treasures for the following sets of people: fans of science fiction, aficionados of Joss Whedon's work and believers in anti-statism. If you happen to lie in the intersection of those sets, this movie has no equal. I suspect it will become one of your favorites, if you don't already count it as one.

The movie opens with background information. Set in the future of human history, a feminine voice interprets, while the visuals show, the events which precede the present setting of the movie. The voice says population pressure led to space colonization. Humans took to space, terraformed newly discovered planets and then established settlements on them. Adding to the colonization story the voice says, “The central planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament... the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened... and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating. But the Alliance's victory over the Independents... ensured a safer universe. And now, everyone can enjoy the comfort... and enlightenment of true civilization.”

With those words, the visuals change to show a teacher in her classroom of mixed gender adolescents. In about one minute a tremendous amount of information has been conveyed. The broad background of the movie's setting has been laid, but more has also been revealed. The general attitude fostered by the political classes of the Alliance and their means of control should seem familiar. The young people in the classroom provide their teacher with questions, giving evidence that the system works very well. However, one student, young River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn), has independent ideas. River answers her teacher's question by telling why the Independents fought the Alliance: “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.”

Wow! What an answer and very well delivered with the honesty of a free thinking young person. The teacher approaches River, attempting to address her indictment of the Alliance. However, in a quick twist, we discover that the adult River (Summer Glau) has been dreaming. In a laboratory a maze of equipment monitors River while several researchers discuss her mental state. The man in charge turns to discuss his research with a visitor. He tells the visitor “River Tam is our star pupil.” As the camera turns to focus on the visitor, the researcher tells him of the side effects of what has been done to River in their efforts to develop her for “defense deployment.” Eventually, the visitor lets show a knowledge of River that only someone close to her would have. The visitor, Simon Tam (Sean Maher) -- River's brother, deploys a device which disables everyone in the laboratory, except for himself and River. As they make their escape from the research facility, the action takes another twist.

The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been viewing a recording of Simon and River Tam escaping from Alliance control. In less than five minutes Joss Whedon has given enough background for not only the subsequent action in Serenity to make sense, but also supplied information on the Firefly universe and filled in gaps in the story of the Tam siblings.

In his pursuit of River and Simon Tam, the Operative now takes the central focus of action. After supplying the researcher at the laboratory facility with his Parliamentary authorization, the Operative gleans more information. When he has collected the information on the Tams which he sought, he delivers parliamentary regards to the researchers and continues his pursuit.

That pursuit brings him into contact with: Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) -- captain of Serenity, a Firefly class transport, who harbors the fugitive Tams; his first officer -- Zoe (Gina Torres); her husband and Serenity's pilot -- Wash (Alan Tudyk); Kaylee (Jewel Staite) -- the ship's engineer; Jayne (Adam Baldwin) -- hired muscle (and comic relief); and former Serenity passengers (from the Firefly series) Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) The Serenity story involves them all in a struggle against future tyranny from the Alliance.

But wait, there's more. In addition to a story of resisting an oppressive central tyranny, Serenity also contains a plot line which shows a future alternative news source -- Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) -- and his “battle” with the Alliance "puppet theater" (a metaphor for the current struggle between the Internet / World wide web and mainstream media: “Can't stop the signal”). In addition, the central story line gives a brilliant fictional development based on a non-economic generalization of Hayek's idea of “the Fatal Conceit.” I could go on, but rather than sound even more like a “fanboy” I'll sum up like this: I give Serenity my highest recommendation. Watch Serenity. Watch Firefly. See them in whichever order seems convenient for you, but don't miss them. Tell your friends, spread the word, be part of “the signal.”

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