Sometime in the late ’60s the mantle of America’s favorite movie genre passed from the Western to science fiction and sci-fi has owned it ever since. We went from stories about a hundred years in the past to hundreds of years into the future. In many ways, the two genres are about discovery and bringing civilization to the unknown, so it’s no mystery as to why movies in one genre often resemble those in the other, but few movies have made that connection as plain as Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005), which looks like science fiction but sounds like a Western.
The movie is the culmination and finale of Whedon’s short-lived television series Firefly which lasted but one season in 2002 and chronicled the adventures of a gang of thieves five hundred years from now haunting the edges of the law-abiding galactic Alliance, by pilfering the less developed, further away planets for work. The movie focuses on two of the gang, siblings Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), who are on the run from the Alliance government after Simon broke his sister out of a government lab where wicked experiments were being done to her. River knows a secret that the Alliance wants to keep undisclosed so they send their best man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after the Tams and the ship that’s carrying them, Serenity.
The rest of the movie plays out like a horse opera but with spaceships instead of horses. Serenity’s colorful crew talks like they’re speaking to Ward Bond or Walter Brennan (a dialect that the rest of the Universe, or the rest of the ‘Verse, as they call it, does not share): Everyone’s fixin’ or aimin’ to do somethin’. Things are always threatening to go south. If cowboys of old would sometimes slip into Spanish, these roughnecks of the new age let in a little Mandarin. The ship’s captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) and first mate Zoë (Gina Torres) are veterans of a war between the newly formed Alliance and separationists, a war that stands for the Civil War. The Serenity’s distance from the civilized planets of the Alliance leaves them open to attacks by Reavers, terrible savages who have an unlimited thirst for blood and who operate in the way that Native Americans did in classic Westerns (this isn’t to suggest that Reavers, who are actually closer to zombies, resemble actual Native Americans, but their purpose as threats are the same as in a standard, albeit vaguely racist Western).
The blending of old elements and new keeps us on our toes; it makes the dialogue more interesting. When you hear the phrase, “That’s a long wait for a train don’t come,” spoken in front of a giant spaceship in a time when trains would have been obsolete for dozens of generations, it reminds you that you’re watching a movie, an art form with great traditions that can seamlessly bring together that past and the future. And if you’re watching Serenity, you’re watching a pretty good one.
The movie is very fun. Whedon’s panache as a writer seems to be puncturing bombast and pretense with deflating humor, and there isn’t a serious moment in Serenity that doesn’t also come with a leavening line or visual gag. Does this keep the movie from ever amounting to much? Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to want to be anything other than a good yarn about cowboys in space. Take another genre-twisting space Western, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, which was nothing but bombast and put its only glib wink into its title. Wouldn’t you rather your movies about six-guns and laser beams be bright and amusing as opposed to dour and scowl-faced? A movie that frames the old West in space is more about movies than any meaningful comment about today, so how much can it really amount to anyway? Have some fun with it and Whedon certainly does.
That’s not to say the movie is without genuine feeling. There’s a space battle in which Serenity has to avoid the crossfire between scores of attacking ships that generates real thrills. Contrast this sequence with one from another space opera from 2005, George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith and its mostly lauded opening scene. Both are little more than computer-generated cartoons, but I found the one in Serenity to be more engaging because, while I couldn’t tell which side was which, I could focus on the ship that meant something to me as it slipped in and out of danger. In the Star Wars picture, the sequence becomes a chaotic, albeit impressive, collection of numberless details, none of which I had much of a connection to. This sequence in Serenity is also done vertically as the ship is plummeting toward a planet through the scrum of the other attacking ships, further adding to the thrills.
In a time when Batman movies have to incorporate issues of class warfare and privacy encroachment, the term “popcorn movie” has taken on a bit of a stigma. I don’t know why that should be so. A large percentage of the enjoyment of the movies seems to be escapism and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s an art to the popcorn movie that can elevate it even if the movie “doesn’t have a lot to say.” Despite its technological advances Serenity is an old-fashioned movie, one that wants to tell a story to pass the time in a pleasant manner. That it does, and how.