(Warning: This review may contain a spoiler at any time. Don’t get your knickers in a twist, reader, the film came out in 2005, I think I’m entitled.)
According to my favorite online etymological resource, the word “serene” (from which the title of this excellent film derives) has its origins in the Latin word serenus, translating as “peaceful, calm, or clear”. The term was used originally for weather, and in English has only been used to describe people since the 1630s.
I call this to attention because if there is one thing I have observed about Joss Whedon’s material, besides the fact that it is pretty uniformly awesome!, it is that names found in it are never chosen randomly. Sometimes the significance is extremely obvious, such as the choice to name a believer of religious texts “Book”, and sometimes the significance gets teased out when the name gets shortened, such as the choice to name a conventionally beautiful vampire “Harmony” and then refer to her by the nickname “Harm”. But the significance is always there, and I am sure the principle holds true for other proper names in the series for locations and objects, including Malcolm Reynolds’ Firefly ship, Serenity.
The diegetic reason for Serenity’s name is obvious: the final, decisive battle of the official war against the Alliance took place in Serenity Valley, and because Reynolds continues to wage a private, guerrilla war against the oppressive entity, it makes sense that he would proclaim that battle as if it were ongoing. But look past that skin. Why did Whedon choose to name Serenity Valley as he did?
The answer to this question is key to understanding the thematic heart of this sci-fi opus. Whedon’s central point is the juxtaposition of two opposing principles in a paradoxical unity: peace is only found through struggle. This is certainly true for Malcolm Reynolds as an individual character, but the stark horror of the fate of the population of Miranda relies on its awful truth for humanity as a whole.
According to Whedon’s painstakingly realistic future, when Miranda’s population was unwittingly subjected to an unavoidable (it comes to them through the process of respiration, the most basic process of life – according to ancient Jewish tradition, life begins with the first breath) chemical designed to get rid of aggression, they lost their will to live. Whedon’s underlying assertion is that life is inherently aggressive, and I believe him. On a basic molecular level, life is a process of constant transformation of energy. Making things different than they were before. Asserting that things must change to fit a new proposed pattern. No exertion of will… no life.
So what place do the Reavers have in this theme? To an extent, the Reavers are present for purposes of plot, and it could be argued that it is not realistic that they would be present more than briefly in the Firefly universe (I can’t see any reason why they would not eat each other rather than hovering in space waiting to prey, and they certainly don’t seem motivated to breed to replace numbers lost this way – and even if they got so far as breeding, do you really think a pregnant Reaver would live for a full gestation period without clawing herself and the fetus to bits?). But on a symbolic level, the Reavers are completely necessary as a dire warning about the theme’s implications. Life, as a process, is ferocious. When pushed, it pushes back. And the process of civilization has no equipment to handle the ferocity of its push. The Reavers came into being as a natural response to the Alliance attempting to meddle with the equation of life. Their percentage of the total population of Miranda was small – but the Alliance does not dare try to wipe them out because the depths of their ferocity cannot be measured.
Captain Reynolds and his crew, the story posits, are diverse points of dynamic tension to be found in an equilibrium between the absolute ferocity of life as a process (struggle) and the absolute smothering stagnation of civilization as a process (peace). They are peace inside struggle, united and integrated with it. They are S/serenity, to the extent that it exists. And the death of lovable Wash proves with heartaching conclusiveness just how fragile that beauty truly is.
My husband, who reminds me very much of Wash (as I noted in my review of the Firefly series), called Wash’s death “unnecessary”. I considered this point before responding to him, to the extent that anyone can consider anything when bawling their eyes out, and then said that I agreed – but only to the extent that death is unnecessary, period.
I wish Wash hadn’t died, just like I wish no one would have to die, because I love life. But we do die, and I can’t fault Whedon for including this element in this story, which from the beginning with its genre-bending has always been an exploration of what is truly timeless.
You may have noticed that this review is not structured like my other film reviews. Usually I use a five-paragraph essay format, intro, conclusion, three body points highlighting the elements of the film that struck me as most significant. I have chosen not to do that with this masterpiece, and I do not use that word lightly. The way the elements of Serenity reinforce each other does not lend to that convenient breakdown and structure of analysis. Nothing is excessive, nothing is wasted here; and even the elements that I found personally distasteful, such as what felt like extreme exaggeration of the Western speech patterns that I knew from Firefly, or the assassin villain who feels stilted, absolute, and too much of a scenery-chewer, even these elements I can recognize as “necessary evils” (ho, ho, ho, now I have a machine gun too!) critical to the success of the piece of art in its entirety. All I can say is what I have said before, In Joss We Trust. Whedon will never steer you wrong.
Overall Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0.