Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Story Analysis: Serenity and the Verse

(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Story Task, April 2010)

A Space Western from 2005, I thought that Serenity would be an intriguing choice to compare against the Classical Hollywood narrative system. Furthermore, “Serenity” is an adaptation, as it spawns from the 'failed' television show “Firefly”, and thus felt it was suitable to look at considering today’s market.

Trailer for "Serenity"

A Space Western is a world which resembles the past, but where futuristic technology exists. Set 500 years in the future and yet focusing on the ‘frontier’ elements of society as Earth’s resources have since depleted, this is precisely what “Serenity” is. Specifically, it resembles the Westerns of the 60’s and 70’s, those that took a pessimistic view on society and often featured an anti-hero at its core. Thus “Serenity” has a World that lies deep in the root of the Classical Hollywood but as we will see it is what is created in that world that begins to clash with the Classical Hollywood narrative system.

With a large group of characters and almost a season’s worth of storylines behind it, Whedon establishes and resolves numerous Dramatic Questions in “Serenity” that propel the narrative. It propels it at such a rate, that the elements of the film were to take place over 3 seasons if the television show were it to have stayed on the air. Whedon establishes a hunt for River Tam and poses the question ‘Will the Operative find her or can the crew keep her safe?’.

Whedon ramps up the Alliance’s interest in them and creates a dramatic question by revealing that River’s escape from the hands of the Alliance’s medical experiments lab was filmed and observed by The Operative. A man who will do anything he can (including killing Alliance employees) to track her down. This unrelenting single-minded no name, no rank government employee poses more enigmas, such as “Why is River the Government’s priority, enough to send someone like this after her?”. This leads to a further enigma that drives the final half of the film, “Who or What is Miranda?”. Eventually these questions are resolved, River is kept safe, and the reason for such a hunt is that River possess knowledge that could greatly damage the Alliance. In resolving this question the Truth about Miranda is also revealed. So in a sense it fits into the Classical narrative, the good guys prevail, the mysteries are revealed and most of the loose ends are tied up.

 The terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor as 'The Operative'

While the Operative and his hunt for River Tam is essentially the plot of the film, as with all Joss Whedon works, plot is entwined with Character. 9 Characters that all have a defined and yet grey background which offers up numerous dramatic questions of their own.
  • Mal, the anti-hero Han Solo-esque captain, who was a volunteer in the war between the independents and the Alliance and thus has strong feelings against their rule. He has deep feelings for Inara but cannot express them, as he must focus on keeping his crew alive and to keep flying. He is a classical Hollywood rebel mould. The good guy, who significantly doesn’t shoot first, and when he does it is used for great impact by Whedon. 
  • Inara, the high-society courtesan with the heart of gold. Her contrasting position in society and presence on the ship clashes with Mal’s beliefs, a further point in stalling her relationship with Mal. 
  • River Tam, the 17 yr old psychic genius who has special abilities that, we believe is what the Alliance are after. She takes a major role in the film, as Whedon has stated, “Serenity” is the story of Mal as told by River.
  • Kaylee, the bright chirpy female mechanic who is a very earthy character. 
  • Simon Tam, the well educated and proper speaking Trauma Surgeon who has left his position in society behind him to protect his sister. He feels responsible for her.
  • Shepherd Book, the elderly preacher with a dark past. The Obi-wan type figure. 
  • Zoe, the strong 2nd in command figure that fought will Mal in the war.
  • Wash, the voice of reason / comedic relief who is the pilot of the ship. 
  • Jayne, the tough mercenary with a girl’s name, who could betray the crew at any minute, but at the same time, is someone you could depend on in a fight.
The 9 man crew of 'Serenity'

They are a band of rebels or scavengers, looking to stay out of the reach of the Alliances grasp. They fight to stay alive and are generally ‘good’ characters, although their dark sides are more defined than those of the Classical Hollywood. The archetypes closely resemble those we have seen before, but with slight twists, such as the 2nd in command Zoe being an African American woman.

Dramatic questions arise from these contrasting traits. Will Mal and Inara get together and will she return to the ship? Will Kaylee and Simon finally show their feelings for each other? What are River’s abilities and how did she get them? What is Book’s past and will he return to the ship? Will Simon forgive himself? Thus it is the characters that propel the story. For instance with Mal, he decides to keep River and Simon on the ship, even though he realises this will attract the Alliance. He realises it is the right thing to do and that they cannot abandon her. This leads to the crew to take action to try and solve the riddle of Miranda and instigates the final act of the film. Inara

And it is the death of one of the characters, who Mal feels a great bond with and feels responsible for, someone who has a set of beliefs that contrast his non-religious stance, a defining trait in the history of Mal Reynolds who gave up on religion during the war, that sends Mal over the edge in a bid to find the truth and stop the Alliance.

Behind the scenes on 'Serenity'

The techniques of the filmmaking itself are interesting given that coming from a TV show the story has jumped forward, with Inara and Book having left the ship, which affects the narrative and Mal himself. This was covered in a one-off comic book adaptation, "Those Left Behind". Whedon also had the tricky situation of having to cater to 2 masters, fans of the series and newcomers. The opening of the film is very creatively put together, with essentially 5 openings to the film. Beginning in a back-story voice over which zooms out to reveal a computer screen which is in fact a nightmare in River's head which zooms out to her being tortured which zooms out to reveal its actually a video tape of Simon rescuing her which The Operative is rewinding and fast forwarding. This covers background narrative while not talking down to fans and its complex fashion would never exist in the Classical Hollywood, and yet is simple and clearly lays out the plot for the film, as the title screen comes up and the adventure begins. 

 The space opera verse

Whedon then uses hidden cuts in a long 15 minute shot to introduce the ship and its inhabitants, establishing the environment and closed nature of the ship. Daily Film Dose rated this as one of the best long tracking shots in cinematic history. To show the high tech world images are composed onto computer screens, lights and gadgets put over switches etc. Music is mostly source cued from screens and radios etc but there is also orchestral music added. "Serenity" was one of the first films to utilise 'Silence in Space' and made it popular.

Overall continuity is maintained and the story is told in a straightforward fashion except for River’s perspective. Scenes shown from River's view, with flashes to her memories, time jumping back and forth etc, develop the nature of her character as a psychic. So this is clearly driven by character. In terms of the rating system, coming from a television background Whedon sneakily employed the use of swearing in a different language (namely Chinese) to get away with certain insults that would not have passed the ratings board, which would have been a similar problem for films made in the Classical Hollywood period.

Joss on the set

"Serenity" on the whole seems to match the Classical Hollywood Narrative System. Whedon resolves most of the dramatic questions he creates, the characters fit many typical archetypes, the story is told straight forward and we have an essentially happy ending. But this is Joss Whedon we are talking about, so there are also going to be twists and turns, mixing of genres and playing almost on a meta-level with cinemas conventions. Utilising strong female figures, playing with race and language, crossing horror, action, romance, comedy and drama in single scenes, witty characters that almost seem to be aware they are in a film, killing characters off at unsuspected times etc. Through his use of Shakespeare-esque dialogue and literary background, Whedon develops a film that seems to reference the classical, resemble a space opera from that time period, but be completely different, unique and take place in a futuristic foreign world at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article, but one subtle distinction on your definition: "A Space Western is a world which resembles the past, but where futuristic technology exists."

    A Space Western is a Western-genre story, set in outer space. Sometimes, as in works like Firefly/Serenity and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, the Western influence is made plain, and sometimes, as in works like Star Wars and Star Trek, the Western influences are hidden away.

    Nathan E. Lilly