Serenity was disappointing on one level. In terms of continuing the firefly/serenity franchise it succeeded; in terms of delivering crisp weirdly-esoteric dialogue it succeeded; in terms of transforming the TV concept into a movie it faltered slightly.
Whedon’s method for translating from the TV screen to the megaplex screen seemed to rest squarely with answering a number of questions left hanging from the TV series. He is a master of producing ‘dramatic arcs’ that can run across episodes, series, and even TV shows. These multidimensional arcs allow for a thoroughly sophisticated modulation of dramatic tension and resolution. If you imagine an arc then then it could be considered a segment of a circle’s circumference determined by location of the centre of the circle. In the television series, Whedon has the luxury of operating a number of arcs with different centres — be they different characters or different events in the same episode or different actions within a single event.
The problem with Serenity is that the arcs of the drama that Whedon captures are all high velocity, meaty arcs involving BIG centres of drama. He doesn’t have the luxury of the minutiae of modulation afforded by the small screen. The result of this is that fans are happy with the resolution of some obvious dramatic arcs of the series, while others get forgotten (is the Shepard a Shepard? etc). The bigger problem is that the dramatic tension of the television series based around the jobs that the crew of the Serenity do and the events that spiral from these jobs, becomes the dramatic arc organised around one character, the other characters and events are distributed in the dramatic arcs event-space according to the relative importance to this character’s dramatic arc.
Whedon somewhat skillful manages to suture two big questions together (Reavers and River), but the plot is determined by River’s psychoanalysis-like cathartic moment (whereby a truth of the cosmos is set free through her) more than the damning nature of this truth for the Alliance. River was treated as ‘damaged goods’ in the series, and her brother Dr Tam assumed that the damage was neuro-physiological problem. Instead the film is motivated by the concept that River was channeling the horror of an entire world that was unwittingly murdered. Whose horror is it? The horror of what? An entire world that lays down and dies because they have ‘given up the fight’ against the Alliance and against the trials of life itself surely is not going to bare witness to the horror of its own demise. Instead we have River who experiences the silence of millions of people who no longer want to maintain the basic and essential fight to live that all living things must have in the world (at the very least to fight off the effects of entropy). The Alliance originally designed the nerve agent that causes this loss of fight to reduce the destructive tendencies of humans. This is where the logic of Whedon’s script falls down because the horror is much worse than this.
Our ‘Alliance’ or (to use another Whedonism) the ‘Powers That Be’ want conflict. Wars are good for business. Whedon presents the horror of the Nanny State gone wrong on the ‘molecular level’. The problem is that we have the rhizomatic Police State that absolutely loves creating massive conflict on the ‘molecular level’. The human body becomes a site for the politics of sobriety in the society of the spectacle. To create conflict is to create the dream of resolution, which can be sold to anyone and everyone (well everyone in the ‘Central Planets’).
Doesn’t that leave people with some sort of critical awareness of the world in a state similar to River? She started developing symptoms of schizophrenia because of an acute blockage in the cosmic subconscious into which she was plugged as the Alliance’s secret psychic weapon. She was aware of the horror but could do little about it. Eventually she ‘goes postal’. The information will not set us free, because hope is slowly becoming commodified with the rise of the Security State. Do we have to find our own piece of Serenity somewhere beyond the reach of the false hopes provided to us?