Social and Political Commentary in Serenity
This article interprets Joss Whedon’s film Serenity as a commentary of the American activity in the Middle East.
Joss Whedon’s Serenity appears to be a space western, and was advertised as a science fiction action adventure. What it really is when you look closely is a commentary on Imperialist values; particularly a critique of the American government and military’s ‘war’ in the Middle East.
The Alliance serves as the government and antagonist forces in Whedon’s universe. It is blatantly imperialistic as demonstrated in the opening sequence. A teacher is outlining the history and politics of the universe; she explains that the central planets formed an interplanetary parliament and refers to it proudly as a “beacon of civilization” (Whedon). This is how England saw itself in the time when they colonized many countries such as Canada and India. They felt they were civilizing the people there. The United States have now taken up this mantle and believe themselves to have this prestige over third world countries.
The teacher explains that the “savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control” (Whedon). The use of the word ‘savage’ confirms my argument above that the Alliance is like the colonizer who is bringing social and religious knowledge to the “unenlightened” natives of the area. The teacher argues that the Alliance victory over these initial rebellions “ensures a safer universe” (Whedon) just as the United States claimed they invaded the Middle East in order to save the world from weapons of mass destruction. They fail to clarify why it is ok they have such weapons in their own possession because they feel they are entitled to it.
They feel they are saving Iraq from Sudan Husain and wonder why they meet resistance as they storm villages. The teacher in Serenity asks, “With so many social and medical advancements we can bring the Independents- why would they fight so hard against us?” (Whedon) and this attitude meshes with the U.S. military’s stance, confirming that the film is representative of issues in our world within the first few moments on screen.
River, one of the protagonists of the film answers this question that was intended to be rhetorical, “We tell them what to do. Don’t run don’t walk”. Whedon is commenting on the United States’ control or attempt to control other countries. Controlling economies, militaries and sometimes government policies of less affluent countries using their own economic and military strength.
My ex-boyfriend Josh whose motto is that if you do not support our troops you should stand in front of them in the crossfire tried to convince me that the army was making a positive difference by telling me that his friends there escort little girls to Catholic church, a place they would never have gone before the troops were there. He told me this proudly as if the army had achieved a great success. I asked him if they actually wanted to go there or if they’d prefer a Mosque, and he made a derogatory comment and said his friends were “saving them” by bringing them to church. So when I saw Serenity and River said “We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome” (Whedon) I thought of his words and I agreed with her, applying the movie to current issues.
The teacher, who represents any American spokesperson says, “We’re not telling people what to think we’re just trying to show them how” (Whedon) with a condescending notion of superiority. As she finishes her sentence she stabs River in the head, establishing that she is the villain and that the Alliance and therefore according to my interpretation the American military does not tolerate those who question its motives.
It turns out this whole classroom scene was River’s hallucination, but that does take away from its message because River’s reality is even more shocking. She is being experimented on with mind washing and mind control techniques as Alliance scientists attempt to turn her into a mindless weapon they can trigger. Films such as the Manchurian Candidate have speculated about Americans performing similar experiments. River’s behavioral conditioning allows others to make her fight or sleep on command. The scientist brags that the Alliance’s support was “unanimous” (Whedon) meaning the government approved of this questionable treatment of human beings. This is reinforced when he continues to brag that “Key members of parliament have personally inspected” his operation.
‘The Operative’ is the most prominent Alliance character in the film. He has no name, no rank and claims not to exist. He represents American covert operations. It is unclear to me whether he is CIA or from a faction of the military but it seems he is symbolic of the assassins hired by but denied by government. That he is seemingly powerful within the Alliance which symbolizes American military forces signifies what he is a commentary on. He kills his own scientists for potentially knowing too much and fanatically believes this is honourable. He tells the man he is about to murder, “this is a good death”.
The operative is obsessed with the notion of “a better world” (Whedon) which he feels he and the Alliance are building. He tells several people about his mission to create “a better world” that will devoid of sin and justifies his actions with this goal. This mentality is similar to that of the American government as they attempt to force their values on other countries. Whedon does not agree with this and he makes the characters who rebel against the Alliance the most sympathetic.
The leader of these rebels is Malcolm Reynolds, who explains to Simon that it is getting harder to find work outside of the Alliance. Only the government is able to offer work the way the system is set up, meaning there is little freedom. He is established as an honourable thief who robs a bank but takes steps to protect the people there when real danger arrives. He only does what he can do without endangering his crew or mission. His second in command, Zoe, is upset when he does not risk helping a stranger being attacked and says “In a time of war, we would have never left a man stranded” (Whedon) to which Mal replies “Maybe that’s why we lost” (Whedon). Whedon is questioning whether trying to save everyone is really what saves the most people. Nothing is black or white, and Mal’s decisions are often morally ambiguous.
Media such as television and the Internet play an important role in Serenity. The TV in the bar tells you that the Alliance denies the existence of Reavers, which is significant later in the film and it is a subliminal message in a commercial that triggers River to become violent. Mr. Universe is a character who dedicates his life to the media, studying it and passing along messages he hears over radio waves he hacks into. He tells Mal that there is no such thing as news only “the truth of the signal” and “the puppet theatre; the parliament jesters” (Whedon). This puppet theatre he is referring to symbolizes Fox News where reporters say what the government wants them to say and stories are selected and edited based on how they want the public to see an issue.
Every time Mr. Universe is on-screen, even after his death, he says his motto “Can’t stop the signal” (Whedon). This is the ray of hope that Whedon is trying to share. It reminds me of when a professor showed a class at Laurier a YouTube video that shed new light on a protest. There had been a few protesters who attempted to start a riot and were subdued by police, according to initial news reports, however the video revealed that the two protesters who were causing the problems were wearing police boots and were released immediately, meaning their actions were staged in order to give the police an excuse to break up the peaceful protest. YouTube and similar media allow people in our world to act as Mr. Universe does.
“Can’t Stop the Signal” (Whedon) became a motto for Whedon fans because Firefly was cancelled by Fox despite a cult following (potentially because of underlying messages the network disagreed with) before the first season was complete. Whedon and his fans said “can’t stop the signal” and avoided the network’s attempt to silence his show’s message by creating the film Serenity. In his use of this phrase Whedon is encouraging free press to reveal truths just as the heroes of the film do as opposed to the government that is to afraid to be open about their search for fugitives because of the questionable nature of their treatment of these ‘criminals’.
Arguably the most significant scene in the film is when the crew has followed River to the unknown planet Miranda, discovered everyone there is dead listen to a recording. The recording tells them the fate of this planet,
“There has been no war here. It was the Pax. The G23 Paxilon hydrochloride acid that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well it worked. The people here stopped fighting, and then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. Theres 30 million people here and they all just let themselves die” (Whedon)
The people of Miranda are symbolic of the people in various countries who have allowed the American government to control them. I do not mean they actually died, although surely many have but I am referring to the death of cultures. Yes, the Americans step in and prevent them from fighting amongst each other but at what cost? Lying down here is symbolic for assimilating. River screams, “I can hear them all-and they are saying NOTHING” (Whedon), which is Whedon’s examination of the loss of minority voices. These people stopped thinking for themselves and stopped being productive members of society because of the government’s actions.
The part of the events on Miranda that are most relevant to the critique of political issues is the second half of the recording. The woman tearfully explains, “one tenth of a percent of the population had the opposite reaction to the Pax. Aggressor response increased beyond madness” (Whedon). At this point the crew thinks about the Reavers, who throughout Firefly and Serenity have been established as murderous, rapist cannibals who travel in bands attacking anyone who crosses their path without explanation.
Wash exclaims “they made them!” (Whedon). This is Whedon saying that the Americans made the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and who continue to commit acts of monstrosity in the Middle East. They had the opposite intended reaction to Americans being controlling and meddling. A Muslim population that began as normal human beings has become twisted. Probably one tenth of a percent of them, just as the people of Miranda, have become monstrous as terrorists. The Americans claim they are treating people this way for security reasons but they are creating bigger threats just as the Alliance did in the case of the citizens of Miranda who either laid down and allowed themselves to die or attacked with new venomous force.
River has a vision about Miranda before the others discover it and wimpers, “Old men, covered in blood-never touched them but they are all drowning in it” (Whedon). She means the old men of parliament never touched the people of Miranda directly but they are responsible for the deaths so they are covered metaphorically in their blood. In this sense Whedon is pointing out that although Bush and the other officials involved did not personally slaughter anyone, never mind innocent civilians they are responsible for those deaths because it was their plans and permission that allowed the people to die.
The last thing the woman in the recording says before she is overtaken by Reavers is “I won’t live to report this, but people have to know” (Whedon). The soldiers or journalists who report back to the government about the horrors of what they are doing are not protected, and their messages ignored, Think about the Ryan Phillipe movie Stop Loss where he becomes anti-war after seeing horrors in the Middle East but no one wants to hear it and he is sent back there, probably to die, his protest ignored.
This woman believed though, that her message would be shared, that they would learn from her mistakes but there was a cover up. Mal points out that the message is twelve years old and no one has heard anything about the problems on Miranda, “parliament buried it and it stayed buried” (Whedon). Cover ups are something that used to only be thought about by conspiracy theorists but the growing discontent and skepticism among the American public and the world have made people question what Bush hid, what the CIA and FBI and military hid. The story of Miranda being buried is Whedon asking viewers what has been covered up in our world. Whedon speaks through his character Mal saying, “Somebody has to speak for these people” (Whedon).
In order to be sure the audience understands why it is so important that people know about what the Alliance did on Miranda, and therefore what the Americans have done in the Middle East, Whedon has Mal say,
“Sure as I know anything I know this. They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this ground swept clean, a year from now, maybe ten, they will swing back to the belief that they can make people….better…and I do not hold to that, no more running. I aim to misbehave.” (Whedon)
Whedon is declaring that if people do not know about and protest against what the government had done in the past then they cannot prevent such tragedies from arising again in another failed attempt to change and control other societies. Mal, and presumably Whedon disagree with trying to change people, particularly in dangerous ways that might backfire like it did with the accidental creation of the Reavers.
Jayne questions whether Mal should be so eager to join the war. Mal blames the Alliance for starting it but Jayne replies, “Alliance starts the war. And then you volunteer”, questioning whether volunteering for either side is an honourable move. If the Americans are the Alliance and started the war, with the people on Miranda and the Reavers as their opponents, then maybe those volunteers Jayne is questioning are countries like Canada. He later adds” If you can’t do something smart do something right” (Whendon) which would work within this interpretation. Going against a superpower like the United States is not smart but maybe under certain circumstances choosing not to join them would be ‘right’ in Whedon’s view.
Throughout the film River has flashes of the classroom from the opening scene. The teacher who represents Alliance and American propaganda says “Lie down” and all the children except River do. It is a forced ‘peace and quiet’ that is not peaceful because it is forced. In a later flash the classroom is empty. Everything is extremely clean, and orderly but vacant. It is like the education system of the Alliance has left the children’s minds orderly, easy to control but vacant of original thought. This is perhaps a critique of American education in regards to what was going on in the Middle East when Whedon began Firefly. During this scene there are quick flashes of the dead people on Miranda indicating a connection between the lack of education and the horrors that this ignorance results in.
There is repeated allusion to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the film. The Operative begins this by referring to River as an Albatross and Mal responds with the argument that the Albatross was good luck “until some idiot shot it” (Whedon) and acknowledges Coleridge by telling Inara not to faint in shock that he has read a poem. River is repeatedly referred to as the Albatross who in the poem was described as a “pious bird of good omen” that represented pure nature. River is often paralleled with the people of Miranda, and this connects them to the allusion.
The Operative is the Ancient Mariner who kills the Albatross because he does not believe in its purity and is harshly punished. When bad luck befalls him because of his violence toward the embodiment of nature (in the case of the film this is River who walks around in bare feet and has extremely fine tuned intuition). Like in the poem he becomes disillusioned because of his bad luck and sees the purity in nature (River) and changes his was but it is too late to save those who were lost.
If River and Miranda represent the innocent civilians in the Middle East who had potential but were slaughtered and have now become a thing of fear to the ignorant, the Operative as the Ancient Mariner is the American soldier. He is a soldier who goes into the field with a lack of faith in the good of the people there, then witnesses tragedy because of his own or his people’s violence and realizes too late the beauty of life there. Despite the Operative’s new outlook on life the Allience will continue their pursuits, and in this same way despite the change of heart among many individual soldiers in the Middle East. However there is hope because the Operative says the Allience’s regime has weakened because of the public seeing the truth, and in this Whedon is expressing hope that people in the real world will as well.
I should clarify that to my knowledge Whedon has never actually expressed these views directly or stated anywhere that Serenity is a political commentary. This is merely my interpretation of his work of fiction. That being said I believe that there is enough evidence within the film to support the claim that Serenity is about social and political issues. The Alliance, in their imperialism represents the United States military and the people of Miranda represent the citizens of the Middle East. The Reavers are a commentary on the worst aspects of humanity such as terrorism. Whedon’s Serenity is commentary about the American occupation of the Middle East.