Silence in Space

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Serenity, the film

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 16
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton

It is not necessary to watch the film Serenity without any sound to notice the differences between the look of the film and the look of the television series. Any viewer paying even just a little attention to the visuals will notice that in the film, Serenity seems a little sleeker and her occupants a touch cooler. It’s as if to tell the viewer that the story coming up is going to be more epic than we’re used to. The very first image of the film can be seen as having this same message. The Universal logo cleverly becomes Earth-that-was, blurring the line between reality and the ‘verse, and drawing us in. We see the ark ships flee Earth-that-was and head out into the black. It doesn’t get more epic than this.

But of course this is the first of many tricks in the opening minutes of the film. We think we are seeing the start of an epic story – and we are, in many ways – but then we abruptly realise that we are actually in the most mundane of settings: a classroom. Except, of course, we’re not, as we discover when the next layer of the flashback is revealed and we find ourselves in an Alliance lab, watching River being experimented on. And then another layer is pulled back and we realise that this is in fact a recording being watched by the Operative. These scenes are a great way into the ‘verse as we get a wealth of information about the setting of the story in a short space of time, but they also prefigure the coming story, in which Mal and his crew will work through the layers of mystery surrounding River and eventually arrive at the truth of the origin of the reavers.

But before we can get to anything quite so exciting, we need to be introduced (or reintroduced) to Serenity’s crew. The shot which does this conveys much about the crew’s dynamics and roles through visual information alone. Our guide through the ship, and through the crew, is, appropriately enough, Mal, the captain. We see him interact with many of the crew in their professional capacities and in their appropriate locations: Wash the pilot on the bridge, Kaylee the mechanic in the engine room and Simon the doctor in the infirmary. Jayne the mercenary arrives on the scene carrying weapons and Zoe, Mal’s second in command, takes over from her captain in berating Jayne for wanting to bring grenades. Everyone clearly has a place on the ship, and a job to do. This sets up beautifully the contrast of how we see River, lying on the grating, looking out at the viewer. Where does she fit in?

River’s body language in the film is particularly interesting to watch. As she moves towards the hover mule, her way of moving is reminiscent of how she moves through Serenity in Objects in Space. She walks slowly, barefoot and deliberately. Her facial expressions suggest a new awareness of her surroundings though. She raises her eyebrows as Simon tells her it is ok to leave the others to die, for example, and gives Zoe a confirming look during the heist after she picks out the would-be hero. This is a River somehow more connected with the world around her and more able to communicate with it.

Other characters seem a little different too. Mal may appear to be lighthearted at the start, but there is a hard edge to his joking around, and his thoughtful look when he tells River, “This is what I do”, does not match the certainty of his words. Later, after the heist, Mal talks to Zoe about how shooting the man who was caught by the reavers was a “piece of mercy”. As he speaks, Serenity leaves Lilac’s atmosphere and the golden flickering light on Mal’s face ends abruptly. The visual effect perfectly fits with what Mal is saying about how tough times leave no room for sentiment.

Simon also seems different. He is steely with Mal in the infirmary at the start and then later uncharacteristically loses his cool and punches him. Mal returns the favour after the fight in the Maidenhead and lunges at Simon. There is tension and anger in their interactions, and also in those between Mal and Jayne. We are far from the happy created family we left at the end of Objects in Space.

And then there is the Operative, whose body language at the start of the film suggests someone who is as far removed from tense and angry as it is possible to be. If we don’t know what he is saying, the impression he gives is purely benign, at least until he reaches for his sword. He seems humble, charming, gentle and reassuring, and as such very much Mal’s opposite. But of course this changes as the events of the film unfold. The Operative’s killing of Mr Universe, for example, is very different from how he dispatches the doctor at the start of the film. He uses his trusty sword for both, but makes no attempt to engineer a “good death” for Mr Universe and instead stabs him with some venom.

Many of the deaths shown in the film create memorable images. At the start of the film we have the shock of the doctor’s slow fall onto his sword and then later there is the affecting sight of Mr Universe, at the end of a trail of blood, lying in Lenore’s lap. There is also the brutality shown when the would-be hero on Lilac is set upon by reavers and shot by Mal, and the cold-blooded shock of the Alliance pilot on the ship which attacked Haven, unarmed and surrendering, being shot by Mal. All of these images pale into insignificance in comparison to the deaths of Book and Wash though, as of course we have far more invested in these characters. Book gets a slow death with the chance to communicate some dying thoughts to Mal, whereas Wash is cut off mid-sentence and does not even have the chance to react. Both deaths are visually shocking in their way, as Book gasps for his final breaths in the unrelenting sunshine on Haven and Wash meets his end in the red-lit gloom of Serenity’s bridge.

Thankfully, it is not just the deaths in the film which create memorable shots. There are so many other images that struck me as I watched the film without sound that it is hard to just choose a few. Some of my choices would be the obvious ones, such as Jayne’s “Let’s be bad guys” pose and River’s hero shot after slaying the reavers. But there were other, less well-known images which caught my attention as I watched the film this time, such as Wash alone on the bridge, wondering if everyone was safely on board after the reaver chase on Lilac. Then there is Book, looking as wise and as cool as can be as he welcomes the crew to Haven, and the unexpected image of Jayne playing the guitar by the fire.

River fighting in the Maidenhead also provides some memorable visuals. The sight of her combat boots coming down the steps isa contrast with the previous images of a barefoot River on Serenity and then on Lilac. It is as if to warn us that we are about to deal with River the weapon, rather than River the girl. The trigger for River the weapon involves, of course, rather ridiculous images of fruity oaty bars, but results in the sublime image of a beautiful close-up of River’s face, suffused with white light. The fight itself involves further visual contrasts as River’s balletic, if vicious, fighting style is all efficiency, whereas Mal struggles to get his gun out of the locker and Jayne is neutralised to great comic effect by River.

Three further images which caught my attention on viewing the film without sound all involve Serenity’s crew as a group. The first comes when everyone is on the bridge, discussing what to do, now that they realise Miranda is a planet. Serenity’s occupants are all together in one place, but they stand apart, with stances reflecting the disunity of their opinions regarding what to do next. This image is a great contrast with the later one of the crew around the dining room table, listening to Mal’s St Crispian’s Day speech. This time the picture is of togetherness, with the crew united in purpose. Even the two members of the crew least likely to agree on anything – Jayne and Simon – pass a bottle of drink between them, indicating their unity. As Mal talks to them, he is almost obscured by white light, which fits with the nobility of his intention to fight back, even though it is a fight for the right to misbehave.

The final group image which I noticed comes near the end of the film, as the surviving members of the group gather for a funeral service. This image is obviously a sad one, but what struck me this time was just how small the seven survivors look in the open landscape. They may have just done something epic, but they are still just seven people in a hostile ‘verse.

We would have had a very different film if the story had ended on that shot, but in fact what we have as final images are ones of restoration and hope. Serenity is gradually restored to working condition and there is hope amongst her occupants as Simon and Kaylee finally connect and Mal and Inara share tentative smiles and hopeful looks. Wash is gone, but his dinosaurs are back on the bridge, and River, who is a barefooted girl again and not a combat booted weapon, has taken on his role as pilot.

At the start of the film we saw Simon frozen in a look of love towards River, which set all the events of the story in motion. At the end, the focus is again on love as Mal talks about the first rule of flying, but at times we can barely see Mal’s face as he talks. It’s almost as if the camera is unwilling to intrude on such an intimate moment. The final image of the film takes us back again to the epic though, leaving the intimate behind. And what better way to end a film about the search for serenity, independence and the right to misbehave than with the glorious sight of Serenity flying free.

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