Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Serenity: a Christian movie review (spoiler-free)

I don't usually do movie reviews, for various reasons. I don't take a notepad, I admire detailed and specific reviews, and I'm afraid my memory alone won't do the trick, absent multiple viewings. [Update: this has since changed.]

I'll make my first exception for Serenity.

Summary. I loved Serenity. If you like science-fiction at all, and can take it a bit dark, you will find Serenity to be a terrific movie. Go see it. Be warned that it sports a hard-edged and deserved PG-13, and do not take younger children. (More later in this section.) But you go!

Backstory. Serenity is a movie born from the sparklingly creative (and re-creative) mind of Joss Whedon. It began life as a TV series ("Firefly") that, though it found its voice early and was building a fanbase, was badly mishandled and prematurely cancelled by Fox. However, DVD sales in part fueled enough confidence for Universal to greenlight this movie. Serenity's relatively modest $40 million budget is put to the best use by Whedon, who notes that his TV series always came in under-budget.

Whedon's ways. The strength of the movie is surely its full-orbed characters, and what Whedon does with them. The actors are all virtually note-perfect, talking and interacting like real people, and one cares for them.

This "caring" also is a hazard. Anyone familiar with Whedon's other work knows well that no character is "safe" in a Whedon creation. None. So with Whedon one doesn't ever have that nice cushion that only TV series provide, of knowing that, no matter how dire the situation, this or that major character simply cannot die. Oh, yes, they can. If Joss Whedon is driving, any character can die. Very suddenly. And with no miracle recovery after the commercial break.

In fact, that is one of the things I very much appreciate about Whedon. He likes settling you down into a familiar cliché, one that you have seen a thousand times, one that always ends exactly the same way. Then, when you're all comfy and cozy, in your blanket and your Bearfoot slippers — Whedon doesn't simply pull the rug from under your feet, he takes the entire floor and part of the foundation with it. With Whedon, one should always expect the unexpected.

Accessible. Though I saw and enjoyed the Firefly DVD set, I tried to keep part of my brain positioned as if I were a newcomer to that universe. Would I be able to get involved and enjoy the movie? I think so. (You can also read Dom's bona-fide, glowing "outsider" review. Or, though there's a spoiler risk, you could see Bryan Preston's review — written by someone who hasn't seen any Whedon series, and loved Serenity.) There is, I think, enough deftly-handled exposition sprinkled here and there to bring anyone up to speed enough fully to enjoy the movie. Then rent the series, and enjoy more!

Amazing. Serenity delivers full-blooded characters, colorful and memorable dialogue, a dense but not bewildering plot, and some hold-on-tight action sequences. I saw it with my 19 year old son Matthew, also a Firefly fan. Afterwards, I asked him, "How many times did your jaw drop?"

"I lost count," was his answer.

Let me make it even more vivid. I think I can speak for Matthew in saying that, at least at one point, I'm pretty sure he and I both came close to jumping out of our seats and yelping, "What?!!"

The movie has laugh out loud humor, tension, pathos, horror, thrills -- often in rat-a-tat sequence, or commingled. It's a marvelously crafted piece of movie art.

Whedon's Weltanschauung. All movies have a worldview, and Serenity is no exception.

Joss Whedon is a self-described "angry atheist," and that fact pokes its head out here and there in all of his work. Like another great sci-fi writer who is an atheist, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the wonderful Babylon 5) — and unlike Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry — Whedon seems to accept that recognizable human religion will always be around. I'm sure Whedon, sharp guy that he is, thinks he gets it. But he doesn't.

Whedon is not nearly as successful as Straczynski was in peopling his universe with believable, full-orbed, practicing religious people. In Firefly/Serenity, Whedon has a wonderful character named Book, but Whedon never seems to know exactly what to do with him. In the series Book is your typical liberal-created clergyman, non-judgmental and gripped with his own unresolved issues. Here he says "Believe! I don't care what you believe — just believe." Uh huh.

Also, Whedon's characters refer to the cosmos as "the 'verse," dropping the "uni-." Now, that may be simply a speech affectation, like his "Shiny!" (= "Cool!"). Or it may reflect a worldview that rejects the unity of creation as coming from one Creator, in whom all things cohere (Colossians 1:17), in favor of the naturalistic, nihilistic, chaotic view towards which atheism naturally bears one.

Whatever the case, I would observe of this movie as I have of Whedon's other TV series, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel, that Whedon has evidently never known, liked and understood a real-live, practicing, Bible-believing Christian. He shares that with most Hollywood writers, sadly. Whedon can create believable murderers, maniacs, flawed heroes, monsters, in-betweeners, and a hundred other types. But he seems unable or unwilling to create a credible, likable, genuine, openly Christian character — let alone create one and go anywhere with that character.

But as with all men, Whedon cannot live nor create in a manner consistent with his own atheistic premises. Atheism, formal or practical, always and necessarily falls apart. It is crushed under its own weight (Psalm 14; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).

His characters (like Whedon himself, like all men) have to deal with morally complex issues, have to make choices. Whedon paints bad guys and good guys. But what makes these guys bad? What makes those guys good? "If you can't do something smart, do something right," Book is quoted as saying. But how do you tell what is right? No objective answer is given, nor can be, on atheistic premises.

In Whedon, the line always shifts, because his premises don't allow him to draw a fixed and consistent line. Yet the categories must persist, as they do in life. That is not negotiable. The problem is that Whedon's characters have no fixed, transcendent point of reference. All they are left with are glands, guts, and guesses.

Because there is no objective, transcendent right, there can be no objective, transcendent evil. There can be no real sin, hence no real redemption from sin, hence no real Redeemer — and no real, everlasting hope.

As to specific values showcased, I can picture different groups finding affirmation or offense in Serenity. Captain Mal Reynolds (wonderfully played by Nathan Filion) comes off as a libertarian, but an uneasy and cranky one. On reflection, libertarians often are cranky... but I digress.

The enemy seems to be an oppressive and totalitarian state, and its true-believer advocates. One's mind leaps to real-world socialism, communism, or Islamo-fascism. But at one point the goal is stated as being the elimination of "sin." So is that a shot at the Hollywood caricature of active Christians? Or is it just a turn of dialogue without specific modern significance? If there is an intended slam here, it is not heavy-handed.

With these ideological objections, how can I so heartily recommend the movie? Because I view it as art, as entertainment. I do not embrace it as a sermon. I can think that Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Homer, Tad Williams, and Aristophanes are gifted writers in their ways, while still critiquing their worldviews. Christians need not be as one-dimensional as Hollywood's caricatures would have it.

Will you be offended? If bad words is a major issue for you, ScreenIt! counts about two dozen in the entire movie. That's about an hour's walk through any given mall, only milder.

There is no nudity, there are passing sexual allusions. There is a good deal of violence, though the worst is suggested, and not lingering. It wasn't Sesame Street; it wasn't Kill Bill.

Worth the money? My basic criterion for choosing between seeing a movie in a theater or waiting for the DVD is the reduction factor. That is, will it lose much in translation to smaller screen and smaller sound? With Serenity, the answer is a definite "Yes." Additionally, I consider whether I want to support what a movie represents. Again, with Serenity, I answer yes. I want Whedon to make more, tell more of the story.

With those final caveats, let me get back to where I started: this is an excellent movie. Serenity is intense, gripping, involving, and it sticks with you. See it this week.

19 comments:

Kris said...

Hey, I know this a a 3-year late reply, but I just came across your blog, since I'm a new fan to Joss Whedon's Firefly series and Serenity movie. I'm also a Christian (of about 2 years) and am deeply appreciative of your blog. I don't know if you still remember the series, but I have come to love the characters and the storyline- and especially, strangely enough, Objects in Space. I listened to the commentary, did a little research and discovered Jean-Paul Sartre.

A part of me gets a little torn apart watching shows that I love because of the blatant and not so blatant attacks on what I've come to know as truth, through revelation. I'm saddened that the world as a whole does not know how deeply rooted in truth the Word of God is and how the media makes laughable attempts at portraying characters of "faith". I was utterly disappointed at Shepherd Book's character (not surprisingly), throughout the entire series, although he still is my favorite in the series. That sort of persona has become the "token Christian man of faith", all cliche and no true depth, because, as you so accurately pointed out, Whedon, like the rest of Hollywood, can't understand God (1 Corinthians 2:14).

I still love Firefly, though, and it's influenced me enough to step out of my box and look into the philosophies of the world.

DJP said...

Hi Kris. Oh well, better late than never.

It is striking that, as excellent and creative a writer as Whedon is, he just can't do it, just can't (or won't) for the life of him realistically depict a Christian.

Contrast equally atheistic J. Michael Staczynski, who wrote Babylon 5. He features many characters of faith, and his depictions are full-bodied, sympathetic, and almost wistful. I actually dialogued with him online during the series, and you just couldn't get anywhere with him, very belligerent. But he had it in him to do these living, breathing depictions.

Not Whedon, though!

Kris said...

I'll have to look into him. I don't think I've watched even a full episode of Babylon 5 before, which is weird because anything with a spaceship in it I'm pretty much easily taken away.

I've been reading up on Whedon's attitude towards Christianity and it turns out he's a full fledged atheist but apparently has an "interest" in what faith does to people. That kind of faith he talks about is more than your typical placebo effect- and it's obvious he disregards (or is oblivious to) the substantiality of true faith. But then again, I don't expect any nonbelievers to.

Ahhh, it's too bad. I would have loved to see Shepherd Book defend the faith instead of making making it look like he had a less than basic background in theology. Oh, and that episode, Jaynestown, where River tears apart Book's Bible... it's theme was pretty obvious when Nathan ended it with, "It's not about you, Jayne. It's about what they need." It's a typical atheist view on faith.

I have, though, taken a real interest in the episode, Objects in Space. That was Whedon's depiction of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential philsophy. I thought it was very interesting, and thoughtfully done.

Daniel, you seem to be a genuine lover of sci fi, and this question may seem base, but don't you ever feel like your enjoyment of it can't reach its peak simply because of these subtle (and not so subtle) attacks on God? It bothers me sometimes, and I find I can't quite be the fan I want to be because of it.

DJP said...

Yes. Absolutely. You see it very strongly in the fans, too: many of them really, really hate Christ, and loathe anyone to whom "Jesus" is more than a hollow feel-good buzzword.

I frequent www.whedonesque.com and, boy howdy, even try to drop a syllable slightly to the right of the far-left, and boom! I said something about these things once or twice, and there was something of a dogpile.

Not too many Christians that I've read have even tried to broach the field, or those that do haven't been very good. C. S. Lewis' Perelandra trilogy is, of course, wonderful — but a bit more philosophy/theology than scifi action. Ted Dekker is a very good storyteller, more "dark fantasy" than scifi so far.

But who else?

I think it could be done; it just isn't. And fans would explode. They really, by and large, hate Christ.

(Did I say that already?)

Roddenberry surely did, for one. And you'll notice that there basically isn't even any religion practiced by anyone in the ST universe, unless it's the Vulcan "religion" of (materialistic) "logic." Think of the funeral scenes in Alien, or Serenity for that matter.

A contrast, though, would be the all-time classic Forbidden Planet, which includes a couple of respectful nods towards God. And if you watch all of B5, you'll see quite a few Christian themes, even though JMS was (to use the common oxymoron) a devout atheist.

Kris said...

Yes, and this may sound awful, but sometimes I literally have to forget I'm a Christian to appreciate a good sci fi show. And honestly, I sometimes struggle when I do.

You know, strangely, I've never actually heard of Perelandra. But now that you've mentioned it, I'm definitely gonna read it! I've never been much for Christian fiction- it seems to me that there are not that many Christian media that appeals, and they always have that B-rate, "nice try" look. The only way it ever does appeal is when they secularize it, eg the Passion of the Christ, which, in my opinion, had no evangelical worth to it, but only a play on emotions. I know, it wasn't Mel Gibson's intent, but still. Even the cults were praising that movie.

It's funny though, how fundamental differences shape our views on such things like movies. For example, I thought the movie Bruce Almighty was pretty funny, but was worthless anyhow. My atheist friend said that he felt it was attempting to convert the audience to Christianity. Okay?

I am a trekkie, but only a TNG trekkie, really. I knew Roddenberry wasn't Christian, but I never noticed that the series left religion out. I think that's probably why I became such a huge fan- well actually I wasn't Christian back then, but I think that's why I can STILL be a huge a fan. I'd rather my show not even hint at God (kinda hard now, sensitive to subtle untruths and all) than play out a bias caricature of Him.

I definitely agree, though. The majority of sci fi fans hate Christ. Do you think it's a mutual effect? Does sci fi hate Christ, as well? I don't want to believe it, but I can't escape the feeling. The more I think about it, the more I see that Christians are fast losing ground, if we haven't already lost 75% of it.

Lady Katerina said...

I disagree with the comments that Shepard Book wasn't a good Christian. I believe that I am a good Christian and I would much rather have someone like Book by my side in a crisis than many people who hold themselves out to be "good Christians".

And I really resent that statements that indicate that if you enjoy science fiction then you aren't a good Christian. I think that Jesus would really have enjoyed science fiction and Shepard Book.

I appreciate that you enjoyed Serenity because like you I think that it hold a lot of life lessons, but I think that Mal was a lot more of a Christian and held stronger to his beliefs than a lot of the "good Christians" out there

DJP said...

Would you please define "good Christian," then?

Lady Katerina said...

Good Christian.

Someone who actually lives their beliefs, not someone who attends church every Sunday, but will cheat you out of your last dollar on Monday. Someone who will make necessary sacrifices to help other people. Someone you can come to for help and guidance without being judged for your mistakes. But at the same time will not take that road with you if you won't make the effort to help yourself.

Shepard Book was a person you could lean on and lean on hard in difficult times. They never got into what his past was, but he had evidently been on the "wrong side" of things previously. He stood up for his friends and defended them, but avoided taking a life when it could be avoided. He also held himself a little apart from the crew. He offered advice to Mel and the others, but didn't get righteous if they didn't follow, but always welcomed them. He saw the good and the potential in people, but he also saw the evil.

I hope I have made myself understood. I don't like it when people generalize all science fiction as unChristian. I don't believe that you can say that all Hollywood as a group does not understand God. Personally I think He is laughing his ass off at all of us, because none of us are going completely to "get it" until we meet Him face to face and then we are going to join in the laughter!

I want to go back and re-read your original post.

DJP said...

Thanks, I appreciate the explanation. A lot of people think similarly.

(I'm not sure why you again defend sci-fi; you'll never see me attacking the genre, per se. I'm a big fan!)

A "good Christian" should show many of the qualities you listed out. However, what you've described is a "nice guy," not specifically a "good Christian."

That element, "Christ," in "Christian," means something definitional. It is what would set a good Christian apart from a Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, humanist, or whatever.

To be a Christian is fundamentally to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It doesn't mean just to believe in a few of His selected teachings; it means to believe Him. Sure, He said to love people, not lie, be giving and gracious. But He also said that all of us are, at heart, rebels against God and criminals against His Law (Matthew 15:19-20). He said we are all under God's judgment, face His wrath, and need to repent (Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:1-5).

Jesus taught that He would give Himself as a sacrifice for His people's sins, which would be the only way anyone could have a relationship with God (Matthew 20:28). He said that, if we did not believe in Him, we would die in our sin (John 8:24).

Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

And finally (—for what I'm going to say here, that is), Jesus defined what it means to be a Christian disciple, when He said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).

So being a "good Christian" as defined by Jesus means to accept His word about everything I told you, above — and everything else Jesus says.

By that definition, Book — though a completely likable and interesting character (I wanted to know his story!) — didn't even show one of those marks.

In fact, his "It doesn't matter what you believe, just believe," was the exact opposite of what Christ taught. It matters everything what you and I believe.

I hope that's of some use to you.

Lady Katerina said...

Okay I think that one way we are getting off on the subject of Book (and by that I mean all of the fans of Serenity) is that we are kind of assuming Book is supposed to be a Christian. I believe that Wheddon meant for him to be a rather generic religious type character. So that the viewer could put him into whatever was their personal religion. Serenity is not a venue for someone to post a sermon.

I think that when Book made the comment about believing, he was trying to tell Mal that he shouldn't allow himself to drift through life. That he needed to make decisions about the kind of person he wanted to be and stick to it. I don't necessarily think he meant the comment to be interpreted as a point for or against any particular religion.

Be that as it may, I believe that you and I are arriving at the same destination except from slightly different angles. I get aggravated with some religions who state that unless you ascribe to their religion you are going to hell. Like you said, all Jesus said was accept him. He didn't really say anything about going out and starting new religions per se. For a matter of fact, I am Methodist and have been told by my brother who was raised Methodist as I was,but has since become Church of Christ that the rest of the family is going to go to hell because we are not CoC. so we don't discuss religion. Me I am going to take great pleasure in tapping him on the shoulder in Heaven and saying, Hey look who's here!" Anyway that is neither here nor there.

Have a great day! I am going back to what I need to be doing and that is mopping all the floors in my house now that my husband and I have the plumbing fixed! Great time for problems of that nature to happen with company coming tomorrow. Altough it could have been worse, it could have happened while they were here! :)

Lisa

Lady Katerina said...

Ok and I don't believe that (as Kris says) that all Sci Fi writers are attacking Christianity, some do yeah, but the majority of them are just trying to write things that won't offend everyone and will please the masses without offense.

DJP said...

Wow, sounds like you have a busy day.

I'm having a little trouble following you. Are you apologizing that you pursued the question of whether Book was (in your words) a "good Christian"? No need to apologize. I'm glad to try to help, and show why book wasn't (as far as we can tell) any kind of Christian at all.

However, if I may ask you to do so, sometime read my response more slowly. It sounds as if you're not getting the force of what Jesus said. It was Jesus who said He was the only way to God; that faith in Him, Jesus, was absolutely necessary; that no one who doesn't believe Jesus, and believe in Jesus, will be saved from God's wrath. That was Jesus who said that.

The Christian is the person who believes Him, and then acts on it.

Lady Katerina said...

No not apologizing Just thinking out loud a bit as far as Book being a Christian per se.The way I think about things can be a little complicated. Yes I believe that in order to be a Christian you have to accept Jesus as your Savior. Yes the only way to heavan is through him. But nor do I think our Heaven is the only afterlife I guess is the best way to put it. I find it hard to accept that God, and I do think that the Supreme Being in all of the other religions, Jewish, Muslim, etc., are all the same God, would condemn all the souls who have honestly beleived in their personal Savior, be it Mohammad,Yahweh, or all the others, to hell for simply not accepting this particular way. Maybe not in our Heaven, but wherever they believe they are going to go. My God loves people too much for that. Call me simple or something, but I just can't believe that. My boss is Jewish and is as good a man as you will find anywhere and to tell me that because he has followed his Jewish faith he will not have an everlasting life - Don't buy it. No.

DJP said...

Oh, no, I wouldn't call you simple or anything like that. I just think it's important - for ourselves and others - that we categorize ourselves honestly.

For instance, I don't believe a word Mohammed wrote. So I'm not a Moslem. I don't believe Joseph Smith's "revelations" at all. So I'm not a Mormon. I don't believe in the infallibility of Popes speaking ex cathedra, nor in recent Roman Catholic dogmas. So I'm not Roman Cathlic.

Jesus said there was only one God, only one Heaven (and only one way to it), and a real Hell. He said the nice Jews who lived in His day, but rejected Him, were going to die in their sin, under God's wrath. You don't believe Him. So you're not a Christian.

It doesn't have anything to do with being nice or likable or any such thing. It's about words meaning things.

Lady Katerina said...

Okay, we don't agree. So this conversation is pointless. Bye.

Marcel said...

"Jesus said there was only one God, only one Heaven (and only one way to it), and a real Hell. He said the nice Jews who lived in His day, but rejected Him, were going to die in their sin, under God's wrath. You don't believe Him. So you're not a Christian."

You say things like that and you wonder why the rest of the world characterizes Christians as close-minded zealots. Does it feel good to condemn billions of people to everlasting torment for the sin of not agreeing with you to the letter? Your hubris is astonishing.

DJP said...

So the world would think better of Christians if we disowned what Christ actually taught?

Think about that one, I challenge you.

Joel said...

Phillip

Since a couple others already posted replies long after the original post, I'll add my random 2 cents. :)

I think part of the antagonism to Christianity in sci-fi culture is a contrast of themes - or more specifically, focus

Scripture is all about the relationship between God and man, with the Devil as protagonist. Sci-fi on the other hand, usually places man as one among many, on a cosmic stage, in dramas spanning centuries or even aeons. To borrow a quote, many Sci-fi fans doubtless look at Christianity and it's drama of an omnipotent God, his transcendent servants and a transcendent evil - natures fixed from now to eternity - in cosmic contention for the souls of man and angrily cry 'The drama's too big for the stage,' you knuckleheads! Scripture offers an unchanging God, eternal truths and commands to be followed in obedience by all people in all ages - albeit in some cases possibly 'until the Author says otherwise.'(You know - revelations hidden untill the latter days, differences from b.c. to the Church age to the Millenium, etc.) Sci-fi, in conrast, is all about change - evolutionary change, scientific change, changing knowledge and openess to change and the necessity and wisdom of that openess. It's interesting, though, to note the form sci-fi centering on us and our immediate future DOES usually take: dystopian. Hmmm....

As an example of what I'm talking about, consider the ending to Babylon5's season four finale 'The deconstruction of Falling Stars', where we see that humanity as achieved a 'Vorlon-like' state of pure energy. Now riddle me this: what relevance would scriptural constraints on sexuality and marriage have for a 'human' of pure energy?(This side of death, of course.) :P

It IS interesting how Christian and 'Conservative' B5 sometimes was, though! It's evident in season five that the Mimbari(and Earth?)are clearly 'first among equals' in the new alliance - to the point of stamping on in-fighting with threat of arms - and this is shown as a GOOD(!) thing. Many conservatives would find themselves nodding along when a very old Delenn basically shuts up a group of rather liberal-ish sounding scholars trying to 'deconstruct' Sheridan(he was a megalomaniac!) - and sound pithy doing it! (Clip on youtube! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA-omGPUwBE ) And you know, as I think about it in a piece of Christian Sci-Fi Lando might serve an object-lesson of the insufficiency of being merely a 'good and well-intentioned' man! :P

If nothing else, the show absolutely nailed what C.S. Lewis considered the 'highest' spiritual truth: 'He saved others, yet himself he cannot save.' :)

Joel said...

Addendum to my comment above:

Of course, often the great 'suspension of disbelief' for a Christian Sci-Fi fan is that a humanity(or any race greatly similiar to Humans)evolved into a powerful, immortal form this side of the grave could ever be better or the happier for it in the end! ;)