NOTE: Some spoilers appear in this report.
During its long life on syndication — following a short-lived network run — the original Star Trek became a massive cult phenomenon that used science fiction as a means to spread a multicultural, anti-capitalist, progressive gospel. With its post-money, post-war Earth and its valiant, UN-like Federation of Planets, it reflected the liberal passions of the 1960s. Now, nearly four decades later, another short-lived TV show, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, has inspired similar cult adoration and made the leap to the big screen — only this time the politics are reversed. The result is Serenity, a scrappy, energetic science fiction/western hybrid that is as libertarian as Star Trek was liberal, reminding viewers why even well-intentioned government intervention is more a problem than a solution.
Whedon, the creator of beloved teen-horror TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, packs his narrative with familiar genre elements, but recombines them in clever, unexpected ways. In the far future, overpopulation has led to a new wave of frontiersmen, only this time they’re exploring the edges of space. The central planets are run by a meddling unified government called The Alliance which recently suppressed an outer world revolt and now has designs on the outlaw crew aboard the spaceship Serenity.
That crew, and their effusively witty banter, is a significant part of what makes the film so enjoyable. Whedon’s biggest strength is his ability to swiftly establish a wide cast of quirky characters with compelling balance of strengths and weaknesses. They’re not exactly Randian supermen, but each is a plucky, strong-willed individualist, most notably Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion).
Fillion plays Mal as a scowling, selfish ruffian who has no qualms about stealing, shooting, and generally causing mischief whenever it suits his interest. And yet he’s not malicious or cruel; during a robbery he calmly informs an opponent, “I got no need to fight you. I just want to go my way.” Later, when scolded for theft, Mal reminds his accuser that he’s just taking the only option left after Alliance interference, saying, “I put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year.” Mal’s goal is never to harm anyone else — he just wants to be allowed to look after himself.
The problem, from Mal’s perspective (and the film’s), is that The Alliance won’t let the crew of Serenity or any other outer world settlers find their own way. The Alliance is populated by bureaucrats who are quick to pass the buck when accused of mistakes and quicker to impose their ideas of “civilization” on pesky frontier planets, trying to force a one-size-fits-all order on societies they’ll never visit, much less live in.
Serenity shows the propensity for big, intrusive government to suppress individuality by demanding uniformity of thought. The film opens with a deft satirical jab at progressive education, in which Alliance school children are being taught how brutish and ugly the outer worlds and their inhabitants are. The teacher, with her soothing voice and appropriately mixed ethnicity, calmly tells children that The Alliance just wants to provide the frontier with “social and medical advancements.” When one student protests that Alliance control amounts to telling people how to think, the teacher replies, without irony, “We’re not telling people what to think — we’re just trying to show them how.”
The film also shows that increasing bureaucracy leads to decreasing transparency. As is often the case with oversized government, there’s a tendency for Alliance bureaucrats to hide information from the public. In Serenity, the government refuses to even acknowledge the existence of psychotic, cannibalistic raiders called Reavers, and the driving force behind the film’s narrative is the crew’s desire to expose a secret government experiment. The government may be trying to control information in the interests of safety, but the result is that the public is unable to make informed choices.
But government meddling isn’t just a form of thought control; it’s also a death sentence. After the crew lands on a planet in which the entire population has literally laid down to die, they discover that it’s the hideous byproduct of a government experiment attempting to forcibly regulate aggression through airborne chemicals. The implication is clear: Aggression may cause conflict, but it’s also intrinsically tied to that primal energy that keeps people alive. In Serenity‘s vision of government, even benevolent bureaucracy kills.
In addition to being a solidly entertaining science fiction romp, Serenity is the rare film that advocates small government and libertarian ideals. In fact, the film’s entire existence is a prime example of market forces at work. Fox originally aired the TV series sporadically and out of order, making the already challenging task of developing a following even more difficult. But when the show was released in its entirety on DVD, the strength of the sales were enough to convince a major studio to sink a substantial amount of money into development of a feature film. The market was there; it was just waiting for the product to be delivered in the right form.
And deliver it did; even with its strong political message, Serenity is first and foremost a rowdy, exciting sci-fi romp with few pretensions beyond providing two hours of crafty genre thrills. At one point, Mal, with typically straightforwardness, says to his crew, “All right, let’s have no fussin’.” And throughout, Serenity exemplifies the no-fuss film, largely by decrying the biggest fuss of them all — a callous, overbearing government.
Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.