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I Swallowed a Bug

That was my favorite line from Serenity, a film rich with (among other good things) potential favorite lines of dialog. And, no, that's not a spoiler. Absent the context in which the line occurs, it's virtually meaningless.

Serenity also boasts an excellent cast, nifty effects, fine acting, a generous helping of character-driven drama, an even bigger helping of Hideous-Mutant-Cannibal-driven suspense, a lot of big laughs, and -- most importantly -- two hours in an intriguing and engaging world.

I wasn't sure that Whedon would be able to pull that last bit off.

serenity-teaser-poster.jpgI caught maybe as many as three episodes of Firefly on FOX when the series first ran three years ago. I liked the show, but frankly I never thought it made a heck of a lot of sense. Generally speaking, if I can't follow what's going on, the problem is with the subject matter. Not me.

However, in this case, it turns out the problem was neither with me (which wouldn't have been posible, anyway -- see above) nor with the subject matter. The problem was that the Supergenius Programming Wizards at FOX didn't air the Firefly pilot until late into the show's run. I've never seen the pilot, but I can't help but imagine that it clears quite a few things up.

So going into the screening on Tuesday, I still saw the Firefly universe as a confusing and disjointed place. But not for long. I think what impressed me most about Serenity was the seamless manner in which just enough background was provided to make the story coherent. A few minutes in, we know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and broadly what motivates each. There are no plodding introductions or explanations -- just plenty of action and unusually memorable dialog.

El Jefe Grande and I were able to score a pair of tickets to the free screening at the Denver Pavilions where we joined the ranks of Matt Moore, zombyboy, Dorkafork, Stephen Green, and other area bloggers. Mine was the only blogger name that somehow didn't make it on the reservations list, but I was able to smooth-talk Mike and myself in, anyhow. (Okay, full disclosure. They took one look at me and concluded that I belonged among that bunch. Flattering for everybody!)

It was a fun evening.

If I have any complaint with the movie it would be that it goes a little too "Buffy" for my tastes in the end. Also, in the light of day a couple of days later, I question the plausibility of the setting. (Though it gave me no trouble while viewing.) What are they in, like one really huge solar system? How many habitable planets could you have orbiting one star? Actually, setting a space opera in a single solar system is not a bad idea -- it certainly conquers the much greater implausibility of FTL travel which we have winked at in genre movies and TV for decades.

A Digression

Another observation about the setting (not in any wise a criticism of the movie): I think we have reached the point where all space operas have become what Stephen calls past-futures. This is an interesting development. We are nowehere near the time or level of technological development portrayed in Serenity, but we can already say with some confidence that that kind of world, or any facsimile other than a virtual digital world constructed largely for entertainment purposes, will never exist.

Space operas put modern humans (or even archetypes from the past, as in Serenity or the Star Wars movies) into spaceships where they can have all kinds of adventures, most of which are "spaced up" versions of adventures that explorers or frontierfolk or soldiers have had -- mythically, anyhow -- from time immemorial.

That's all well and good, but for three little letters: GNR. Space opera images of the future rely on huge advances in propulsion and virtually nothing else. How many centuries ahead is Serenity set? Certainly far enough that we might expect that human lifespan would be a little longer; I've taken issue with TV shows set in the present for not thinking about that. The Alliance, the Reavers, Mr. Universe's robot girlfriend -- just about everything "futuristic" in Serenity -- will, in a few years, be obsolete.

Again, this is not a criticism of the movie. Just a reflection on how quickly our visions of the future are being replaced.

Comments

Somewhat along the lines of your later comments, I recently heard an interview on the DragonPage Cover to Cover podcast where a book was described as "Hard Science Fiction" despite the fact that it was set several hundred years in the future. I personally don't see how any story set more than a decade or two in the future can really be called 'hard SF'.

But Mr. Whedon has always claimed that his stories are more about the characters than the science.

What are they in, like one really huge solar system? How many habitable planets could you have orbiting one star?

That's the idea. In one interview Joss said something like "It's a huge cluster of planets. You've never seen a cluster like this!"

While that eliminates the need for FTL, they do have artificial gravity, which I find to be just as unlikely as FTL. At one convention I asked those present if they would be interested in shooting a show in real zero gravity. Aside from the cost issue, neither actor seemed enthusiastic about it. Although the special effects guy was thrilled, "All those wires my team wouldn't have to remove from the shots." So, until we have access to space that's affordable enough to shoot movies/tv in space, we're kinda stuck with the artificial gravity. Not so with the FTL, necessarily.

Andrew:

I think we have just one movie shot in real zero G:

Apollo 13.

They built the lunar module set onboard the Zero G aircraft, the Vomit Comet, that they train astronauts with. You go up high, put the plane in a dive and get a brief period of zero G before the next climb.

Re: Apollo 13.

Yes, I had heard about that, and that's one of the reasons I like that movie. I wish more movies had the money and dedication to do it, but I have a very hard time imagining how they can film something like that in 30 second snippets.

I would love to be a set builder in a huge orbital movie set :)

I have to say, I'm constantly at odds with futurists because of their confidence. I see technological development as more chaotic; I think that technologies affect other technologies to the point where they can disrupt our expectations, even stalling or reversing other technologies. Granted, Serenity and Firefly have stalled certain technologies to the point of absurdity...so really this is a tangent.

Really I just take issue with things that we think are guaranteed to happen based on current trends, set scripts on the technological stage like "GNR". We base our opinion of how technology will develop - and even that technology will develop - on our current reality of life. But if technology will effect anything, it will effect the way we live. The more technology effects our lives, the more unpredictable technological development will become. This can range anywhere from destroying the human race, to turning us into a bunch of zombies who are engrossed in one particular development and stop progressing otherwise, to utopian society, to the realization of previously unknown intelligence and becoming "hyper-human".

But it could also lead to nearly destroying humanity over and over, and having to constantly start again in some areas, while being able to salvage previous knowledge in other areas. Theoretically this could explain Serenity's Universe, although, once again, its plausibility is a bit difficult.

In short, I certainly agree that anything set 50 years from now is very speculative. But I don't agree that technology must progress as expected...not even in the next 50 years. The society we exist in now fosters technology (and fosters certain technologies more than others), but the power of technology is itself a possible destabilizing force in a society which already has many potential reasons to turn into something else, be it good or bad. If technology changes society, might it change society into one that doesn't develop technology? Or one that develops it in a way that is totally foreign to us now?

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