For this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot, the series wherein we invite everyone to get opinionated and choose the single best shot from pre-selected movies, we offered up an atypical two-for-one deal. You could either choose an image from Firefly's first episode (if you'd never seen the Joss Whedon series and wanted to start at the beginning) or an image from its movie spinoff Serenity. Or both if you're crazy about Captain Tightpants. I am but I chose only the latter in order to tie it into 2012's Joss Whedon film frenzy.
Though Whedon had been Oscar nominated for screenwriting (Toy Story, 1995) even before Buffy the Vampire Slayer bowed on TV making him famous, Serenity was his feature film directorial debut. You might even call it his audition piece for The Avengers. Transitioning between medium is rarely simple for creative talent and Whedon wisely made the leap by leaning right into his earned TV auteur status.
I know. We're going for a ride."
I never read contributor posts until I've finished mine but I'll be surprised if someone doesn't choose the bravura post title scene. It's actually a four and a half minute long continuous shot reintroducing us to the entire Serenity crew from the shortlived but wonderful Firefly series. It begins by following Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) around as he barks order to his crew until its finally handed off like a baton to the stowaway siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau) at the heart of the plot. Whedon rarely resists self-mythologizing the Whedonverse and it's just perfect that the shot ends with the mysterious psychic River Tam promising you a good time at the movies -- "we're going for a ride" -- just as Joss's name materializes on her body like a branding.
For the uninitiated Firefly/Serenity is a mashup of the sci-fi and western genres. Our heroes are actually outlaws living in the wild west of the outer edges of a universe controlled by "The Alliance". The Alliance covers up its many crimes but they're clearly not above a lot of bloodshed to get their way or weaponizing their "gifted" civilians like River Tam. They've basically tortured and brainwashed and experimented on for years until her brother Simon steals her away from them and the siblings go into hiding with the Serenity crew, who are sworn enemies of The Alliance.
I'm torn between two shots as "Best" and they both involve a new character, one of the spookiest antagonists of the Aughts, called "The Operative" (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the way his image plays off of River and Captain Mal, the two key protagonists.
When the movie begins we think we are watching the daring Tam siblings rescue in progress (events which took place before the television series) only to discover that it's a hologram and we've returned to the narrative where the TV series left off. We hear the Operative commanding the image to stop and the image scans backwards, like we might on the DVD or DVR to settle on an intriguing image. The Operative is essentially directing this prologue to the Joss Whedon movie we're about to watch. The image freezes on River's face and The Operative (whom we have still not seen) emerges through her image only to turn around and consider her from a different angle. The Alliance created River as a human weapon and River's escape in turn creates the need of him. You might say she gives birth to him.
The Operative's quest to kill River has a high body count. In a far more modest but very effective shot later in the film we see how far The Operative is willing to go to end her. He has begun to massacre anyone who has ever sheltered the Serenity crew and Captain Mal is watching the burning bodies of friends onscreen. The devastating images on the tiny monitors fade away to reveal The Operative who begins to speak with the emotionally wounded hero, trying to bargain with him again to give up River. Mal is lit from above like he's under interrogation (with cinematography by Jack N Green) and the Operative cruelly suggests that he is in fact guilty for the deaths, before gently turning the tables to admit his own monstrous brush strokes in this nightmare mural. His image surrounds the Captain (he's on every screen) which is as good as any a visual metaphor for The Alliance's ever tightening traps.
Malcolm, I'm a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it but it must be done."
The content of the scene, richly acted by both Fillion and Ejiofor, is enormously cruel but Ejiofor's deceptively tender voice and Fillion's little boy hurt beneath his tough exterior "do you think I care?" (not to mention Whedon's smart staging) pack the nuances in. The Operative is a true believer and though he attempts to draw the godless Malcolm Reynolds in closer as they speak through the screens, the Captain is too basically decent to ever make the connection. They're separated not just by technology but by entirely different moralities.
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