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Thursday
Apr192012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Firefly / Serenity"

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. 

My two sibling choices for "Best Shots" are after the jump.

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.

Hit Me With Your Best Blogs 
The Red Headed Invasion Mood, texture, irreducible alien strangeness...
Sorta That Guy is a leaf on the wind. Watch how he soars.
Bunny's Pop Culture has an affinity for strong heroines.
Antagony & Ecstasy with an indepth look at that brilliant bravura continuous shot
Serious Film Serenity gets Michael mildly more excited for The Avengers
Film Actually more badass River Tam
Okinawa Assault two kinds of River entrances 
Awww the Movies favorite moments and Mal and River juxtaposed
Encore's World, a Firefly virgin, is drawn to its sibling bond

NEXT ON HIT ME

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Reader Comments (19)

I think this might be legitimately my favourite Hit Me entries that I've done. Even more than STREETCAR a film I straight up love, and I think it's because SERENITY was such a completely new film for me. I'd heard of the TV show, but had no idea what it was about and I don't think I'd ever heard of the actual film, and it is a real gem. So many great beats ripe for discussion.

For example, I nitpick of course, but there are so many great moral issues called into question and I almost wish The Operative's final moments were a bit different in that he'd stuck to his ideals through and through, but as I said I nitpick. And boy, Ejifor is something special here, as is the entire cast.

I was generally disinterested in THE AVENGERS, but golly if it's half the quality of this I'll be pleased. Colour me excited.

(Also, I like that my best shot is one of your, sort of.)

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Your Operative/Mal pick is inspired as were the performances in that scene.

I've seen this movie more times than I can count. I love this pick and I've loved reading everyone's great choices for shots. Like a couple of people, this Serenity re-watch and blogging has gotten me not-so-unexpectedly even MORE excited about Avengers. Ugh, Whedon owns my soul.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Eventually, I will figure out how to do the web presence thing right. Meanwhile...

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

i had made it my goal to be a part of all the Hit Me With Your Best Shot films this season (and i was doing so well), but this film eluded me. i appreciate the diversity of films selected. however, i just couldn't get through this one.

i'll admit, i'm not the biggest joss whedon fan (and sometimes i have a hard time differentiating between him and j.j. abrams). the episodes of buffy i've seen i've enjoyed enough, but it never converted me into a die hard fanboy (and yes, i've seen "hush" and the musical episode). and it didn't leave me clamoring to see dr. horrible, dollhouse, firefly, angel, or cabin in the woods--all of which i still have never seen.

i did make an attempt to watch serenity. but, after about 45 minutes in, i chose sleep over finishing it. i tried to think about when i would have enough time to finish watching it in time to post a shot. until i realized: serenity and joss, i'm just not that into you.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Instead of working, reading several blogs about Serenity. Thank you so much, Nathaniel!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

In the climactic fight scene of SERENITY, River Tam dives through closing blast doors, tucks into a somersault and explodes out of it, coming to her feet and allowing her momentum to power her punch to a Reaver's jaw. That you can see Summer Glau pull her punch to avoid hurting the stuntman makes the moment, ironically, more believable because you can tell that she is actually moving THAT fast.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHoward

I have to go with the scene you selected too. I just loved that we went through 4 levels of reality--each time we stop we think we are in reality until the Operative walks through River. (We get a quick history of Earth that Was, to River in school, to River being rescued to the Operative.)

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYuriPup

Yuripup -- great point. I hadn't thought of how many levels we're jumping there, just the last but it's totally true. It's one of the best prologues i've ever seen in a movie, just so nimble and mysterious and expository all at once... a hard trick to pull off.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Everybody Loves River! It's awesome that many of us chose the first group of shots, and that The Operative immerses himself into the experience of River's escape. It shows the many poosibilities of Whendon's vision of the future, and that The Operative doesn't mind getting into the skin of the people he perceives as the enemy.

And one day, I'll work the callous reading of "I'm a monster" into my daily conversation.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I've only watched one episode of Firefly and had never given a thought to watching serenity - until I read Tim's post and , watched the opening credits sequence (on another site he links to). And I was hooked immediately. Reading the posts in this series gave me a little bit of background, but that opening clues you in to the various character dynamics, who is going to be important and who is not, and what the major psychological and plot challenges will be (Mal is going to become someone who cares about someone other than himself, River will have to go from childlike and fragile to a strong woman, etc.) A great way to get the exposition taken care of. I don't know that I understood all of it, but enough to want to dive right in and watch the rest.

Is that possible, or do I NEED to watch the series first?

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I watched Serenity first before ever seeing Firefly and had no trouble following along at all. Whedon is a genius, providing background and exposition in the midst of action sequences.

After seeing the film, I watched Firefly and didn't like it all that much. Like the first season of any show, it took awhile to get its bearings and get to know the characters. That may be why in the movie they are so fully formed, with so much depth. It's as if the film compresses several TV seasons' worth of plot and character development into 120 minutes.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Janice -
I am a hardcorefan, and I can tell you that you don't NEED to watch the series first to understand the movie, however, it really will make the movie that much better because you know these people so well by the end of that few episodes....

That, and Firefly is fan-freaking-tastic. :)

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterserafine

andrew -- that's so good to hear. I'm glad you always participate and it's nice to know I helped in the discovery

ryan t-- i admit i chose this film more out of what are people talking about this year than genuine enthusiasm for the movie (i love the series and joss in general though) but I was completely surprised at how good it was years later. For some reason I do not remember it being as good as it actually is :)

abstew -- hey. you tried. That does count :) I know the feeling of sometimes having to choose sleep over cinema. though isn't it often a bitch of a call?

Ivonne -- i aim to lower productivity around the world!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I genuinely think that this is probably the best HMWYBS week ever. I especially love that everyone picking that one shot of River against the blown-out wall found something different and personal to say about it.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Didn't anyone want to take a swing at the "Firefly" two-hour pilot? Since there are no takers, I will offer up three choices - a best, a next-best, and almost next-best.

The almost next-best has what appears to be everyone's choice for subject, River. Her brother, Simon, has been forced to stand by as Mal opens the mysterious (and large) cargo container Simon brought aboard Serenity. Once opened, the container is seen to be full of foggy condensation (the cargo is cold). The passing seconds see the mist start to clear. The end of the scene (and the actual next-best shot) has the mist clearing enough to see the body of a naked young girl with ethereal wisps of mist still clinging to her person. She doesn't need to be in a foetal position to convey this as a birth image, but it helps.

The next best shot has Inara consoling Shepard Book on his choices and imperfections. He is kneeling as Inara rests her hand on his head - the Companion (a form of prostitute) giving absolution to the preacher. Beautifully shot and lit.

The best shot happens at the end of the first scene. Mal and the Browncoats have been fighting the Alliance to a draw in the Battle of Serenity Valley at enormous human cost. Finally Mal hears what he believes is Independent air support coming to turn the tide of the battle. His joyous face is then stunned to hear Zoe say, "They're not ours. They say it's too "hot" to bring in air cover. We've been ordered to stand down." A stunned Mal then stands up, turns around, and looks over the top of their bunker. He sees a sky full of Alliance ships making an unopposed landing. The slow-motion pullback from a close-up of Mal's face as he realizes the Battle of Serenity is over...the War for Independence is over...oblivious even as one of his soldiers is shot dead standing next to him, is the very best shot.

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Carl -- well spoken. You've made me regret that I didn't have time to do both the pilot and the movie (my original plan)

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I still stand by my best shot, and I love that so many other people picked it, too. But now I'm wishing I'd been more original...

And your choices are completely amazing. Loving all the River love.

April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBunny

"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."

Question...Is it really one shot? I thought I remember Mr. Whedon discussing this sequence on the commentary track and he said that it was 2 shots edited together to make it look like a continous shot.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjason

Love that you picked Serenity for HMWYBS. I've been a Whedon fan since Buffy, and always felt personally wronged by Serenity's box office failure. Fantastic film, pitifully overlooked. Still, he who directs an opening weekend record breaking blockbuster laughs last, and all that. Did you review The Cabin in the Woods?
Shan
www.spinningthereel.com

May 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShan
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