Scene Is Believing: Serenity

serenity opening

Serenity, Joss Whedon’s big screen send-off to his crew of rebellious “Browncoats ” from the prematurely cancelled sci-fi western Firefly, adopts a clever means of shorthand in introducing the crew to newbies whilst at the same time establishing their relationship with one another, their place in the ship’s pecking order, and also their home, the freighter Serenity itself.

After the intro that introduces the universe concept of Alliance control and independent settlers in a post civil war ‘verse, and the antagonist Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) searching for rogue telepath River Tamm (Summer Glau), now a passenger on the ship, the title fades in in silence, settling on the hull as the painted name of the ship. Serenity then gets the beauty treatment as the ungainly insect-like craft adopts a re-entry position to make planet fall. As she hits atmo, sound kicks in, a grinding, screeching of metal and flame, and a piece of the hull flies loose.

What was that? Did  piece of my Gorram ship just fall off?” Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) enquires nervously to pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk). Wash says landing could get “interesting“, defined as “Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die.” Quickly we establish that this is a hunk of junk not unlike the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars.

From therein Mal leaves the cockpit and interacts with the rest of the crew in one seemingly continuous steadi-cam shot, lasting around four and a half minutes. Mark Moore the operator only slipped once, walking backwards up stairs.

Tough guy Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) the lunkhead of the crew is established via the shorthand of being undecided what firepower to bring on the job (“No grenades?!”).  With the camera swinging around Mal, he stops in the corridor to have a serious conversation with Zoe (Gina Torres) his second in command, and someone he obviously shares a professional history with, their relationship based on respect.

Then on back to the engine room, the throbbing heart of the ship where young engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is concerned (she even slings a hammock back there). She entreats Mal that, despite the primary buffer panel falling off, everything is “shiny, captain,” ‘verse speak for good.

It’s with passenger and resident doctor Simon Tamm (Sean Maher), the genius surgeon who sprung his sister River from Alliance captivity, both ending up as fugitives on Mal’s ship, that we see Mal’s tetchiness and downright short temper rise up to the surface. He believes River’s gift should be put to use to help put food on their table – “You stuck a thorn in the Alliance’s side, now that tickles me a bit. But it also means I got to step twice as fast to avoid ‘em, and that means turning down plenty of jobs, even honest ones…Don’t push me, and I won’t push you.”

Their conversation starts off affably on the surface, as a disguised cut in a whip pan leads them down steps to the warm and earthy tones of the ship’s mess. The sets were actually built side by side in the studio. They continue to bicker as they move out to the ship’s hold, where the others are loading their planet-side transport, the Mule. The camera pans up, as steadi-cam operator Mark Moore ascends on a crane ( a wall was pulled out to facilitate the continuous shot), finishing on the supine River, listening to them debate her presence and worth.

This shot establishes that they are a family, exasperated by each other, yet drawn together in a hostile ‘verse, their home a bucket of bolts that needs constant nurturing to stay in the sky. Editing and break away cuts would lessen the unifying feeling of this establishing set-up. We really feel they occupy the same space, with all the pressures and ribaldry that entails. As Mal tells them later, when their backs are against the wall:

“Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all…So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

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