Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
Joss Whedon gets a lot of praise for his writing, often at the expense of his skills as a director. He is able to get creative and varied performances out of his actors, though some of that can also be attributed to his writing ability. However, seeing Serenity on the big screen again reminded me how creative he is with a camera. So I decided to take today’s Friday Favorite to go beyond just my usual one item and instead highlight all of my favorite shots from Serenity. Some of these are great examples of Joss’s use of visual storytelling, others are creative or unconventionally framed, and some are just ones that I like the way they look. And while some of the credit has to go Jack N. Green, Serenity‘s cinematographer, when you listen to Joss’s commentary on the film and read his script it becomes apparent how many of these shots he planned far in advance.
(1) – The first shot that I want to highlight comes near the very beginning. The movie opens with a narration describing the state of the universe in which Serenity is set. It transitions this narration into a classroom lesson in which sits a young River Tam, one of the protagonists. She contradicts the teacher, who stabs her in the forehead with a stylus, and it’s revealed that the classroom was simply a memory she was experiencing while being experimented on by scientists. We then see her being rescued by her brother, only for the scene to be stopped and revealed as security footage being watched by the Operative. It’s a sequence that has lots of fun playing with perception and layers, but the shot that interests me occurs as the Operative rewinds the hologram footage and then walks through the image of River. In an interesting bit of framing, his eyes pass exactly through River’s eyes, showing us how the Operative is attempting to see the world through her eyes in order to try to track her down. It gives us insight into his methods without the need for him to explain it verbally.
(2) – This one has been talked about a lot online. It’s the 4 minute long take which introduces our main cast and the ship, Serenity. The writing is top notch, of course, with plenty of lines that people love to quote (“We may experience some slight turbulence and then… explode.”), but I’d like to look at the visual language of the shot. The scene isn’t easily available online, so I’ve taken some screencaps and put them in the gallery below, along with my commentary. Click through the pics to read more about each frame below.
- The shot begins in the cockpit, where Mal is reacting to a piece of his ship falling off during descent towards the planet.
- The camera pans over to show us the pilot, whose station is covered with toy dinosaurs. To the new viewer, this shows the relaxed vibe of the ship, where people are allowed to be themselves.
- We move from the cockpit to the crew quarters hall, and encounter Jayne coming out of his bunk with many weapons and grenades. The sets were built in the correct configuration to match the design of the ship, allowing the camera to seamlessly follow Mal as he tours the ship.
- We see Zoe coming up one set of stairs from the lower level, heading to see her husband in the cockpit.
- The camera follows Mal through the kitchen/dining area, where the wooden table and chairs give the ship an organic feeling, differentiating it from other, more sterile sci-fi films.
- The shot continues to the engine room, where Kaylee is trying to keep things together as things spark and steam around her. When combined with their conversation, it shows the viewers the condition of the ship.
- Mal’s confronted by Simon, which begins a conversation that carries throughout the rest of the shot. They head downstairs, at which point the shot cheats, and there’s a hidden splice. This was done because the sets were built single-story, meaning the lower level was actually next to the upper level, instead of below it.
- We continue downstairs, to another area with an organic feel about it, in this case a sitting area. It looks lived in and worn, as though the ship has been flying a while.
- We see through a window into the infirmary. This shot does a lot by showing each of the crew members in their roles, rather than just telling them to us. We see the captain touring the ship, the pilot landing the craft, the warrior choosing his gear, the mechanic keeping them flying, the doctor giving inoculations.
- Here we see that it’s all connected, as the argument continues into the cargo bay. Cleverly framed behind Mal and Simon are Zoe and Jayne prepping the mule. They’ve clearly come down the previous staircase that Zoe was using earlier, helping to reinforce the internal layout of the ship.
- And lastly we see River, who doesn’t seem to have a role to play on the ship at this moment. Of course, by the end of the film she will have found her place among the crew, but for now she’s isolated, laying quietly while the rest of the crew is hard at work.
(3) – This next shot occurs a short time later, as the crew of Serenity are robbing the bank. They brought River along because of her psychic abilities, and she stops to feel out the situation. The camera follows her thoughts down from her head and over to a man who is thinking about fighting back. It’s a great use of camera movement to help visualize the way River’s mind works, and Joss got the crew to build a special “rollercoaster” track for the camera to pull off this move.
(4) – This shot is a quick one, which doesn’t have much to say about character or storytelling, but it uses some nifty techniques. It’s a shot of the Reavers attacking the town, but it uses a very low angle in order to increase the scale. Shooting from that angle increases the sense of panic felt by the audience, as low shots are a more helpless point of view than high shots. The low angle also increases the sense of the Reaver’s footspeed, as it exaggerates his motion. I think it’s just a neat-looking shot, and something you don’t see that often.
(5) – The next shot is a great bit of non-verbal emotional storytelling. As their situation becomes more tense the group sits discussing things and Jayne questions Mal’s leadership. It starts off funny, but quickly becomes serious, as Jayne asks Mal how many of Mal’s platoon, other than Zoe, survived the infamous Battle of Serenity Valley. The battle and the war for independence are a sore subject for Zoe and Mal, who felt betrayed by the people they believed in. (In fact, it’s the reason for Mal’s lack of faith, which is one of the primary themes of the film.) Immediately after Jayne’s question, the scene cuts to a closeup of Zoe, but one that’s out of focus. The shot only lasts a few seconds, as it slowly comes into focus before Zoe finally speaks, telling Jayne to leave the room. The focus of the shot is a metaphor for Zoe gaining control of herself before she speaks or acts. It’s easy to imagine her wanting to shoot him in that first moment, but she reigns in that impulse for the good of the group. It’s a technique that I didn’t pick up on until I’d watched the film many times, and now it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s so simple, yet so effective.
(6) – These next two shots, both of which are during River’s escape from confinement aboard Serenity in an attempt to explain Miranda to the crew, I like mostly because they’re just stylish. I love the way the first shot holds on her for several long seconds before the gun comes into frame, giving its presence a bit more impact. The 2nd shot is more of a punchline, with the cold way she points the gun without looking making Mal stop in his tracks. The 3rd shot in the gallery below is from a bit later, after they discover the destruction of their sanctuary. Showing River through the burning swing is a small reminder that River is still so young, but without the innocence someone her age should have.
(7) – Once they get to Miranda, and find that the entire planet is dead, River has a breakdown. She’s overwhelmed, and the whole time the camera circles her while she talks to herself and prays for God to make her a stone. The circling camera is interesting however, because first it circles River alone, as we see the rest of the crew standing apart. As she falls to the ground, Simon joins her, putting his arm around her and holding her. But then the camera rises to circle Jayne, as he backs up her ramblings before ending on Wash, who suggests that they continue on. The shot is a big moment of change for the crew and for River. She starts out isolated, before being joined by her brother who is always the first to support her. But then Jayne, who has always been her biggest antagonist on the ship, also comes to her support. It’s the moment when the crew joins together with River, where they all start to understand a bit of what she’s experienced, which makes them eager to protect her.
(8) – This shot, from Mal’s hero speech, is a good one, with it’s white backlighting which seems reminiscent of Spielberg. But what I really love about this shot is the moment I’ve captured below. Mal says that sooner or later the people in power will “swing back to the idea that they can make people better.” As he says the last word, he looks at River, beginning to understand her for the first time. Mal fought in a war against an all-powerful government out to try to make his people better, by bringing to them the government’s idea of “civilization”. He’s holding in his hand evidence that the same government killed an entire planet of people in an attempt to individually make them better by changing their attitudes to make the docile, while in the process accidentally creating the savage Reavers. And he’s looking at River, who was taken by the government in order to be made better by harnessing her power and turning her into a weapon for their own use. Mal finally sees that it’s all part of the same fight, and that he and River have been fighting alongside each other the whole time. It’s the moment of belief for him, though he doesn’t know it yet, and he’s gone from a man who lost faith in everything to someone who has a cause again. He aims to misbehave.
(9) – These two shots come as the battle starts. The first one is simply a cool shot of Mal’s surprise attack, baiting the Reavers into joining the battle as a way to distract the Alliance and slip through to Mr. Universe. It’s Mal’s kind of justice, forcing the Alliance to confront the very monsters they created in their quest to make people better. The 2nd shot, of the two opposing forces, echoes something that will happen a little later. During their final confrontation, the Operative berates Mal for his plan, telling him that “there are a lot of innocent people being killed in the air right now.” Mal replies, “You have no idea how true that is.” The conflict here is that the Operative thinks his soldiers are the innocents, while Mal sees the Reavers as innocents. The Reavers are victims in this, despite the atrocities they commit they were once innocents whom the Alliance destroyed. The Operative won’t realize this until later, but it’s hinted at in this early shot of the action.
(10) – After River sacrifices herself to save the others (“My turn”), we get a shot of her fighting a horde of Reavers. I’m always a fan of long-take action shots, which are far more interesting to watch than the quick-cut style of editing we see all too often these days. But there are few action sequences that are as balletic as this one with River, which echoes the earlier claim that she’s a “creature of extraordinary grace”.
(11) – I love the Operative’s dead eyes in this shot. At the end of the film, he is in the same place spiritually and emotionally that Mal was at the beginning of the series. We see, in this shot, the Operative losing faith in everything he previously believed in, mirroring the look we get from Mal in the pilot episode of Firefly as his commanders abandon him to the mercy of the Alliance.
(12) – The Hero Shot
(13) – The final images of the film give us a glimpse of a ship and a crew in healing. There’s a shot of the rain washing Serenity clean, one that shows River in her new place in the crew, we see River in a somewhat girly pose which suggests an answer to Mal’s question of whether she’s a girl or a weapon, and then we see Serenity emerge from the clouds into the sun, right before the primary buffer panel falls off, because we wouldn’t want things to be too easy for our crew.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite shot from Serenity? Is there more to Joss than just the clever writer? Let me know in the comments!