I rewatched the movie Serenity tonight, and while I still enjoy the movie greatly, I left confused about the films message. If you haven’t seen the film (and the rest of this won’t make much sense if this is the case), It ends with the main character giving a conservative-libertarian speech about not-bettering people, and leaving them to live their lives. The confusion, however, arose from the actions of that same character. Despite telling people to live their own lives, he takes action to inform and empower the citizens of the galaxy. He takes care of those near him and seems genuinely concerned for everyone’s well-being.
So is the film conservative or isn’t it? I did a little research into the creator of the film (Joss Whedon) and he explained Mal’s comments as Mal’s alone: not a film message. Mal, indeed, is a libertarian, government-hating, Randian rogue. Whedon’s galactic government, however, is largely good to people and enlightened. Mal’s sometimes-girlfriend even works for the government–as a high end prostitute.
Additionally, Zoe, one of the crewmembers, is constantly compassionate, and questioning Mal’s motives. River, supposedly an abomination of government excess, ends up saving everyone with her government-granted skills. Clearly, just because Mal is the main character doesn’t mean that his views are the only ones we must contend with.
So by viewing Whedon’s universe as a convergence of diverse characters and viewpoints, Mal’s actions make more sense. Mal is doing his best with what he knows in a situation that has a lot of grey areas. One thing I read said that Whedon intended to convey the absolute messiness of human interaction, and he definitely did that. There’s some hope for transcendent values, however, if Mal’s advice to River about the importance of love at the end of the movie is any indication.
However, maybe this is a ultimately a hopeless message for our own times. Like the Serenity universe, most of us agree on a few universal values. But also like Serenity, that familiarity is no guarantee that we can get along on anything beyond the basics. Instead, we get stuck playing ideological roles, convinced we’re right, and everyone else “just doesn’t get it.” We can’t escape our role, since we need it to understand and react to whichever ideology happens to hold power at a given time. Even while such an understanding gives us our identity, it traps us into either defending or opposing that power, sometimes winning, sometimes not, but always acting based on our role.