Serenity Again.

Ok, pardon me for a moment.  I’m having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that I watched this movie almost two years ago.  I’m pretty positive that can’t be right, but equally afraid it might be.  I thought it was more like six months ago or so.  Wow.  That’s actually a little scary.

But fear aside, tonight we watched Serenity – me for the second time, my wife for the first.  She actually watched about the last half of the series episodes with me.  Now that, my friends, is true love.  
Having watched all of the episodes, I’m a little more disappointed with the film.  Granted – there were so many loose ends for Joss Whedon to wrap up, that it’s hardly fair to ding him for failing in this regard.  In more ways than one, this movie feels more like a cliffhanger, like a genuine effort on Whedon’s part to convince somebody to reconsider and let him relaunch the Firefly series again.  I can’t blame him.
So what I’ll spend some time on is the role of the Shepherd in the series/film, or more accurately the lack of a role.  He’s a fascinating character that could have been (and seemed to have been intended to be) more fully developed.  A Christian preacher/missionary who finds himself as half-passenger, half-crew with a bunch of gold-hearted petty thieves.  And since this is the new millennium, he’s a preacher with a past.  A potentially dark past that gets him premiere courtesies from the Powers That Be and make him privy to some level of understanding of their inner workings.  
I appreciated much of the consistency in the character.  He never killed anyone.  In a firefight he opted to wound rather than kill, or avoid a gun all together in favor of a water canon or some other instrument of persuasion.  He was a strong man as well as a strong character – he ran contrary to the more typical frontier portrayal of clergy as oftentimes ill-equipped to survive.  Shepherd always seemed eminently capable of surviving.
I find it interesting that Whedon chose to make the character specifically Christian.  Tragically, most of the time this meant pithy little one-liners about following a carpenter.  There were moments where more depth was shown.  In the first episode the Shepherd is visibly disturbed and ill-at-ease upon discovering that one of the crew is a Companion – an elite call girl.  Watching the two make peace is genuine and encouraging.  And finding the Shepherd in a type of confession to her at the end of that episode, struggling with the obvious incongruity of his presence in such a motley crew, she assures him that perhaps this is exactly where he needs to be.  How many pastors could use a reminder of this?
In one episode, where the Shepherd receives top-class treatment from a government ship for a wound sustained in a battle, he is confronted after the fact by Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of Serenity.  Reynolds wants to know how a Shepherd comes to receive so much respect from the government.  Shepherd responds that folks like to see a man of God.  Reynolds quickly replies “No they don’t.  Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”  Yow.  Good insight, that.  Honesty stings at times.  
However, in the movie, Shepherd’s parting words to Reynolds are “I don’t care what you believe, just believe!”  And this is totally out of keeping with his character throughout the series.  While he was often underutilized, he was never cheesily contradicting himself.  He brought a quiet but firm consistency to everything he did, whether it was rebuffing what he thought were the advances of prostitutes in a brothel he was helping to defend, or refusing to allow someone to be shot or otherwise harmed if it were possible to avoid it.  Part of the compelling nature of his character was that he was a strong man of faith.  Committed.  Confident.  Humble.  Strong.  
And in the movie they undo this with that single line.  As though a man who had given his life (or some latter portion of it, perhaps) to God’s work so sincerely could harbor within him the idea that what we believe doesn’t matter, but rather the act of believing does.
But it’s this philosophy the film hammers home.  Kaylee believes she’s going to fight and live so that she can have sex.  Zoe believes she will fight and persevere on behalf of her husband.  River believes she will save the day because of her belief in and love for her brother.  The Operative believes that he must do terrible things so that wonderful things can result from them.  Belief is in no short supply in this film, and in any number of different things, people, emotions, whatever.  All of it is equal.  In intensity and more or less in success.  Believing allows us to do and be things and people we could never hope to aspire to otherwise.  
What we believe matters  far more than the act of belief.  It’s very possible to believe any number of completely wrong things, and the consequences of this belief are disastrous and even fatal.  While it’s true we are made to believe, we are not made to pimp out that belief to whatever attractive person, argument, or emotion comes along.  Our capacity and need for belief runs much deeper than that.  I wish the film had been able to believe that.

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