Another Wednesday, another episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience. This week, in celebration of the Joss Whedon moment we’re going through with The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers on everybody’s lips, Nathaniel has assigned Whedon’s feature film debut as a director: 2005’s zippy popcorn sci-fi adventure Serenity, the sequel and finale to his maddeningly short-lived TV show Firefly. Which, between them, represent my absolute favorite stuff in Whedon’s entire career, give or take whatever he contributed to Toy Story.
(There’s a lot of stuff in this post, so I’m burying it beneath a jump – no reason to make the whole blog take that long to load up).
Now, ever since the day Serenity opened in 2005, I’ve known exactly what my favorite shot was; but I still felt a bit like a cheater for including here. Because the shot in question is 4 minutes and 24 seconds long. And it’s also at least two separate takes that have been digitally stitched, with another two places at least two other spots where a seam could be hidden.
So I dithered and hemmed and hawed and thought about going for absolutely anything else, and in the end I didn’t. Because it reads as one shot, and it is not remotely incidental that it is all one shot, for reasons I promise to dig into as best as can. In the meanwhile, here it is: starting just over ten minutes into the film, when all we know is that a mysterious government assassin (Chiwetel Eijiofor) is hunting a dark-haired crazy psychic girl, River Tam (Summer Glau):
(I do beg you to watch it fullscreen; it turns out that uploading videos straight through Blogger, which I’ve never done before, actually results in pretty decent quality)
For those of you who didn’t want to watch it all, and also so we’ll all have a reference point, let’s walk back through that. Just so you know, we cut in from a glorious 360 pan around the outside of the CGI spaceship Serenity, closing in on the front window through which we see Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), and then there’s a bang.
On that bang, we jump into the bridge to see Mal having a very restrained freak-out.
The shot pulls back and widens into a two-shot to show Mal and pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) having a nice friendly banter about what the heck is going on – it’s awfully bad, but both men are willing to deal with it by joking (the main characteristic of Whedon’s writing, and honestly, one that sometimes gets too annoying for me to deal with it, but rarely if ever in Firefly/Serenity).
Mal storms down the hallway and meets the requisite dumb tough guy of his crew, Jayne (Adam Baldwin); they also banter, but it’s a lot meaner.
The camera swings around Mal, leading him into the ship rather than following, and he stops to briefly exchange words with Zoë (Gina Torres), his second-in-command, and Wash’s wife. This is the first non-bantering conversation we’ve seen, reflecting his considerable respect for her abilities as a soldier.
Further down, the camera drops behind again-
-and in the engine room, we meet mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite).
Right outside, Mal almost walks right into Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who is the least bantery of all the folks on the ship: he is indeed, downright pissed.
Simon and Mal have a rather acrimonious conversation as the captain heads further into the ship (the one relatively obvious stitch is here), dragging the doctor and us with him.
In the cargo hold, Mal resolves things by asserting his authority and storming off. Note Jayne and Zoë in the background – I’ll be getting back to that in a second.
We continue with Simon as he storms up to the top level, where his sister River is lying in a sort of trance. The shot ends on her face, the character we’ve been led to believe is the key to Whatever is going on in the movie punctuating the end of its most sustained individual moment.
As a scene, this is a terrific bit of exposition: one of the hardest things for sequels with a rabid fanbase to get right is the part where the narrative world and core characters are introduced in a way that is clear on its own terms for newbies while never talking down to established fans. Serenity doesn’t do this flawlessly throughout, but it’s definitely one of the better examples I can think of (compare and contrast e.g. The X-Files, which fails on both counts: inscrutable as a standalone, dull and repetitive within the greater mythology). And the manner in which this sequence introduces us to each character one at a time, gives us a quick sense of their personality (Wash is flippant, Jayne is violent, etc.), and moves on.
Of course, we’re discussing this as a shot, not a scene, and thought it’s easy to confuse the two since they occupy the exact same space in the film, they’re not identical.
So, then, why is it so damn important that this all be in one nominally uninterrupted shot?
A number of reasons. One is that it’s cool – long takes are always cool. This is indisputably the worst reason.
But let’s run with it for a second: Whedon is basically showing off. And in showing off in this one way, he’s underlining the cinematic nature of Serenity compared to the show Firefly: implying through the sheer ambition and scope of this very early sequence that he’s got a much bigger sandbox now and he’s willing to use it; demonstrating, in essence, that he’s not going to bring a TV director mentality to his very first feature film. So on the one level, this shot is a statement of intent.
Secondly, it is a magnificent way of keeping the sequence’s energy screwed all the way up: while quick editing can be a good way to ratchet up tension, so is busy camerawork that runs around trying to keep up with the characters, and long takes are such a high-wire act that they inherently make the actors seem more on-edge and that rubs off on the viewer.
Thirdly, it is the most efficient way of exploring the physical space of Serenity, the ship that gives the film its title and remains far and away its most important location. We never get to see nearly this much of it all at once ever again, but the memory of this shot lingers for the rest of the 118-minute film; we’re always keenly aware that this room connects to that, granting the location a weight and reality that’s wildly different from most science fiction movies, which often announce the artifice of their sets a little bit too enthusiastically. And the little bit at the end where Zoë and Jayne pop up in the cargo deck, having taken another route to get there, is a genius little gesture to point out that there is another route, and that as much of Serenity as we see in this shot, there’s even more to see.
Most importantly, though, is the work the shot does in tying all the characters together: it’s no accident that the first time we see any of these people other than Simon and River, and the first time we see even them in “the present”, is in one unbroken flowing take. Whedon is famously obsessed with family units: groups of people thrown together by chance, that grow to love one another as they become more familiar. It is the theme that unites all of his work. Serenity opens in a moment of crisis for its family unit, both physical (the ship is about to explode) and psychological (the rift between Mal and Simon has widened to a breaking point). Things are quite literally falling apart; but Whedon, who views interpersonal unity as sacrosanct, wants to enforce how in the face of this, everyone is still together, still a family: and so he introduces all of them and their ship in one uninterrupted flow. For editing puts characters in boxes, while long takes stress how they all occupy the same space, and for all the coolness and tension and technical dazzlement of this open shot, it’s this final reason – the way the shot ties all the characters into one and guarantees us, the audience, that they’re together through thick and thin – is why this isn’t just my favorite shot in Serenity, but my favorite moment in Joss Whedon’s whole damn career.