Warning: Serenity spoilers ahead. You may want to bookmark this for later if you haven't seen the film yet.
Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, has a knack for creating TV shows with cult followings, and his sci-fi western Firefly was no exception. The show, which followed an eclectic band of outlaws aboard the 26th century smuggling ship Serenity, was cancelled by Fox in 2002 after only 11 of 14 episodes produced had aired, but an intense core of fans—and bootlegged episodes circulating on peer-to-peer networks—continued to spread Firefly's evangel. When the series was released on DVD, it became a surprise hit: big enough to convince Universal to back a feature film follow-up, Serenity, which opens this weekend.
The interesting thing about Firefly's cult following, though, is that it seems to include a disproportionate number of libertarians. At an advance screening in Washington, D.C., I counted the head of Bureaucrash, a couple of folks from the Cato Institute, and at least a half-dozen from the Institute for Humane Studies.
It's not hard to see why. The entrepreneurial Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and First Mate Zoë Washburn (Gina Torres)—who's married to pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk)—are veterans of a failed war of independence against The Alliance, the series' main heavies. Ship medic Simon Tam (Sean Maher) is a fugitive who abandoned a lucrative medical career on the core planets to break his brilliant teenaged sister River (Summer Glau) out of an Alliance facility where her high-octane brain was being folded, spindled, and mutilated for mysterious purposes. There's sexual tension so thick it might drip on you between Mal and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a "registered companion," which is Firefly-speak for a high-class (and high-status) licensed prostitute. And Second Amendment buffs have a kindred spirit in mercenary muscleman Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin). As Whedon himself puts it, "Mal is, if not a Republican, certainly a libertarian; he's certainly a less-government kinda guy. He's the opposite of me in many ways."
For those who think a bit more like Mal, there's plenty of red meat in Serenity from the very outset. The backstory is quickly provided by a scene at an Alliance school, where a teacher sadly muses that it's hard to understand why the benighted Independents, the secessionists, have resisted the attempt to bring them the gifts of civilization. A young, pre–brain tampering River Tam knows:
We meddle... People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads, and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome.
And, as it turns out, they are. The action of the early second act is driven by the Serenity crew's attempt to discover what, exactly has been done to River—and decide whether the Alliance's fiddling has rendered her too dangerous to have aboard—while evading the agent sent to track her down, a man known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Matters are complicated when the crew discover why the Alliance is so eager to retrieve their experiment: She has information about a horribly failed plan to develop a soma-like air additive called "pax," meant to render populations docile. It works too well: Millions of people in a test population on a hidden planet simply gave up on living. As a handy expository hologram-recording by one of the scientists involved tearfully explains, "We meant it for the best, to make people safer." And in a slight—but crucial—departure from the series, it is made clear that this is not merely the work of "the Alliance" as such, but of the Parliament: A democracy did this. Mal and company resolve to expose the experiment, convinced that despite the tragic results, eventually "They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I don't hold to that."
The most important source of ideas in Serenity, though, is not a kind of vague libertarianism, but existentialism. As Whedon explains in director's commentary for the Firefly episode "Objects in Space," he was influenced at a young age by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea, the themes of which permeate that episode.
Whedon has a gift for integrating existentialist ideas seamlessly into his scripts. One of Sartre's central ideas, for example, is that of "bad faith," the attempt to deny our own agency and responsibility. Among his classic illustrations is that of the café waiter who wishes to vanish into his role, not merely be a person who happens to work at a restaurant, but to become "a waiter." And in "Objects in Space," that idea is concisely inserted in an exchange between River and the ruthless but oddly philosophical bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks):
River: You hurt people.
Early: Only when the job requires it.
River: Wrong. You're a bad liar. [...] You like to hurt folk.
Early: It's part of the job.
River: It's why you took the job.