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In Serenity, however, the central influence appears to be not Sartre but Albert Camus. The Operative, for example, is emphatically not some mere bounty hunter, but a true believer. As he explains at one point, "I believe in something greater than myself: A better world, a world without sin." He has no illusions, either, about the morally monstrous acts he must perpetuate in service of that end, acts he recognizes make him unfit to live in his own utopia. The Operative is a Moses who knows he will not reach the promised land he hopes to help make. He is, in other words, a perfect instance of the revolutionary mindset Camus describes in The Rebel, an anti-Marxist essay that was the catalyst for Camus' break with the (then) pro-Soviet Sartre. For the revolutionary, Camus notes, values are "only to be found at the end of history. Until then there is no suitable criterion on which to base a judgement of value. One must act and live in terms of the future. All morality becomes provisional."
Camus, though, distinguishes between the revolutionary, who dreams of imposing a totalizing new world order, and the rebel, who has the narrower goal of defending his own dignity in the face of oppression. Mal, it's made clear, is the latter: When The Operative tells him that he can't hope to beat The Alliance, Mal responds, "I got no need to beat you; just want to go on my way." For Camus' rebel, though, that recognition that there is something in oneself worth fighting for, a taste for freedom worth defending, metastasizes into a realization that everyone shares the same dignity and rights—even, perhaps, the oppressor. That move from the personal to the political gives the cynical Mal a renewed sense of purpose, something to believe in—which is another of Serenity's central themes.
The idea at the core of Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus is what the author calls "the absurd": Human beings are driven to seek greater meaning and purpose in a universe where, for the good and wicked alike, all roads lead to the grave. And Whedon has a powerful absurdist sensibility. As the film's third act begins, just as the crew has apparently escaped a tough situation, a major character delivers a comic line and, just as the audience is beginning to laugh, is abruptly, brutally, pointlessly killed. It is not a noble sacrifice, not a defeat in battle; there are no stirring, poignant last words. Like so many actual deaths, though very few dramatic ones, it is utterly unexpected and serves no purpose—beyond, perhaps unsettling the Whedon-novice's complacent assumption that main characters can't be killed off arbitrarily. The laugh line is, appropriately enough, "I am a leaf on the wind." (It's funny in context.)
In the face of an absurd universe—one lacking transcendent, factory-installed meanings—we are compelled to create our own. After explaining that The Operative is dangerous precisely because he is a "believer," ship's preacher Shepherd Book tells Mal "I don't care what you believe. Just believe," echoing the proto-existentialist theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who stressed the centrality of passionate commitment, "leaps of faith," in religion.
The Alliance's horrific attempt to "make people safer," provides more than a cartoonish portrait of out-of-control government. For, as we learn, it is not merely that the "pax" gas proves lethal: It kills by making those who breathe it indifferent to life. The residents of the experimental planet simply stopped caring about everything, stopped bothering to get out of bed, to work, to eat. They become, in other words, much like extreme versions of the affectless Meursault in Camus' The Stranger.
Of course, you don't have to have read Camus, or even be fond of berets or clove cigarettes, to be a fan of Serenity. The film's genius is that it works on so many levels—political, philosophical, and (not least) narrative. If you show up in theaters just looking for a tightly plotted, smartly scripted sci-fi action flick, you'll come away happy. For the attentive viewer, though, Serenity is not just a string of good chase scenes, but an "absurd reasoning," a surprisingly profound meditation on what freedom means—both in politics and, perhaps more importantly, as a source of personal meaning.