The following was originally written for the first issue of an online journal that asked various academics for 1000 word pieces that analysed the opening sequence of a film. Unfortunately, the journal was never published, and I was left with the two pieces I had written. I had hoped to reuse this piece, on the opening ten minutes of Joss Whedon's Serenity, in the book I'm currently writing (Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction) but I've had to cut it for reasons of length. Rather than consign it to the recycle bin again, I thought I'd present it here instead:
The opening sequence of Serenity features four linked scenes where, I would argue, visual revelations that are intended to mislead the viewer also illuminate core themes: the uncertainty of vision, and the illusion of seeing (or, rather, the illusion of what is shown). The four scenes are a prologue about a future space Diaspora, our introduction to a young girl called River, an adult River being rescued from a medical laboratory by her brother, Simon, and the mysterious ‘Operative’ viewing footage of their escape. While this description suggests the narrative progression (and relevance) of the scenes, reducing this sequence to its expository function overlooks their deeper function: raising uncertainty over what we are watching, and questioning how much faith or trust we can place in the images presented to us.
The first sign of the film’s larger themes comes when a standard science fiction image (a planet, hanging in space) blinks twice, before being dissected by a white line. The image pulls back to reveal we are no longer ‘in’ outer space, but viewing a computer program that displays a circular star chart, planets radiating out from a central sun. We ‘pull back’ further and the computer is an oval screen set into a classroom wall – the visual motif of circles within circles and oval / eye-shaped apertures recurs throughout – where a female teacher talks to a class of young children. Here, the term ‘pulling back’ does not define a specific camera movement, but a moment of spatial (and temporal) dislocation – from an outer space vista to a computer screen, from the screen to the classroom. In this circular room (with its ovular entrances) we meet River, who challenges the teacher’s view of the galactic Alliance. As the teacher leans forward, apparently to strike River, the film cuts to an older River, in a medical lab. The visual match between the teacher’s thrusting finger and the large needle sticking out of River’s forehead links the scenes, but the edit offers another ‘pull back’, from the inner (subjective) space of River’s mind to this (seemingly objective) view of the laboratory. As if to confirm, or underline this, a lab technician comments: ‘She’s dreaming…off the chart. Scary monsters.’
The sequence of cuts that pull the viewer back, into new scenes, allows us to question the validity of what we are seeing. The film deceives its audience with each new scene, forcing us to question the visual narrative being constructed. How reliable is the information we are being given? Was everything we watched a dream, or memory? The classroom was shot in natural colours, while the laboratory is tinted blue with deep shadows – is this more nightmarish location the reality? A doctor suggests River cannot perceive between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’: ‘The neural stripping does tend to fragment their own reality matrix.’ The viewer’s reality matrix is also fragmented, as we remain unsure whether the visions / images we’ve been offered by the film are objective or subjective, whether we can place our trust in them or not. River is being monitored by banks of instruments – are they the source of the previous images? Were we truly seeing River’s internal thoughts?
This confusion only deepens during Simon’s rescue attempt. Over an image of them, about to escape, an unseen male voice commands the film to ‘Stop… backtrack… stop’. The images obey the orders – first reversing, then freezing River’s face, its blue tint fading into sepia tones. A male face (the Operative) appears ‘through’ this image of River, rippling and briefly combining with it before solidifying. Once again, the film ‘pulls back’, switching to a new spatial location and undermining the reliability of the previous image (and, by association, all the preceding imagery). In this new sparse blue-grey room, the figures of Simon and River hang in the air, now a holographic representation of the event rather than the event itself: the use of sepia reduces the image to the status of old photographs, another call to memory, present tense becoming past.
Again the film challenges our understanding of the image – our ‘reality matrix’ is revealed to be technological, a CCTV recording that can be rewound and frozen at will. By placing directorial control of the image at the hands of the Operative, the series of ‘pull backs’ is finally narrativised as it becomes clear we have been returning to this place, this present tense. With his ability to rewind time, and to displace River (by physically inhabiting the space on screen that she occupied) the Operative is presented as omnipotent, a godlike figure. His control over imagery, so potent here, is contrasted in the film with Mr. Universe, a supporting character who collects and intercepts all visual information in the galaxy. Unlike the Operative, however, Mr. Universe remains neutral – he believes in the power of ‘the signal’, while the Operative believes in the power of secrets – access versus restriction, freedom versus control.
This final scene between the Operative and the doctor is expository, but it continues to play with notions of access and vision. The scene literally revolves around the frozen image of River and Simon, while an echo of the oval / eye theme can be found in the set design for the room. Almost circular in shape, it has a large circle in the ceiling that houses the holographic projector: if the room is an all-seeing eye, this is its pupil. The previous references to eyes, or vision, combine in this scene – like the star chart’s concentric circles, the characters all revolve around River; the doctor’s confusion that he can ‘see no listing of rank or name’ demonstrates his blindness to the Operative’s power over vision; looking into Simon’s (holographic) eyes reveals his love for River; and vision is revealed as the film’s MacGuffin – what did the psychic River ‘see’ in the minds of the powerful government officials who came to inspect her? These themes of vision and visual uncertainty develop through Serenity’s running time, but they are established here in this first sequence.