The Fifth Freedom

Serenity (2005) receives the honor of being the first film in this Four Freedoms series, a choice mainly determined by random circumstances coming together. I finished guiding a friend of mine through the Firefly TV series (2002), I knew I had to get this blog series going, and the film does push certain ideas on freedom. If you don’t know what film I’m talking about, allow Jeremy to educate you (he does it much better than I ever could) first. I try to keep spoilers to a minimum and tag them so you know what to skip!

Serenity is a continuation of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which got cancelled before it had a chance to live. As such, a marginal fan base was aware of the original work, a fan base that grew over the next few years and contributed to the campaign for a follow-up film. Obviously, the campaign paid off, but not enough. While the movie was loved by the fans who helped it get started, it was definitely not a box office hit by a long stretch: it grossed only $38,869,464 worldwide. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004) made more than that. And yes, that title is a fair indication of what you might expect it to be like. This probably means that Serenity was too dependent on the audience knowing what happened in the TV series, and that is not assumption that turned out to be realistic in the end.

Then why are Firefly and Serenity important? Why am I writing about it? Well, first of all, they were made by Joss Whedon. That means that the story is good, the acting is good, the writing is amazing, and that the result carries at least a degree of relevance. This is confirmed by the shear amount of scholarly and amateur analyses of both works. I am only adding to that. And wouldn’t you know it, the notion of freedom is definitely an aspect that occasionally comes forward in those writings. For instance, weapons are readily available to everyone in the universe where the story is set. Whether that means more or less freedom from fear, I’ll leave that up to your interpretation.

Another example: there is no reference to racism whatsoever. Of course, there is a villain that functions as the Other: the Reavers. An antagonist is required to help any plot move along. As a depraved form of humanity, Reavers are unanimously feared by everyone. The government (named the Alliance) more so than most others, and for other reasons as well. While most citizens dread Reavers because of their tendency to kill indiscriminately and possibly cannibalize their victims, mutilating those who remain alive, the Alliance is more concerned with their origin story. Specifically, the Alliance aims to make sure no one knows how Reavers came to be.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. This is the main plotline of both the TV series and the film, though it is interweaved with many other stories. Plainly put: the government created the monster. Trying to control the population on a new Earth, they inserted a pacifying gas into the air system. Surprising no one, this did not go well. Most humans were so pacified they stopped caring even about breathing. With .1% of the population, the opposite happened: they became aggressive, volatile, and uncontainable. Reavers were born. In order to maintain the peace in the rest of the populated galaxy, this became one of the biggest cover-up operations I have ever seen in a movie. It’s also where freedom comes in, though not one of the Big Four. END SPOILERS

Should such sensitive information be freely available? When a government commits a crime, it should be held accountable. The only way that can happen, is if the people know about it. This is one of the ideas behind WikiLeaks. An excerpt from the About-page:

The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of these ideas over the case of the Pentagon Papers:

[P]aramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.

We all know, even if we don’t actively accept or even consider it, that governments are prone to deceive their citizens. This may not always be to cover its ass, if you’ll pardon my French. It may be to protect people, even if it’s from mass hysteria. In that case the first Freedom (of speech and expression) and the fourth Freedom (from fear) can’t always coexist peacefully. Consider the Cuba crisis of 1962. Everyone was aware of the fact that a conflict was terrifyingly close at hand. But being aware of that and truly knowing  what is happening are two entirely different things. Even now, people who are aware of WikiLeak’s existence may choose to not search for any information on the website.

There is a distinct difference between the passive availability of information and the active decision to look for and possibly use that information. So, the main question becomes clearer: should information be passively available? Or should people’s attention be actively directed toward it? Serenity’s protagonist certainly believed that the latter is the right answer. Another question: what happens when two of the Four Freedoms can’t get along peacefully? Should a compromise be found? Does one take precedence over another?

The Four Freedoms series focuses on films covering a form of freedom (or lack thereof). It tries to link the discussion to historical context and current relevance. On the 24th of May, the Four Freedoms will be awarded to the determined laureates.  Find all posts in this series. What film should be covered next?

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