Futuristic cannibal movies usually involve social dislocation and roving gangs of urban starvelings, but this one has the added attraction of being set well into the future, and in outer space. Space cannibals, what more could we ask? How about plenty of action, smart, sassy dialogue, and Joss Whedon at the helm, the man behind Buffy and Angel?
Stephen Hawking, among a lot of other people (none as smart as him though), suggested that humans will need to “escape the earth” sooner or later.
Currently, the pace of climate change seems to suggest sooner rather than later might be a good idea, but in Serenity, it’s several hundred years into the future (the year 2517 to be precise). Humans have escaped an overcrowded planet Earth and colonised a new solar system. The central planets have formed the Alliance and won a war against the outer planet Independents, a war that they see as civilisation against barbarism. Most barbaric of all are the Reavers, They are savage, brutal and primal; as Zoe (Gina Torres from Hannibal) puts it in the TV series Firefly:
“If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing – and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”
The Alliance government denies their existence. But the Reavers, like Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chikatilo and dozens more cannibals in our own times, are real, and are more than ready to eat us. They first appeared in Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly, which sadly was cancelled after one season, only to become cult viewing thereafter. Serenity is the continuation of that story. Look, it’s a complicated plot, quite a lot of which has nothing for a cannibalism blog to chew on so, here, we’re just interested in the Reavers, who are particularly nasty cannibals.
More than one critic has described the Firefly/Serenity story as “galactic Cowboys and Indians”, and the Reavers are the “Injuns”, in the sense that, in the old Westerns, they were portrayed as mindlessly aggressive, had no subjectivity in terms of any personal anecdotes, and could be gunned down (“bite the dust”) with no moral qualms. Joss Whedon himself said “Every story needs a monster. In the stories of the old west it was the Apaches.”
We can’t do that anymore in movies – First Nation people are far more likely to be the sympathetic protagonists, while cowboys are either unemployed gunfighters, drunks, or psychopathic murderers. The unthinking racism of the early Westerns has been transformed into Reavers, Klingons, Sith lords, and so on. Westerns boldly migrated into space (think Star Wars, Star Trek). But in space, we still need evil degenerates facing off against a noble warrior (who is increasingly likely to be a female).
So if we need a new terrifying, mindlessly destructive enemy, who better than the cannibal? The fear of cannibals worked for Columbus 500 years ago, and works for the Alliance 500 years hence. But the curse of modern cannibal films is that the audience, or perhaps just the producers, demand a back story, how did they get that way – or, as Clarice asks Hannibal, “what happened to you?”
This film tells us, at last, how the Reavers got that way, and it doesn’t reflect too well on the civilised parliamentarians of the Alliance. Imagine an experimental chemical distributed globally, that can reduce or remove human aggression. It stops people fighting. It also stops them doing anything, including eating and moving. Without some aggro, we become zombies. But without the appetite.
But on those who are resistant to the chemical, it has the opposite effect. Their aggression levels go through the roof. They become Reavers. So really, any of us could be Reavers, given the opportunity and the right (or wrong) chemicals.
What would the government do? Bury the information of course. Pretend the dead world doesn’t exist. Then, sooner or later, come out with another way to make people “better”. As the philosopher John Gray says:
“the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”