[WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SERENITY BELOW!!!]
With a few exceptions, other than in periods in which significant sections of the U.S. domestic population are in active revolt, the only way to say much that challenges power via Hollywood is to bury it so deeply as to make it irrelevant; it becomes of interest only to hardcore fans and cultural studies professors because it doesn't present the challenge blatantly enough to force those viewing the film to deal with it even if they disagree.
Cultural products can only be meaningfully understood by looking not only at the narratives and imagery of the text itself and those of the broader culture but also the material conditions of their production. Hollywood movies don't spring from nothing. They are the result of a very specific set of institutional circumstances embedded in capitalist relations of production in a white supremacist and (hetero)sexist society that is the current hub of imperial domination in the world.
The most notable recent exception was, of course, Farenheit 9/11, a film at the progressive edge of mainstream opinion. It had far from ideal politics but it played the very important political role of challenging lots of ordinary folk about certain key issues in ways that otherwise would not have happened. Some liberal disgruntlement (bordering on despair, really) plus Michael Moore's propitious placement in terms of money and prestige made it possible, and while it opened a niche for a series of other fringe progressive documentaries leading up to the November 2004 U.S. elections, the mainstream of Hollywood remained largely closed to openly challenging content.
This occurs not because of conspiracy but because of economics. A studio invests tens of millions of dollars in a feature film for no other reason than to make its money back plus as much more as possible. A passionate vision by an auteur may be there, but if the bean counters don't approve then the vision stays unrealized; thus are the gates kept. To make back that much money, you need to appeal to a mass of people. The first way that gets in the way is because oppressive understandings of the world are widespread, and even without further meddling there might be some assertive disinterest at least from a chunk of prospective customers to material that challenges this. This could render difficult assembling a sufficiently large customer base to make your money back. Now, personally I don't think most people are as closed to well-done, entertaining material that challenges their preconceptions as common sense (also known as "hegemonic discourse") would have it, but there are other factors as well. One goes back to the institutional gatekeepers, both the studios themselves (who decide what gets made) and the wider media (who award or withhold the kind of buzz that makes or breaks a film financially). These media institutions function to make a profit, and the buzz-making tends to favour that which does not challenge power, while the openly challenging gets trashed. Again, no conspiracy and it's far from absolute, but somehow, in general, elite sensibilities about such things tend to filter down the structure of media institutions along with the pay cheques.
Perhaps most importantly, social movements that are active and organized and in motion can influence such things. Unfortunately, the most active and organized and best funded social movements in the United States today are the very opposite of progressive. They can raise a righteous ruckus about a couple of lesbian farmers appearing unobtrusively in the background of a kids show and manage to get it pitched by PBS, as well as a hundred other sickening examples of even very modest, liberal "diversity" being shouted down, let alone anti-oppression, anti-capitalism, or anti-imperialism. Politicians, companies, and media institutions fear them, even when those entities are themselves inclined towards liberalism.
All of this, of course, limits what Hollywood is going to make. A feature film about the daughter of an Iraqi Communist murdered by the Baathist regime who runs away to join the nationalist resistance to the U.S. occupation, for example, just ain't gonna get made. Nor is a riveting drama about a U.S. soldier ordered to torture prisoners in an Iraqi prison who decides to try and claim conscientious objection and ends up in jail for many years. In fact, anything openly grounded in a standpoint outside the strange and narrow spectrum of what is permissible in mainstream news in the U.S. is unlikely to get made. Not impossible, but unlikely, at least until years after its direct relevance has passed.
This takes us back to where I started: The only genuine dissent which can make its way into Hollywood product most of the time, and certainly in our current period, is so deeply coded that it becomes worthless as political intervention and is really more trivia (to fans and academics) or an exhibition of frustration and cleverness (to the person in charge of the film). It is in this category that the anti-imperialist message of Serenity falls.
Serenity is an unlikely genre-bending sci-fi/western (don't jump to judgment, it actually works) written and directed by Joss Whedon, of whom I am a fan. It is based on his television series Firefly, which did not even get to finish its first season but which was kept alive as a franchise by very vigorous DVD sales. The premise is a humans-only multi-planetary kind of universe set a few hundred years in the future. The heroes are a bunch of misfits on a rickety spaceship who do moderately dirty deeds for hire (mostly thievery and smuggling). The captain (Mal Reynolds) and first officer of this craft are veterans of the losing side in a war in which the civilized central planets ("the Alliance") conquered a federation of less-developed worlds that were keen on doing their own thing. Among the passengers is a young woman who has been tortured and changed into a weapon of sorts -- she is psychic, a superhuman fighter, and psychologically broken -- and her brother, who sacrificed his fortune and his medical career to rescue her. The Alliance is hunting her down because of potentially damaging information buried in her mind.
As a piece of entertainment, I found the film very effective. There were a few points where the cow-poke dialogue grated, but for the most part Whedon's playfulness with language is among the best things about his writing. There are also a few places where the set-up isn't quite as effective as it could be, though I'm not sure in the two-hour feature format much could've been done about that. But for the most part the mix of humour and darkness, the pacing, the acting, and the action are all top notch. I appreciated the fact that the brutal violence that gets labelled "action" in popular culture was shown in a more realistic way than is customary for the genre -- characters we care about get hurt and suffer and die, rather than remaining miraculously unscathed while picking off baddies by the dozen.
One premise of this universe is that Anglo and Chinese cultures have sort of melded together, and everyone speaks both languages and cultural imagery from both are prevelant. Characters even deliver the odd line in Chinese. This is a neat idea, both because it has a certain plausibility and it provides a rich environment for storytelling, but unfortunately its use doesn't really go beyond an exoticizing kind of orientalism. In series and film, despite the emphasis on Chinese culture, there are central characters who are people of colour but, strangely, none of them are East Asian. Chinese culture seems to have been used mostly as a source of exotic imagery to be appropriated rather than as a basis for grounding stories in different social or narrative spaces.
But at last we come to the promised whiff of anti-imperialism. Insight and lessons and warnings and analogies can be buried in stories without the author intending. The author can simply be bringing together bits and pieces that feel instinctively like they are going to make a good story, and, what do you know, readers see configurations of images and narrative elements that can plausibly be related in unexpected ways to the real world or to other stories and texts. But there is a feel of a certain deliberateness in this instance. Beyond a vague progressiveness and an avowed pro-feminist stance, I have no idea what Whedon's politics actually are. A throw-away line about a history teacher named "Mr. Chomsky" in the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is perhaps food for thought, but I'm not arguing that the politics outlined below are Whedon's, just that there seems to be some sort of deliberate inclusion of material that can lead to this reading. "Trust the tale, not the teller," as Whedon himself once wrote.
To begin with, early in the film the "who's who" of the major social forces in question begins with a flashback to a child's elementary school class deep in the privileged enclaves of the Alliance. The Alliance is described as a "beacon of civilization" while the rebellious outer planets are referred to as "savage" -- the mainstream North American vision of "us" and "them." Children in the class betray ignorant and oppressive prejudices about the "others" and the teacher praises the "social and medical advancements" that these rebellious outer planets could acquire if they just gave up. One student opines that they resist because, "We meddle...we tell them what to do and what to think." She is scolded by the teacher with a nonsequitur straight from realword imperial doublespeak, "We're not trying to tell them what to think; we're trying to show them how." A little later the text links two of the main characters to this characterization of the Serenity universe by pointing out that they were "Browncoats...[who] fought for independence."
Still later in the movie, in a number of ways the chief villain, an Operative leading the Alliance forces in pursuit of our heroes, is characterized as "a believer." The Alliance is characterized as trying to "make people better" and create "a world without sin." At another point, the Operative is described as "devout...in his belief that killing [a particular character] is the right thing to do." All of this religious language can be understood as referring to the fundamentalism of the Bush gang. In one exchange, the main character tells this Operative, "I don't murder children." The Operative replies, "I do if I have to." That brings to mind Madeleine Albright's admission that killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children by economic sanctions was "worth the price."
Despite all of this, it is a single line in Serenity that makes me think that the anti-imperialist content of the movie, though buried, has an element of deliberateness to it. In this universe, not only is there the Alliance (the centre of power, the imperium, "civilization") and the outer planets which they conquered ("savages"), but there are also a few human beings driven to inhumanity, who cut themselves, eat human flesh, and prey upon all who come within the reach of their ships, which lurk in deepest space. These are Reavers. We find out, in fact, that it was in the quest for "a world without sin" that the Alliance semi-inadvertently killed the 30 million inhabitants of a particular planet (intersteingly enough, in the same numeric range as the population of Iraq) and drove a few of the inhabitants to become Reavers, and then covered it all up.
In one climactic scene in the movie, a fleet of Reaver ships plunges out of an ion cloud in hot pursuit of the ship carrying our heroes, and straight into an Alliance fleet led by the Operative which is also out to destroy our heroes. As the inhuman Reavers wreak havoc upon the pure and noble forces of empire and vice versa, which creates chaos that allows our heroes to proceed to their destination, Mal Reynolds observes, "Chickens come home to roost." That, of course, invokes the words of two men much loathed by the right and many liberals, prophetic visionaries of revolution from two oppressed nations within the U.S. Malcolm X first used the phrase in reference to the assassination of John Kennedy. Ward Churchill breathed new life into it in analyzing 9/11. In both cases, the phrase was intended to convey the very simple and obvious point that if you do horribly violent things to lots of people, eventually some of those people are going to decide to do horribly violent things back to you.
It is very easy, when trying to relate buried narratives to the real world, to go too far in trying to figure out "who's who" and "what's what." I think that the more common (more liberal) political reading of Serenity, not that any such reading is likely to be common, would see our heroes as "good Americans," the Alliance as "those bad Republican Americans," and the Reavers, in the fine tradition of colonial racism, as the Iraqi resistance as a whole. But I would suggest that a slightly different reading makes more sense. Our heroes, as outlined above, are veterans of the losing side of a war of conquest who have decided, after their defeat, to make their way in the world as best they can. Despite a lack of noble intent to begin with, when presented with an opportunity to resist the empire that conquered them, they jump at it. Yes, that's right -- this movie actually centres around ordinary folk who occupy the standpoint of the nationalist resistance in a formal war that is long since over, but who continue resisting anyway when they see a way to do it. The Operative tells Mal, "You're fighting a war you've already lost." He replies, "Yeah, well, I'm known for that." Sound familiar? As for the Reavers, they can best be mapped on to the tiny Wahabbist element among the Iraqi resistance -- the fragment that truly is organizationally connected to al Qaeda, and which is more enthusiastic about killing Shia civilians than it is about driving the occupiers out.
(Use of this standpoint is in interesting contrast to Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III. These are also anti-imperial, in their own way, and do contain a few lines that can be read in a fairly blatantly anti-Bush way. But these films are so badly written that even the third, which is the best of the newer trilogy, caused my partner to comment that the Wookies roaring was easily the best dialogue. They are also written from the standpoint of elite liberals/Democrats who see it all coming, moan about it, and not only do little to try and stop it but probably facilitate it by their own incompetence.)
The act of resistance that our heroes manage to accomplish -- broadcasting proof of the destruction of this particular world -- is very individualistic and media driven, not the kind of engagement with collective resistance that would really be necessary in such circumstances. However, even the movie shows that getting out the truth about atrocities committed will "weaken their regime" but is not, on its own, enough to bring it down. Along with the invokation of Malcolm and Churchill and the use of those who have actively resisted empire as the standpoint for the movie, I think the most interesting idea that the film advances is the importance of belief. Many liberal sources counter the Bush fanaticism by calls for everybody to be calm, to be rational, to avoid further polarizing the situation. I think this is hogwash; the problem is not too much polarization, but not enough, and the wrong kind. In the film, a "wise old man" type character advises Mal that only passionate belief is enough to sustain resistance to the fundamentalists in charge, to counter the power of their belief. That's good advice, I think.
The realworld political significance of all of this is, of course, marginal. It could be argued that by propagating such imagery and narratives, even in coded form, the film is contributing to a culture which will undermine the drive to empire. I'm not sure how much importance I actually assign to such supposed subversion. The institutional realities of the mass media and the film industry override any deeply coded dissent in the content and make Serenity just as much a consumerist escape as the rest of Hollywood, and push whatever politics people might bother to see in it towards a fairly harmless liberal reading. If the right isn't screaming bloody murder, that's a pretty good sign that it is politically harmless.
And yet, it's still nice to see. Stories flow around us all the time, shape our world and give it meaning. Even if it is no substitute for organizing, playing with stories that give hope for a better world can be a boost, an inspiration, a reminder. And that matters too.
[WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SERENITY ABOVE!!!]