Joss Whedon created a promising SF show which first saw air in 2002. Though assembled from disparate parts of genres and leftover pieces of sets, Firefly proved an original mix, a space western about a group of troubled but complex characters who live life on the frontier edge of an interplanetary Alliance. Whedon insisted on high production values and strong visual effects, even needlessly complicating shots with less-than-ideal weather and other bits of messiness. Effects, however, were never the focus of Firefly. The show emphasized characters and story, and rounded up a sizeable cult following before Fox killed it. That following only grew in the months that followed and, three years after cancellation, the story continued in Serenity.
Nathan Fillion as Malcolm Reynolds
Gina Torres as Zoe
Alan Tudyk as Wash
Jewel Staite as Kaylee
Morena Baccarin as Inara
Adam Baldwin as Jayne
Sean Maher as Simon Tam
Summer Glau as River Tam
Ron Glass as Book
Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative
David Krumholtz as Mr. Universe
Yan Feldman as Mingo
Rafael Feldman as Fanty
The movie faced a challenge: sell the universe of a short-lived cult show to a broad audience, without alienating the original fans. This raised the likelihood that the film would begin with the Grand Crawl of Infodump that has cursed SF and fantasy films since the original Star Wars (which at least had the excuse that it was imitating the old serials). Whedon rises to the challenge, and begins Serenity with a clever sequence that draws us further into his world. An infodump voice-over becomes a classroom teacher speaking over a holographic projection. Her debate with the young River Tam becomes a memory of the teenaged River's, who is the subject of experiments that resemble an SF-amplified MKULTRA. We then see Simon Tam's rescue of his sister, referenced but never seen in the original series. Their escape becomes, in turn, a security record examined by a sinister character called the Operative. The Operative, played with disturbing calm by Chiwetel Ejiofor, finally answers a question from the original series; why did the Alliance so desperately want the Tams? His answer creates another mystery, which forms the basis of Serenity's plot. As Mal Reynolds and his crew learn more about their young passenger, they find themselves entangled in her life. Ultimately, they must decide whether or not they want to take a stand, against overwhelming odds, for the truth.
It's a tall order for a gang who start the film robbing a bank.
Serenity maintains the show's sense of fun; the crew continue to bicker like siblings. The writing remains sharp, but the best lines work even better than they might because we get to know the characters delivering them. Mal forbids Jayne to take grenades on the bank job, only to be sarcastically reminded of his decision when they find they desperately need some. Earthy Kaylee makes a reference to masturbation. Mal complains that no one needs quite so much information; Jayne suggests he wouldn't mind hearing more.
The movie also maintains the wild west feel of the original Firefly, but it's not as literally realized as it was in the series. Whedon spends his budget wisely, creating something less dependent on leftover sets and costumes.1
While much remains familiar, the movie heads into territory uncharted by the television show. Serenity develops into a horror movie/thriller, with violence, blood, and death.
Once the storyline puts the crew between the powerful Alliance, who are desperate to conceal official misdoings, and the cannibalistic Reavers, who are eager for dinner, it becomes clear that not everyone will survive. When one principal character died, I wasn't too surprised; when the second fell, I found myself wondering if this would be a last stand for the entire crew. We're not in suspense over how how the protagonists will escape, but whether any of them will live.
The secret the crew uncovers and their tragic heroism take the movie in directions that will not please every fan of the show, but these elements produce good, big-screen drama. In the context of the story, the decisions made by the characters matter.
Along the trail to its conclusion, Serenity touches on a number of timely issues. In a limited way, this film asks us to consider government influence on information, the need for social control, the creative, anarchic messiness of humanity, and the nature of heroism. This isn’t quite the movie I expected, but Serenity delivers. Apply that statement to most of the Star Trek films and any of the Star Wars prequels, and it would be a half-truth.
1. As much as I enjoyed Firefly, the degree to which Whedon pushed the western elements became annoying at times. Another issue with the setting created by Serenity involves the suggestion that the series and movie take place in a single, heavily-terraformed solar system. While this conceit allows them to get by without FTL travel and explains how ships can engage each other, it raises a number of problems. It's a quibble, but a fair one. I wish Whedon had either ignored the issue of how Firefly moves so easily among the space colonies, or explained it in a less problematic way.