Tuesday night I watched a special screening of Serenity, wrangling an invite as a blogger. I arrived to find a long line at the theatre, which initially puzzled me as some people talking in line had no idea of Serenity or Firefly, the Fox TV show that died and was reborn out of the ashes as a Universal Pictures movie. It turns out many of the people there got free tickets through a community paper or a radio station, both co-sponsors of the event; I watched the movie from a Press row. After one brief preview, the movie opened, taking you straight into the narrative much like the TV show.
Writer/director Joss Whedon is best known for his other TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off, Angel. I confess that I am fan of neither, and when Firefly debuted on the small screen in 2002, I probably contributed to the show’s demise, as prejudiced by my disregard of Whedon’s other work, I did not watch a single episode. The Fox network abruptly cancelled Firefly after less than a dozen episodes.
TV is a poor medium for narrative sf, in my opinion. Run a series long enough, and desperate writers will wring every possible option and angle out of the show, just to keep the audience guessing and interested. There’s maybe one or two exceptions out there, Babylon 5 being the best of these. That show was written by one person, with pre-determined story arcs and a five-year lifetime. Yet even Babylon 5 could not escape the other reason TV shows in general fail—life exists year to year on TV, and often far less—and while B5 lived its planned five years, the last one was never assured, and it showed. Deviate from what network execs think sell—sex and action—and you’re gone. Firefly never really fell into line with the network, I guess, because while it combined two known genres, the Western and science fiction, it did so in ways that defied both genres, and blended quirky humor to boot.
Serenity, as a movie, succeeds on virtually every level. Due to the scale, it’s far grander than anything the TV screen could offer. You can feel the ship shake and groan through atmosphere. The light is sharper, and the depths of colors more vibrant, the sounds and silences more menacing. The actors seem unaffected by the change to the bigger medium, and put in strong performances. Newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the Alliance operative with no name, lends a new depth to the story and characters.
The basis for Serenity‘s universe is one where a strong government (the Alliance) manages most of the core planets, with the edges often left to less-civilized people, some who just want to be left along, others who ravage space and feast on other humans. The crew of Serenity includes Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a cynical foe of the Alliance who inspires great loyalty in his crew; first mate Zoe Warren (Gina Torres), tough as nails and married to the pilot, Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk), who is seemingly out of place among this often violent crew. The main violent guy is Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary not afraid to challenge Mal’s authority. The ship is held together by a sweet engineer, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), also in love with the aloof doctor who’s also River’s brother, Simon (Sean Maher). Former shipmates include Inara (Morena Baccarin), a companion (the term prostitute approximates her role, but very high class, and a different basis for getting clientele), and finally Book (Ron Glass), a preacher and spiritual guide.
Whedon has chosen to focus initially on the 17-year old River (Summer Glau), the gifted, psychotic young girl liberated from the Alliance scientists by her brother. As the movie opens we see a recording of the rescue scene, setting the stage for the Operative, who is tasked with retrieving and killing River. For, as we learn, River carries a dark secret that cannot be exposed. Meanwhile, Mal takes River along on a job, perhaps as part of the process of integrating her into the crew. Inara and Book have left, and the Alliance presses ever harder around Mal, sending him further and further toward the edges of space and legality in search of jobs.
During the job with River, the savage and cannibalistic Reavers attack, bringing to the fore another story thread. What caused humans to become Reavers? Were they unable to face “vasty space” to use Kaylee’s term, or could another calamity be at the root? As the Operative closes in on Mal and the crew of Serenity, something triggers River’s latent combat abilities, marking them on security cameras. A deeper memory also surfaces, one that leads them all to a horrific, and to some regards final, battle after uncovering the terrible secret the River bears.
This movie is important in many ways. First, it’s brilliantly filmed science fiction with few gimmicks, born through superb writing that contains both humor and heart wrenching tragedy. Whedon manages to involve the audience, which laughed at times, and applauded at the end. The effects do not disappoint, but unlike many other sf movies, they overwhelm neither the dialog not the plot. At heart lies a strong plot, that of uncovering government secrets, and what lies at the heart of this particular secret: the desire for control, for “a better world,” as the Operative states, and the result of such attempted control. At what cost one asks? Good intentions often result in horrific consequences, and here we see the root of all government, the idea that some people think they know what’s best for others, and will do anything in their power to enforce that behavior. Serenity stands as one of the most entertaining, thoughtful, and best written movies in many years. It’s not without a few flaws, but I hope one day we’ll see more of Serenity’s crew, but if this is the end of Whedon’s special ‘Verse, well, no other movie made a better showing of what it had. Serenity gives no quarter, and pulls no punches.