Review: “Serenity” (2005)

“You’d best make peace with your dear and fluffy lord.” ~~Cap’n Mal Reynolds

Never underestimate the power of pissed-off sci-fi nerds in large groups. If a franchise needs re-inventing, or unjust cancellation needs righting, they’re the ones who care enough to put their feet to pavement and their mouths behind megaphones. “Serenity” owes its existence to the intensely devoted fans (“Browncoats,” in point of fact) who wouldn’t swallow the abrupt cancellation of Joss Whedon’s witty, gonzo space western “Firefly.” Fans lobbied like all hell for the sendoff “Firefly” deserved, and three years after the show’s unceremonious cancellation they got “Serenity.” 

Does the film justify all the blood, sweat and tears? Some fans of the gone-too-soon TV series may be ambivalent on this point; I am not*. Faced with a tremendous and unenviable task, Whedon does not play it safe and produce what feels like a very long, no-end-left-untied series finale peppered with fanboy jokes no one else will understand. (There are enough “in” jokes to keep fans chuckling appreciatively but not enough to alienate the newbies.) He creates a feature-length film that feels like a feature-length film. “Serenity” has its share of familiar faces — hello, Cap’n Tight Pants — plus a few new ones like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mysterious Operative, an intelligent and marvelously complex villain. Though not everyone receives equal screen time (Alan Tudyk’s flippant Wash suffers most in this area), none of them seem shallow or flat or ill-conceived. The actors are good enough to make their trimmed-down time in front of the camera count. This is as much a testament to their ease with and devotion to the characters as it is to Whedon’s extraordinary gift for giving all his characters, even ones minor to “Serenity,” memorable, even endearing, quirks. The special effects, as they were with the show, are serviceable, but they aren’t the main attraction (not for me). No undue fussin’ needed about that.

But let’s get back to Whedon and his risk-taking Little Movie That Could. “Serenity,” though it is a gift to the fans, is not gift-wrapped for their satisfaction only. Whedon writes enough — in the beginning, maybe a shade too much — backstory to draw in viewers who never saw “Firefly,” and he takes pains to make sure nobody gets left behind. Set 500 years in the future, “Serenity” finds humankind spread out  in another star system onto new planets, all terraformed to support human life. Inner planets are controlled by totalitarian regime The Alliance, which allots for no rebellion in its ranks. The Alliance also conducts psychological experiments on humans to transform them into psychic weapons, and 17-year-old River Tam (Summer Glau) is the best of these subjects. Broken out by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), the two find a home on Serenity, a transport ship captained by the hard-nosed Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Master of Humorous Awkward Pauses). He’s assembled a motley but reliable crew that includes gangland enforcer Jayne (Adam Baldwin); second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) and her husband Wash (Tudyk), an ace pilot; and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s mechanic who carries a not-so-dim torch for Simon. Also within Serenity’s orbit are high-society courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin); Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), a preacher and former crewman who serves as Mal’s adviser; and Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), a techno whiz and self-appointed gatekeeper of all communications that run through the universe.

As mentioned before, “Serenity” diverts noticeably from “Firefly” in a number of ways, some of which may disappoint the real zealots. In an effort to make a film and not, say, a miniseries, Whedon shifts the show’s focus on the many to Mal Reynolds — Fillion can sink those choppers into 19th-century one-liners, by gum — and River, both wrestling with the toughest demons and eluding the same villain. They make a fitting pair because both are damaged people with good reason not to trust many, and they also hate people who meddle when they haven’t the right. Other parts, though, smaller, become iconic because of some whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming violence. Everyone gets an ending; it’s merely that they aren’t all happy. Some are happy, some are bittersweet, some are tragic. Accept that early and “Serenity” starts to find its footing as a film and as a sequel. That’s quite shiny, innit?

Grade: A-

*I’m such a nerd that when I started watching “Firefly,” I immediately recognized Jewel Staite from her tenure on Nickelodeon’s “Space Cases.” Because I loved that show and it got cancelled too, gorramnit.

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17 Responses

  1. I came at this movie from a different point of view. I had never seen Firefly when I first saw Serenity, did I like it? Lets put it this way, I went out and purchased the Firefly box set and watched it all in a day. It remains the ONLY tv series I have ever purchased on video or DVD. As you point of it does go in a different direction than the TV show and push a couple of characters to the fore, this was the right thing to do a two hour movie can not sustain eight main characters plus an antagonist in two hours. As great as the cast as a whole is it was essential to the plot to push Mal and River to the front. The best sci-fi movie of the past decade!

    To see more of my thoughts on the movie take a look at Movie Mobsters in around a months time.

  2. Love this movie so verrily.

  3. Whoa. Space Cases! I forgot she was in that, too! I always think “Flash Forward” with little Ben Foster.

    Totally agreed on your review. Especially with how kickass of a job Joss did in making a MOVIE, and not an episode 16 (or whatever) which worried me when I went to the theater with all my non-Firefly-watching friends in tow and thinking “Ugh, they’re going to be so lost and hate this.” I’m dreaming of a sequel…

  4. Good write-up. The thing I liked most was – as you mentioned – how accessible it is for fans and newbies alike. Being somewhere in the middle, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Shiny.

    • @ Fandango — I think more people might have seen “Serenity” first, then jumped on the “Firefly” bandwagon, than I thought. I’m glad you found the series — it’s one of the most original TV shows ever created and one of the most enjoyable.

      @ Simon/Ripley — Good. Then there will be no undue fussin’.

      @ Ximena + Aiden — Really nobody can heap enough praise on Whedon for not doing exactly what the fans wanted by making a really long “goodbye, cruel world” episode. He had guts to do what he did, including killing off several important characters.

  5. Had never seen the Firefly series before seeing the movie and can’t say the movie particularly inspired me to go out and watch the TV show. However, Joss Whedon knows how to tell a good story and I think Serenity is that rare beast – a blockbuster-like action film that is original and doesn’t pander to convention or cheap thrills.

  6. Personally, this movie is my favorite thing that Joss Whedon has ever done. I loved the series & I think this movie ends it all just perfectly.

  7. My girlfriend introduced me to the series a few months ago and when I saw Serenity it was bittersweet. A great finish to the series, but sad to see it go.

    • True, but unlike other fans I am not yearning for another film. I think the series should rest as it is, because “Serenity” was a fitting finale. Let’s not beat a dead horse and end up with something akin to “Sex and the City 2.”

  8. Serenity was my introduction to Joss Whedon, who has since become my nerdy guru. Ass-kicking feminism, a control of humor ranging from wisecracks truly relevant to the material, sight gags and disruptive but hilarious pop culture references, and some of the most gut-wrenching writing ever put on TV. Plus, he has an incredible eye for casting. Why people like James Marsters and Amy Acker aren’t huge is beyond me.

  9. Sorry M, but me to sleep once and I aint keen to try again. EVERYONE loves it though, so I know I really should….

  10. While I was aware of the series, I wasn’t a fan until seeing Serenity, and I too went out and purchased the TV series on the basis of the film. I then developed a whole new appreciation for what an amazing television series it was. Considering how few episodes were made, it’s remarkable that the Firefly ‘verse was so well-developed and interesting.

    • @ Jake — I imagine many, many people have shrines built to Whedon and possibly replicas of the good ship hidden in their closets. Not that I speak from experience.

      @ McD — Hey, some people can’t handle the awesomeness. I get it. 🙂 Try sampling the show before you watch it again.

      @ Klaus — If there’s one thing Joss Whedon knows, it’s how to make characters, even the minors, memorable. They’re all very distinctive. But really I just want to marry a man who can write dialogue that funny.

  11. Despite my undying love for Firefly, I unfortunately watched about half of this movie before I got to the television series and have yet to return back to it for some reason. I’m not much a DVD buyer, and it never seems to be at a rental store. I am going to move it up to the top of my netflix qeue right now. Thanks for the reminder Meridith!

  12. I saw this movie before I saw the television show. I loved it.

  13. I have to admit, I never particularly liked the series, despite being a Whedon fan but the mix of genres and overall accessibility really does make this a fantastic movie, even as a stand-alone piece.

    • @ Red — Buy it used on Amazon. I got mine for less than $6 including shipping, and the disc is in perfect condition.

      @ Branden — More people than I thought saw the movie first and then got hooked on the show. That’s the better way to do it because you get to have all the fun and experience none of the disappointment fans of the series felt when it got canned!

      @ thejackanory — In “Serenity” there is something for anybody: sci-fi lovers, Western lovers, or simply fans of quirky characters and great dialogue.

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