This is another one of the big ones. Another one of my favorite movies of all time. And yet unless you are connected to the geek and sci-fi fandom communities like I am, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of you have even heard of it or think much of it. However, “Serenity” is truly one of the greats, being not only one of the best sci-fi movies ever made but one of the best ever films ever brought to us by the great Joss Whedon before he ever imagined that he would direct “The Avengers” movies a few years later. It is a 2005 film set in a sci-fi western world (yes you heard that right) of alliances, strife and backwater men and women scrounging off the land and trying to survive in the deep fringes of space. It is a continuation and conclusion to the 2002 television show “Firefly” that lasted on Fox for a season before being abruptly cancelled in typical Fox fashion. However, the outcry and backlash by the fans of the show (calling themselves “Browncoats” named after the popular veterans of the losing side of a major war in the show’s history) was so great that a movie was decided upon, shot, and released a few years later meant to be an ending to the show but also a strong feature film in its own right. It wasn’t a big success at first release despite critical acclaim by critics but is now recognized along with the show that spawned it as one of the sci-fi classics. The fandom of this little show and movie are still alive and strong today and even the stories have continued outside of TV and movie form in books, comics, and eventually an online RPG game coming a few years from now. Seriously, this truly is the fandom that will not die and there truly is something about it and an intense love that keeps it going even in the face of less and less prospects. I consider myself a “Browncoat” and recently became a member of the Utah chapter of the Browncoats. I even have the badge to prove it:
Needless to say, I still very much love and am devoted to this show and movie. “Serenity” serves not only as a fantastic capstone to the show but also as a great sci-fi movie, better than half of the Star Wars films and most of the other films coming out at that time. I will always have a special place in my heart for this show and this film in particular. Quite a pedigree I’m giving it even right off the bat….now I have to defend myself. So let’s fly right in and take a closer look.
The universe of Serenity isn’t too difficult to understand. In the far flung future (about 500 years or so), humanity has reached out and colonized many different planets and regions in the galaxy. The driving force and main power is called The Alliance, essentially what would happen if the United States and China ever joined forces in to a single entity. Hence, everyone in this universe knows both English and Chinese and everyone speaks and mixes the two languages to some degree. As things got more spread out and more people began to colonize, the Alliance began to unify all of the planets under their single entity and government. However, some of the outer planets and outer regions fought against this strongly and thus began what was called the Unification War between the Alliance and the Independents (the aforementioned “Browncoats”). However in a final desperate battle in a place called “Serenity Valley”, the Browncoats were more or less wiped out and the Alliance took over. The story of “Serenity” begins some years after this last defeat and concentrates on the crew of “Serenity”, a run down little Firefly class spaceship (see where the titles came from?) led by a former jaded Browncoat sergeant, Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion). The group of 7 to 9 crew members (depending on what’s going on at the time) are essentially struggling on the outskirts, pulling off odd jobs and mercenary work in order to survive and live to eat and fight another day. However by the point at where the movie begins, two of the crew have left and things have gotten worse than ever before. At the beginning of the series, Mal took on aboard two fugitives from the Alliance, a brother and sister pair named Simon and River Tam. River was experimented on and altered by the Alliance in to a living weapon and a psychic but was severely mentally damaged in the process and is highly intelligent but extremely unpredictable. Needless to say, the Alliance desperately wants her back by any means necessary. After a particularly nasty job goes awry involving the show’s bogeymen, the cannibalistic and mutilated Reavers, the crew are suddenly pursued and hunted by a dangerous assassin sent by the Alliance in order to capture River personally as it turns out she gleaned dangerous secrets in her mind as a psychic that threaten to destroy the Alliance if revealed. As things get more and more desperate, the group ventures in to dangerous space to a previously unknown planet hidden by the Alliance as it holds the key to unlocking what is in River and also possibly the key to weakening the Alliance once and for all. I’m treading very carefully on spoilers here because even if you haven’t watched the TV Series “Firefly” before hand (which incidentally I highly recommend because not only is it amazing, but you will have much more of a connection to the characters and what is going on), there are some major shocks that will rock you to your core and lead you in to one of the best, most action-packed, and heart-wrenching climaxes that I’ve ever seen in a movie. And you totally deserve to not have any of that ruined for you.
First things first. While I said above that it really helps to watch the show this movie came from in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of it which I still think is true, it really isn’t all that necessary. The setting, characters, and main points are all set up brilliantly within the first 10 minutes of the film. The highlight here is the opening credits scene after the title appears. Within a 5 minute sequence, we see and meet the entirety of the crew, get a tour of the ship, establish most of the characters and their dynamics, and get a sense of how dire their straits are as they head out on their latest job, all in what feels like more or less one shot though I swear there’s a really clever cut in there somewhere. It’s absolutely brilliant and one of the best shots in a film composed of absolutely brilliant shots. The film and cinematography isn’t anything too new and a lot of it feels like something that J.J. Abrams would use in a few years with his new Star Trek films. However this isn’t supposed to be a grandiose and conquering film like some of the other big sci-fi films coming out nowadays with no heart to it. This is a film with a strong base out to tell a good story and have a fun time with some powerful messages and meaning thrown in. Even from the beginning of his film career, Whedon understood that film and TV are two different animals and require two different mindsets and viewpoints to tackle it. This is the best kind of adaptation, one that loves where it comes from and continues it but isn’t afraid to take chances and do big things and very big changes. And believe me, if you are a fan of the show, be prepared to be punched in the gut more than once.
In terms of the cast, there are really only one group of people that matter here: Malcolm Reynolds and his crew. These are not the stalwart heroes from other sci-fi films. These people aren’t noble or good men though they may have a good heart. They rob people, do mercenary jobs, thieve, plunder, and do whatever it needs to be done to survive. These aren’t the Jedi of the future, these are the Han Solos. The crew is fairly big with 9 members to keep an eye on (including the two who have left the ship) but I’ll talk about my favorites briefly. The main man is Captain Malcolm Reynolds (played by geek icon Nathan Fillion) who gives a strong and somewhat commanding presence but with jaded and heartfelt personality. This is the man and the leader who has lost everything but found something else that keeps him going and will fight for it at any cost to keep himself and the people he cares about alive. The other main player is the psychic girl River Tam (played by Summer Glau). As Mal says, ‘she is might unpredictable. Mood swings of a sort.’ She is adorable and so much fun to watch but she also is EXTREMELY unpredictable especially under her conditioning and we have no idea when she’s going to be the damaged little girl or the psychotic weapon that the Alliance have bred her up to be. it’s a brilliant performance even in the show and watching it pay off like gangbusters here is something amazing to see. Without giving a spoilers, Summer Glau must have gone through some major acrobatics and on-screen fighting training to prepare for this role because DAMN! My other personal favorites in the crew are the pilot in Hoban Washburne aka Wash, played by Alan Tudyk who is really the comedy relief and fun loving man of the group, the gorgeous and sleek sexy ‘companion’ Inara Serra played by the absolutely flawless Morena Baccarin (yes I have a major crush on her) who brings an elegance and sophistication in an otherwise dusty and metallic world, and the mechanic of the ship Kaylee Fry played by Jewel Staite who is just plain adorable and has some of the best lines of the film. I must also say that outside of the crew, I do love the villain of the piece in the Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). He is civilized, calm (most of the times) and extremely methodical as well as an eloquent speaker. However, he is also a strong fighter, a child murderer, and devout in his beliefs and ideals in that what he does is the right thing to do even if he’s not told why and even if it’s killing a young girl like River Tam. This is a very dangerous man to cross and a genuine threat, adding a major sense of tension and credibility to the stakes. With that big of a main cast, it does feel like at times more characters should get more time or development especially if you are not familiar enough with the show but most everyone gets a couple of good lines and scenes to themselves and the dynamic between all of them is so strong that it shouldn’t surprise that the man who directed this would be tapped to direct the Avengers a few years later.
With a strong cast and a strong base, how is the rest of the film? Well the plot is a little bit standard nowadays for sci-fi movies in terms of the ‘hunted fugitives’ aspect but it is stylish and creative with the new elements it does add in and it feels like something new and fresh at the same time. I know the film’s advertising was a little misleading since the ‘kick ass psychotic little girl’ aspect of River was built up tremendously. While Mal and River are definitely the central characters of the crew for this plot, this isn’t all their story. It’s this crew’s story and the ramifications that their actions will have on this universe. After a ramshackle first third that details the stakes and what needs to be done, the secrets are revealed, characters picked off, strong moments built, and pacing built to an extremely fast and almost frenetic pace. It all beautifully leads to one of the best climaxes of a movie I have ever seen. Not only do we get a gigantic frantic spaceship battle, but we also get a really tense crash, a tense last stand in a hanger, a one on one in a cool looking generator room a la ‘Phantom Menace’, and some kick ass fight choreography and strong personal moments to back it all up. And unlike most sci-fi movies, you actually FEEL invested and want to see these characters come out OK. The closest I have come in to this kind of investment and strong personal stakes in a sci-fi movie (not counting Doctor Who) is the Mustafar fight scene from the last Star Wars movie and for me, this one completely blows it out of the water in more ways than one. However, it’s not completely perfect. The cinematography is a little bit lackluster at times and there is a fair amount of CG here but it’s handled and done so well that it’s very hard for me to tell. Unlike ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’, ‘Serenity’ didn’t have near the budget that it should have so a lot of the effects aren’t as polished or gleaming as some of those other films but I personally don’t mind it and for me, it just adds to the gritty B-movie film that it’s trying to go for. I will also say that the musical score by David Newman, while a little boring at times, has a beautiful edge to it similar to the show’s violins and country feel with a sci-fi edge. Serenity’s main theme played throughout the film is one of those that I never get tired of hearing and it gives me chills whenever I hear it. Like the Doctor’s theme, it is beautiful but also fun loving with a personal touch that makes it so special just like the rest of the film it comes from.
FINAL VERDICT: In a quote from CinemaBlend’s movie review of “Serenity”, reviewer Joshua Tyler said:
Joss Whedon understands something George Lucas never will. It’s not the Jedi that got us interested in Star Wars, it’s Han Solo.
I feel like that’s one of the truest statements out there in regards to not just this film, but this fandom as a whole. For Serenity is not just one of the best and most accessible sci-fi films ever made but also one of the best films ever made PERIOD. This is a film made with love and detail with a strong base to go off of. You will fall in love with these characters as they go through a personal hell in more ways than one and come out the other side changed forever. It’s balanced. It’s edgy. It has amazing action set pieces. It has a strong personal message with more heart than any other sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. I remember this being the first film I cried at as a young adult and I will have a special place for this film and this fandom. Go check it out if you are a sci-fi fan or even if you aren’t. Either way, check it out!!! — 10/10
That’s all for now. Hopefully I got some more Browncoat converts out of this review. Even after 10 years, ‘Still Can’t Stop the Serenity’! Until next time from my ‘verse to yours, ~Geronimo!!