CULT CORNER: Serenity (2005)

Joss Whedon marks his feature debut with this bigger-budget take on his sadly-cancelled sci-fi series. Still shiny? 

Who made it?: Joss Whedon (Writer/Director), Barry Mandel (Producer), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Sean Maher, Morena Baccarin, Ron Glass.

Tagline: “They Aim to Misbehave.”

IMDb rating: 7.9/10.

Once upon a time, long before I discovered Battlestar Galactica, there was a little show called Firefly.

It had a great premise: a science fiction universe that reflected old-fashioned Westerns and dispensed with silly aliens. The characters were pirates in the mold of Han Solo. The world felt lived-in and unique. Actions had consequences unlike a lot of cookie-cutter SF shows. It also banked on the popularity of Joss Whedon, a name synonymous with geek culture after he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and AngelFirefly was a home run, taking the things that worked in Whedon’s previous ventures while giving them a more mature makeover. If you turn up your nose at the man’s vampire mythology, his space opera might change your mind. Sadly, network Fox did everything in their power to see it fail. They aired the episodes out-of-order and gave it a death slot in the ratings. Glowing reviews didn’t seem to sway them, and after a mere fourteen instalments, they pulled the plug. This particular reviewer was heartbroken.

Firefly fans, known as “Browncoats,” rejoiced when Universal announced plans to produce a motion picture spin-off. Despite the few episodes commissioned by Fox, Firefly has truly amassed a sizeable cult following by this point, which might not have saved it from cancellation but made sure it would become a best-seller on DVD. This snared the interest of producer Barry Mandel, who saw the potential in Whedon’s steampunk western. A battle was won, or to put it bluntly, a finger raised to the executives at Fox. The Buffy creator’s ragamuffin crew of intergalactic thieves would take flight once again, stronger than ever, and to the tune of a $40 million budget. Hardly blockbuster standards, but Serenity would see the Firefly crew rise phoenix-like from the ashes. It’s only the second cancelled TV show in history to achieve such a feat. The first was Star Trek.

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the owner of Serenity, a Firefly-class ship that specialises in criminal jobs, often landing him in a heap of trouble. In Firefly’s premiere, the crew accepted two new recruits – the mysterious River (Summer Glau) and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who were on the run from the Alliance, a totalitarian regime that governs much of the galaxy. River was very important to them – a psychic with extraordinary intelligence and physicality, she carries a dark secret that the Alliance wish to keep buried. Such details are recounted in the wonderful prologue, which is more than a simple way of relaying exposition for the uninformed. Whedon is quite clever, using a voice-over, a nightmare sequence and a flashback to draw the viewer into his complex universe. In ten-minutes, the writer/director establishes the dynamics of his futuristic setting, introduces two of the main characters (without boring the initiated) and reveals the villain of the piece: the enigmatic “Operative” (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The Operative is one of the Alliance’s top hombres, and seeks to reclaim River by any means necessary. That includes opening fire on Serenity and killing Mal and his crew in the process. As the opening credits kick-in, Whedon re-introduces the characters in one continuous, bravura tracking shot (well, it’s actually two, but a crafty bit of editing hides the cut). There’s Wash (Alan Tudyk) the ship’s trusty pilot, his wife Zoë (Gina Torres), sexually frustrated engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and dim-witted heavy Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Together, they continue to dodge the Alliance while accepting dangerous jobs on outer-rim “frontier” planets. However, Simon and River have thrown a spanner in the works, and soon the lives of Serenity’s passengers are placed in jeopardy…

All things considered, Firefly was a breath of fresh air in the rotten telly landscape. Over those precious fourteen episodes, the series showcased a wonderfully diverse solar system and characters that were instantly likable (not to mention layered). Whedon has always possessed a talent for characterisation and world-building, which he has brought to screenplays as disparate as Toy Story and Alien ResurrectionBuffy and Angel, for all their faults, thrived on the internal logic of the reality they presented, rarely disregarding the established rules of the mythos. He brought the same quality to Firefly, although his vision of the future takes its cues from many a sci-fi yarn. What makes it quintessentially Whedon is his absurdist humour, which is present and correct in Serenity.

As the Universal logo fades away, the opening carefully summarises this not-too-distant future – a series of colonised planets, terraformed to support human life, that were either ruled by the Alliance or resided over by the Independents. They resisted Alliance control and a bloody war ensued. Adding to the texture of this new frontier is the dominance of two cultures – America and China. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine these superpowers spreading into the cosmos, and the concept gave the show a distinctive visual and aural flavour. Seeing the crew traipse through a backwater town, only to curse in Mandarin, was both original and startling. The show resisted the temptation to include extra-terrestrial life as well, and the closest approximation was a group called “The Reavers” – a horrifying breed of men who love to maim, kill and eat human flesh.

Any doubts about Whedon’s ability to direct a feature film are quickly dispelled, and there’s little evidence that it was his debut. His previous directorial work in television was assured and memorable (Buffy episode “The Body” being the highlight). He might have cut his teeth writing blockbuster fare, but the mediums of film and television are radically different in terms of scope. Whedon was up to the task and it can’t have been easy to condense his creation into a two-hour film. While moments of Serenity reveal his relative inexpensive behind the lens, with camera set-ups that have a TV-feel to them, there’s no denying the overall quality of the craftsmanship on display. There’s love oozing from every frame of this film – both the cast and crew seem committed to delivering the best movie possible. Such passion only makes the picture more endearing… there’s nothing particularly Hollywood about it.

Providing much of the unexpected is Captain Reynolds. An instant genre favourite, Fillion is Whedon’s greatest asset throughout Serenity. During the television series, Mal slowly grew on the viewer. He was a troubled soul – a veteran of the war between the Alliance and the Independents, Mal was constantly coloured in shades of grey. One minute he was willing to ditch a member of his crew to ensure a successful deal, the next he was putting his life on the line to come to their aid. He’s a complex and interesting creation, played with a great deal of charm by Fillion. The actor also isn’t afraid to show Mal’s darker instincts. There’s a moment in Serenity when an imperilled bystander begs Mal to save him when the Reavers come calling. Not wanting to ditch their cargo, the hero leaves him to face the music, before shooting the poor bastard in an act of mercy as the Reavers close in. It’s a pivotal moment for Mal and something Harrsion Ford would never have done in the Holy Trilogy. It’s a testament to both Whedon’s writing and Fillion’s careful performance that we don’t hate him. He’s a realistic character with motivations that the audience can understand – he merely wants to stay alive, and the constant struggle to get by is forcing him to make difficult decisions.

As the villain, Ejiofor perfectly compliments Fillion. Like Mal, the sinister Operative is a man with many sides. Capable of the most horrifying acts, he is also honourable in his own twisted way. He isn’t quite evil – the Operative believes that killing River is the right thing to do, feeling justified by the Alliance’s grand scheme of “making better worlds.” The actor creates a role both hateful and sympathetic, providing one of the decade’s best nemeses. In some respects, he is similar to the character of Jubal Early, who made an impression during “Objects in Space” – the last Firefly episode. Despite the comparisons, Ejiofor settles into the universe with aplomb. His inclusion does lessen the importance of other characters, however. Kaylee, Jayne, Wash and Zoë all play memorable roles in the film, but their screen time is limited and they never get to impact the story. This was always going to be the case, yet Whedon gives them their moments to shine. Baldwin is clearly loving the chance to play Jayne again, and bags the most of the writer’s colourful one-liners. Only Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) get short shrift out of the original cast, their characters having left the ship during the gap between Firefly and Serenity.

But they aren’t the main thrust of the plotline – the film is largely about Mal, River and the Operative. It’s their story arcs that get resolution, and each of them end in a satisfying manner. River’s importance was never made clear on the show. Whedon had a master plan in mind, no doubt one that would have taken several seasons to play out. Therefore, River was largely a cipher and her crazed antics began to grow tiresome. The tide was beginning to change at the end of “Objects in Space,” but by that point, Whedon’s plan lay in tatters. The character grows in leaps and bounds during Serenity, and Glau really impresses as an action heroine. Her background as a ballerina (put to use in the Angel episode ”Waiting in the Wings”) was clearly good preparation for the rigorous stunt work on show here. The intriguing blend of street fighting and martial arts provided no challenge for the nimble Glau, although her acting skills are also commendable. Her chemistry with Maher, who portrays her brother, was an emotional anchor on the series and works just as well here. From top-to-bottom, the ensemble allows the film to truly shine.

So, what of Whedon’s direction? Its solid and occasionally inspired, belying the tight resources. With help from legendary cinematographer Jack Green (Unforgiven), the film always looks good. Green’s lighting is somewhat strange, with blown-out contrasts and stark colours, but his composition is vivid. The production design is made all the better by his hand-held camerawork, and the locations maintain the dusty, washed-out look of the series. (Fans should be happy to note that Carey Meyer’s original Serenity design is faithfully recreated.) In fact, the photography merely helps to reinforce the Western aesthetic, which is kept to a minimum in Whedon’s script. While he has plenty to learn as a director, I find it hard to pick faults in his writing. The dialogue is filled with wit and playful banter, and the progression of the narrative is thoughtful. Only a few moments caused groans from this fan. The creator decided to kill off two of the main characters in a brave move that I certainly agree with. However, the time-honoured “last words” between a dying comrade and his friend is too much of a cliché to ignore. This particular moment depends entirely on your familiarity with Firefly.

Whedon is also very competent as an action filmmaker. While the set-pieces won’t blow you away like the typical summer blockbuster, they’re very effective. The reason for this is simple: the more you care about the characters, the more you care about their plight. Whedon sprinkles the action sparingly throughout the script and none of it is pointless, always remaining relevant to the story at hand. Mal’s heist early in the film is a good example, allowing Whedon to establish the relationship between the crewmembers and provide a great introduction to those devilish Reavers. The high-speed chase across the planet surface is thrilling, as is the bar fight, in which River takes out the clientele in bone-crunching fashion. But the highlight is left for the conclusion – a space battle between Serenity, the Alliance and the Reavers. Filled with danger, explosions and mid-air collisions, Whedon provides an exciting finale that leads to a hopeful and sombre conclusion.

The battles and special effects may cause excitement, but it is the path taken by the characters that allows Serenity to soar higher than the average SF picture. Mal could have taken his comrades out of harm’s way at any point, but he didn’t. Circumstance gave them the opportunity to do something noble and important. The secrets that were burning up River Tam’s brain are finally released, and the truth was worth the sacrifices they made. Like much of the director’s work, it’s a parable about fighting the good fight, no matter how extreme the situation gets. Whedon did the same with Serenity. He fought to give Firefly a new home and he achieved that goal in superlative fashion. We might not get another flight with Mal and his crew, but Serenity is the best kind of closure.

Whedon’s victory proved bittersweet, however. Despite its overall appeal, solid action and the most lovable rogues this side of Star WarsSerenity failed to make a dent at the US box office. Blame it on the poor marketing campaign, the tough competition that weekend, or even on the Browncoats themselves (some have stated that their/our over-zealous praise of Firefly turned-off the mainstream public). Or perhaps the universe of Firefly was always best-suited to a cult audience. Who knows? It doesn’t change the quality of the finished product – a well-crafted, well-written and well-performed slice of pulp fiction that plays like an expensive season finale to the show we never got. A convert from the start, I have no idea if Serenity will play well to those unfamiliar with the Firefly mythos, but with a plot and cast this much fun, its success on home video is certainly no fluke.

Now if only Universal could do the same for Battlestar Galactica

Best Scene


Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Naughty Dog, makers of the popular video game series Uncharted, are rumoured to have based lead protagonist Nathan Drake on Mal. This has led many people to campaign for Nathan Fillion to play the role in the potential movie version. Coincidentally, the game’s composer, Greg Edmondson, also worked onFirefly.
  • Was the first Universal film released on HD-DVD.
  • The DVD of Serenity was flown up to the International Space Station by astronaut Steven Swanson on board the shuttle Atlantis during its June 2007 STS-117 mission.
  • Fillion famously referenced his character in an episode of his series Castle
  • Mal’s drink of choice, Ng Ka Py, is a Chinese brandy. It appears in his quarters, and he ordered it in the first scene of Firefly episode “The Train Job.”
  • During Mal’s conversation with Inara over the “wave” (videophone), four of Mal’s scars are visible. All are from wounds he received during Firefly. The one on his chest was inflicted by Crow in “The Train Job.” The one near his diaphragm is from a gunshot wound inflicted during “Out of Gas.” The one on his side is from his duel with Atherton Wing in “Shindig.” The one on his left shoulder is from the bullet graze in the pilot.
  • Body count: 74.
  • British viewers voted Serenity as the best film of the year in a Film 2005 poll.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. Mnkyball says:

    one of the best movies ever. It’s a film of which you won’t see another like it.

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