In 2002, Joss Whedon was enjoying considerable success writing and directing episodes for three television shows that he created: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. The latter was his new show and pet project – a funky hybrid of the science fiction and western genres. It concerned the misadventures of a small, rag-tag group of mercenaries operating on the fringes of the galaxy 500 years into the future. In other words, what if Han Solo decided not to join the Rebellion? It was a fantastic blend of Whedon’s trademark dry humor, moving drama and exciting action. Firefly lasted less than half a season before the network pulled the plug, Buffy ran its course and Angel was cancelled after a decent run. Fortunately, Firefly had accumulated a small, but dedicated following, much like the crew of the Serenity itself, which campaigned tirelessly to save the show. Whedon returned the favor by shopping it around to other studios and Universal agreed to resurrect the show in the form of a feature film called Serenity (2005).
Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is an ex-soldier and captain of the Serenity, a small spacecraft with a handful of crew members who scavenge, smuggle and steal for profit. Along the way, they picked up a brother and sister, Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau). He is a doctor and she is some kind of secret weapon, a deadly sleeper assassin a la Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). She was created by the all-powerful Alliance that rules the galaxy with a benign façade to cover their ruthless methods. They want her back and send a deadly and very methodical assassin known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to retrieve her and eliminate anybody who gets in the way.
In the first minute or so, Whedon briefly establishes the universe in which this film takes place via voiceover narration and then cleverly twists the dialogue by revealing that it is being spoken by a teacher who works at an Alliance-run school. As long-time viewers of Firefly know, she is distorting history so that the Alliance is painted as the good guys while the “savage, outer planets” are portrayed as unenlightened. Worst of all, she’s feeding this propaganda to impressionable children – all except a young River Tam who questions authority and then a sudden slam cut to many years later when Simon helps her escape from an Alliance laboratory where she’s been poked and prodded like a lab rat.
It is then revealed that their escape is actually footage being watched by the Operative, a man with no rank or name, “who does not exist,” as he tells some Alliance flunky before killing him for letting River escape and unwittingly divulging secrets to her. As he tells the man, “secrets are not my concern. Keeping them is.” We are then introduced to the crew of the Serenity in a beautifully executed in one long, uninterrupted take as the camera follows Mal through the ship, interacting with its various inhabitants. We are now in the present as he takes a landing party to pull off a payroll heist on a planet. In the first 15 minutes of the film, Whedon brilliantly sets up the universe, the main characters that inhabit it, including the protagonists and the dysfunctional relationships between some of them, and the antagonist and his goal. This opening sets up that our heroes don’t fit the stereotypical definition as epitomized by the Han Solo-esque Mal, who appears to be out for himself, but cares for his crew and if push comes to shove would do anything for them.
Inspired by the dirty, grungy look of Alien (1979), Serenity also features a spacecraft that actually looks like our heroes live in it as opposed to the glossy, immaculate Enterprise of the Star Trek films. It is messy and always seems on the verge of breaking down, much like the Millennium Falcon. This is a great looking film shot by Clint Eastwood’s long-time cinematographer, Jack Green. He helps Whedon give the film a more cinematic look. Like he did with the series, Whedon bucks the typical trend of having sound in space — explosions, lasers blasting and spacecraft engines roaring — for a more realistic take by opting for a nicely understated score by David Newman.
Whedon has always been an excellent director of actors and reuniting his cast from the defunct show brings out the best in everyone concerned as this was a labor of love for all involved. It is like the show had never been cancelled as everyone slips effortlessly back into their respective roles. Nathan Fillion does a fantastic job as Mal, a character who is clearly cut from the same cloth as Han Solo, a selfish rogue who has lost his faith. He has all the charisma and charm of a young Harrison Ford only with more depth. With Serenity, the actor is really given a chance to strut his stuff. He does his usual snappy repartee with fellow crew members, chief among them Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot, and the lovably gruff, gun-toting strong man Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Fillion is also given a chance to show a dramatic side to Mal, like his conflicted feelings over keeping Simon and River – two wanted fugitives – on Serenity. He knows that they will continue to bring him trouble, but they have become a part of his tight-knit crew. Mal wrestles with this dilemma and talks to ex-crew member Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) about it. Book tells Mal that he has to look within himself, believe in himself. Whedon also continues Mal and Inara’s (Morena Baccarin) little dance around their romantic feelings for each other and how they refuse to act on it or publically acknowledge them. Lastly, Fillion demonstrates rather solid action chops in several action sequences, most impressively, his final showdown with the Operative.
As for the rest of the cast, Summer Glau elicits our sympathies as a young woman tormented by nightmares of the horrible experimentation that she was subjected to in the past. Sean Maher plays River’s concerned brother, torn between his promising career as a doctor and the devotion to his sibling. Adam Baldwin’s Jayne is the greedy, self-serving side of Han Solo as well as the ship’s muscle. The always watchable Alan Tudyk’s Wash is a stealth scene-stealer with his inexhaustible supply of one-liners and funny asides. Gina Torres plays Wash’s wife who was an ex-soldier that fought alongside Mal in the wars. Finally, Jewel Staite plays Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic and the heart and soul of the crew. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, which is a nice contrast to the stern Mal who tries to keep everything bottled up inside. One of the primary joys of Serenity is watching how all of these characters interact with each other as we laugh at their petty squabbling and feel sorrow when one of them is struck down.
It is a credit to Whedon’s skill as a writer that he is able to make you care about these characters even if you have not seen the show. He takes the time to show the dynamic between them and their motivations, which pays off later on when they are thrown into life-threatening situations because we have invested so much in them that it makes what happens so effective emotionally. There is a distinctive ebb and flow quality to the overall structure of the film. It never feels forced; rather there is a sense of urgency as early on he sets up what is at stake and then executes some genuine, white knuckle moments where you do not know what is going to happen next. There is even a moment late in the film where it seems like the entire crew of the Serenity is going to be killed off and this is rather refreshing because most films are so predictable that you know exactly who is going to be killed and who will not (i.e. the big name stars).
Whedon pulled off an impressive feat with Serenity. He made it accessible enough for people who have never seen the show and included all kinds of references and revelations for the fans, like finally showing and delving into the origins of the much-feared Reavers, a nasty band of cannibalistic humans who wander the galaxy, attacking anyone in their path and eating their victims alive. Devotees of Whedon will also notice several of his trademarks, like the ass-kicking female character. Following in the footsteps of Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, River, when triggered, becomes a one-woman wrecking machine, single-handedly beating up a cantina of ne’er do-wells. Like Buffy, she looks like a demure, wisp of a person who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but possesses incredible fighting skills, which Summer Glau demonstrates with the grace and dexterity of a ballet dancer.
The Operative is another in a long line of confident, cool and collected villains that populated Buffy the Vampire Slayer and continued on in The Avengers (2012) with Loki. The Operative is a fascinating character. He acts without emotion and believes totally in his cause. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an excellent actor and has the gravitas to convincingly play an ultra confident man who knows that he has deadly fighting skills, intelligence and unlimited resources to back him up. The Operative is also intriguingly self aware as he tells Mal at one point, “I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it.” He strives for a world without sin and sees River, Mal, et al as obstacles that must be removed.
With a quarter of the budget of the last Star Wars movie, Whedon beats George Lucas at his own game by crafting a science fiction film that has the perfect balance of character development and plot, effortlessly blending science fiction with a horror edge. Serenity is a stronger, more cohesive work than the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Whedon’s plotting and structure is better, not being encumbered by a dense backstory and historical details that threaten to overwhelm the Lucas’ films. Serenity is superior in that it manages to introduce newcomers into the fold while simultaneously offering all kinds of character details, plot twists, and so on to satisfy hardcore fans. This is not an easy thing to do and Whedon pulls it off quite seamlessly. Serenity fuses the grungy aesthetic of Star Wars (1977) with the space western approach of the original Star Trek T.V. series and manages to make its own unique thing. Serenity is everything a space opera should be and proof that a smart, engaging popcorn movie is possible.