Serenity is one of those movies that I watched once a while ago, was totally lukewarm towards, and then revisited later on and enjoyed on a whole different level. It’s still not quite where it needs to be, but it’s so charming (much like it’s preceding series) that I don’t really care. I am one of those upset people who thinks that Firefly was one of the best things since sliced bread, and furthermore, that it’s cancellation was a crime against humanity. This is a recent development, as I used to find both the television series and the film unimpressive. Talk about doing a 180 simply because I revisited a show at a different place in life. The verdict is in. Malcolm Reynolds is the coolest spaceship smuggler since Han Solo.
The story takes place in a fictional world that blends science fiction and old western, in a similar vein as the anime Cowboy Bebop. Firefly and Bebop don’t share much else in common, as Bebop handles incredibly complex themes with surprising alacrity while Firefly tends to be in it simply for the fun. Usually, I don’t like this. I’m more of the “I like deep films” kind of cat, and this usually lands me in hot water with my friends, who like lighter fare. Serenity is an exception to this rule. It’s light in a way that makes me think. Hell yeah.
The incredibly clever dialogue that set the show apart from its peers operates just as well here. The characters not only trade banter in incredibly nimble ways, but do so while still preserving the integrity of what makes their characters…well, them. I’ve noticed a trend lately of Joss Whedon really flexing his muscles. I’m speaking specifically about two of my favorite films from this year – The Cabin in the Woods, and The Avengers. Normally, films like those would show up, hit the theaters and then clock out of my memory banks without leaving much more than a steaming cup of tea, still half full. Not so with these two flicks. I saw both of them repeatedly in theaters, and went on to buy them on HD the moment they came out so I could watch them repeatedly at home.
Serenity is one of Whedon’s earlier attempts at filmmaking, and while it isn’t as solid as his two most recent forays into the World of Awesome, it’s still pretty great. It follows the ragtag crew of the Firefly Class starship Serenity as they scoot about the Alliance controlled ‘Verse trying to scrape up a living in the Black. The crew, by all accounts, shouldn’t work. It consists of a mercenary, an uptight doctor, a shady preacher, an empathetic courtesan, a PTSD plagued experiment survivor and a particularly horny mechanic.
This whole lot is led by a borderline civilian pilot and two civil war veterans, Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion) and his second in command, Zoe Washburne (played by Gina Torres). Not only does their little group work – they work incredibly well. You can tell that the actors putting on the show had an amazing relationship with each other. At some level, genuine trust and affection can’t really be faked. Nathan Fillion, in particular, shines as Malcolm Reynolds. The philosophy behind his character is that he operates outside the law while operating within the bounds of morality. It sounds cheesy, but makes for some fascinating viewing. Fillion does a fantastic job of bringing this character to life, balancing his trademark charm with the cold distance of a haunted man. Watching him, we understand that this is a warrior who fought on the losing side of a civil war. We believe that he has killed men.
The rest of the cast is amazing, too. Gina Torres plays Zoe flawlessly, often conflicting with her old leader, yet unshakably loyal to him. Alan Tudyk (who recently resurfaced in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer) plays Zoe’s husband, Wash, a character so easily overpowered by his peers yet so funny and lovable that we relate to him. Morena Baccarin’s portrayal of the Companion (a hooker) Inara Serra garnered her an enormous fanboy following, though I’m far more partial to Jewel Staite’s take on the ship’s tomboy-yet-incredibly-vulnerable mechanic Kaylee Frye.
My favorite character in the gang aside from Mal is the hired gun Jayne Cobb, played by Adam Baldwin. Jayne is a mercenary who can be depended on in a fight, though on more than one occasion his morality and loyalty are clearly questionable. You get the sense, by film/season’s end, that he’s not as dumb as he acts, and as Joss Whedon said, he’s the character who will ask the questions that no one else wants to. Last but not least, we’ve got the Tams – Dr. Simon Tam and his little sister, River Tam. While over the course of the television series these two were relegated mostly to the background, in Serenity they are front and center both in terms of action and storyline. River is a girl with super-high intelligence who the Alliance secretly performed horrific experiments on when she was a child, a girl who is harboring a cataclysmic secret.
Throughout the duration of the season, the Alliance has been in hot pursuit of these two, and in Serenity they seem to finally get fed up with their lackadaisical pursuits, sending an operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, otherwise known as the president in 2012 or the traitorous Luke in Children of Men) to wage a scorched earth campaign against Mal and his crew. The result is a film that’s undeniably darker than it’s preceding series, no doubt caused in part by the bitterness that the show’s cancellation must have brought. Firefly was cancelled in 2003 and the movie was released in 2005, so there was a bit of a gap. The actors and creators have grown and changed, and as a result so have the times in the story. The tone of the film is far heavier than I would have expected, but it works, and gives a sense of closure to the series even if it does feel a bit rushed.
The film is very violent, very bloody and sometimes kind of hard to watch. The show had its share of cringe worthy moments (I’m speaking specifically of a certain torture sequence that, if you have not yet seen the show you don’t know what I’m talking about, and if you have, you do) and Serenity seems to have plenty of these strewn about within it. Beloved characters die, new characters are introduced, and we finally get to see Mal go back to war. We’re not sure that we like seeing that. Mal’s “war” side is brutal, ugly and utterly convincing. He becomes the brute force we always knew him to be capable of. And then, right when we have given up all hope, in true Captain Mal fashion, he surprises us – and leaves us with a startling final message concerning the boundaries of right and wrong.
Ultimately, while Serenity does work as a standalone film, I can say from firsthand experience that watching it without having seen the series beforehand definitely dampens its worth. I said earlier that reviewing Serenity would be impossible without reviewing Firefly to some degree, and I stand by that. Serenity works as a film, it’s clever and it’s fun to watch, but it is an ending to a storyline that evolved over an entire series. It’s an ending made at the last minute, an ending neither the creators nor audience nor actors nor characters were anticipating to see so soon. The result is an end that feels bitter, it feels tacked on, and that’s because it is. In the end, these complaints aren’t so much with the film as much as they are with the fact that a great television show was cancelled, and as such whatever endings the viewers could hope to get had to be funneled into a two and a half hour film.
OVERALL SCORE: 8.8/10