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Serenity

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This review was first posted on October 6, 2005. I have made only slight revisions even though some of my stated opinions might have changed since then. Please note that most of this is directed as much towards other Firefly fans than to general movie-goers, so if you aren't familiar with the show you should correct that oversight as soon as possible.

I would like to say at the outset that this is one of the hardest reviews I have had to deal with in the five years since creating this site. I've restarted it several times, rewritten, rearranged or deleted paragraphs a lot, and will probably think of other things I should have said as soon as I upload it, or else decide I should have taken a different approach altogether. I am just a fan, this site is just a hobby, but I do take my love for science fiction and fantasy very seriously, and I hope that the few people likely to read my reviews keep that in mind. In this particular case I didn't want to risk coming across as a raving fanboy, nor did I care to be accused of betraying the Firefly faithful by voicing even the slightest criticism of this film.

I generally only write reviews for books, films and televsion shows that I can recommend to others, but I had already decided I would be doing a Serenity review regardless of my opinion of it. My love for Firefly, and my respect for the dedication Joss Whedon and his cast and crew have exhibited for this project would have to take precedence, along with the obligation I felt towards all those to whom I have been pimping Firefly for the last couple of years. So I suppose I am lucky that I don't have to face the wrath (or not much hopefully) of the Browncoats, because I really enjoy this film, my appreciation for it has grown stronger over the five viewings I have had so far (and I will be seeing it again you can be sure, and very soon too). I find it likely that it is a film I will be able to appreciate more each time I see it.

The next thing I need to say is that there are only three types of people who should read this review: those who have already seen Serenity, those who have already had the major plot points spoiled for them, or else those for whom spoilers beforehand are no hindrance to their enjoyment of a film. Because make no mistake, I intend this to be a thorough assessment of as many aspects of this film as I can make it, so really this will probably end up more of a critical analysis of the film and series than a simple review.

As much as I like it, I can't really bring myself to say I love it just yet (although that might change), therefore I cannot in good conscience use the words "brilliant" or "best movie ever" as so many other fans have been doing. Serenity is an extremely well-crafted piece of entertainment, full of sharp wit and bracing drama, well written and well acted, and it certainly looks much better than its $40 million budget would lead you to expect. But I have yet to make the decision of whether I like it as much (or more, or less) than Firefly. Even though I rarely read books outside the SF genre, I certainly watch a lot of movies of other types. My Top 10 has held steady for over fifteen years, and there is only one SF film on it: 2001: A Space Odyssey. At this time I don't think Serenity makes it onto that list, however I cannot recall another SF film since Blade Runner that I think is as good, and that is close to twenty-five years old now. It is the best film I have seen this year, followed closely by Batman Begins and Crash (the new Paul Haggis film, not the Cronenberg adaptation of the J. G. Ballard novel).

I would like to dispense with a few negatives before I get to what I do like. First off, I don't care for the score very much. I don't know why Joss and Carter Burwell couldn't come to an agreement as to the appropriate music, but what we got from David Newman is rather pedestrian sad to say. I may change my mind after subsequent viewings, but that is my opinion now, and I would dearly love to hear what Greg Edmonson would have come up with. Also, I feel Kaylee (Jewel Staite) was the character least utilized, although it would be hard to say how that could have been any different. I feel all the other regulars from Firefly received adequate screentime, as much as the plot allowed anyway, and I disagree with those who have said that their personas had changed a lot from the series, except for Kaylee. She appears to be nothing more than sex-obsessed, pining over what could have been with Simon (Sean Maher). The character and the actress deserved better. These are not my only complaints, but they are the major ones, and I'll leave any others for later.

It is no surprise that in practically every review I have read or heard the first thing that is said about Serenity is that it is based on a canceled television show. Of course that is a fact, and being a huge fan of that show it is next to impossible for me to view this film from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with Firefly. Serenity might not do the amount of box office business we had hoped, and if so I think this factor will have contributed the most in limiting its appeal. Most people probably think that if they did not see the series they probably won't understand much about the story. I wish more reviews made it clear that Whedon did an excellent job of giving enough exposition in the first ten minutes that anyone who is paying attention should have no problem understanding the characters, their relationships, and the general history of the 'verse. The background of where they are and how they got there is told by a teacher in a classroom on Osiris, one of the rich core worlds of a new terraformed solar system. A young River Tam is a student in that class. Her persistant contradiction of things the teacher is saying leads to an abrupt flash forward of an older River (Summer Glau) in the clutches of Alliance medical personnel. Her innate psychic talent has been discovered by the Alliance, the totalitarian governmental entity ruling the planetary system, and she is being conditioned and trained to use those abilities as a fighter, or at least as a covert military agent. If she had not been rescued by her brother Simon, it is possible River would have ended up like the person assigned to either kill her or bring her back under Alliance control, a mysterious and dangerous man known throughout the film only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Serenity, a transport spaceship captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is introduced along with her crew in a remarkable sequence that some have referred to with the film industry moniker of a "oner." This is a continuously filmed trip through the ship with Mal stopping and conversing with each of his crew, with the dialogue doing the job of introducing each and explaining a bit of what is going on. It is a very well designed and choreographed piece of work, but I have read somewhere that there is an almost imperceptible break in that footage, and I believe it comes during a "swish pan" when Mal and Simon are conversing and they start to go down the stairway towards the infirmary. From there the two continue on to the cargo bay, where Kaylee is doing some last minute prep work on the Mule, a hovercraft utilized for trips planetside.

There is quite a bit of arguing going on during these encounters, and some have said this is where the film began to feel un-Firefly like. Granted that in the series the crew seemed to be forming into a close-knit group, almost a family, yet it is made very clear here that the past few months have not been kind to them. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) have both left the ship for various reasons, and work (either legal or illegal) has been hard to come by, so it is no wonder that everyone's patience is strained to the breaking point. It was never a secret that Whedon's original concept was darker than FOX television allowed him to be, and it must be acknowledged that Firefly, as great as I believe it is, was still a compromise on several fronts. We must assume that Serenity is closer to the original vision, so any complaints about tone or content don't have a lot of validity. Besides, this is Whedon's story and characters, and unless he has been lying for the last year or so Universal left him alone and let him construct the story the way he wanted.

Another thing that must be said is that a movie demands an entirely different structure and pace than a television show. As much as some people are bemoaning the differences, there is absolutely no way the leisurely pace and slow character reveal of the series would have played at all on the big screen. As a made-for-tv film perhaps, but not a major motion picture, and that's what this is, a very significant first step for Whedon on his way to a broader acceptance of his talents. I myself am not totally in love with the plot, but it is what Joss has said the series would have led to by the end of the second season. I doubt if there is a fan of the series that wouldn't have preferred it to play out that way, but hey, we lost Firefly, and Serenity is what we have, which is a miracle in and of itself. Joss has said this was the most difficult thing he has ever had to write, and I can well believe it. Having to compress what would have been more than twenty hours on the small screen into only two hours in a movie is not an enviable task.

My guess for what the series was going to be about, and where it would have taken Mal and his crew, seems to be validated by the direction they take in Serenity. At the beginning of the series we see that Mal is devastated by the defeat of the Independent forces by the mighty Alliance. He loses his faith in God, and nearly in all humanity, because of this. His only real connection to his former life is Zoe (Gina Torres), a fierce warrior woman who battled by his side and is now his second-in-command on Serenity. The overall story arc for the series would have been about his regaining of faith in himself and his ideals, and possibly another war to defeat the corrupt Alliance.

There is so much back-story that we still don't know, but indulge me a bit here in a few suppositions. Several times in the series, and in the movie, Mal is confronted with the question of why he is risking so much in harboring two fugitives, especially considering he states on numerous occasions he just wants to be left alone by the Alliance to simply pursue a livelihood. We know that Mal grew up on the planet Shadow, and that his mother had a rather large ranch. No mention that I can recall of his father or of why he left Shadow. Was it not until he volunteered for the Independent forces? And why did he do that, what helped form his hatred of the Alliance? Could it be the Alliance took over control of Shadow, and of his mother's ranch? Perhaps he had a younger sister killed in an Alliance raid, and thus he sees in River a chance to save someone from the government's evil schemes in a way that he was unable to do for his sister. Even though he regularly shows contempt for Simon and the rich, cultured life he came from, is it possible he sees in Simon his younger self, more idealistic and less self-serving?

Some of these things we may never know, especially if Serenity gets no sequel or if Firefly is never revived as a series, neither of which will happen unless this film is successful. So the major thing I want to stress in this review is that Serenity is well worth seeing, whether you are a Firefly fan or if you've never heard of the show until now. There are so many undertones to the story, political, social and psychological, and it asks some hard questions and quite possibly answers a few. You might not like every leg of this journey, but who's to say that the next tale from the 'verse might be more to your satisfaction. The problem a lot of fans have been having with the film is that for three years now Firefly has been this static thing, fourteen episodes we have watched time and time again, and even though our heroes had the occaisional bruise, stab or gunshot, at the end of the episode and the series everything turned out okay and they were safe again. One of the strongest points to the series, as opposed to Whedon's previous shows, Buffy and Angel, is the seeming realism, with characters whom so many found easy to relate to and identify with. But one of the things the series lacked to complete that realism (but that is in the movie) was the death of a main character.

There, I've said it. People die in this movie (and would have in the series if it had continued), and not just peripheral characters we've just met or nameless background players. This is where the true spoilers begin, so if you thought I was kidding before but don't want to read specifics it would be best to hit the back button now or close this page completely. On the other hand, if you are one that has seen the movie and the character deaths made it hard for you to enjoy an otherwise worthy film, please stick around. I might not be able to change your mind, but it could interest you that I had a similar reaction when I saw it in an advance screening on May 5.

I had had a hunch that at least one of them would buy the farm in the movie, as long ago as summer 2004, and my son can confirm this. As it turns out my hunch was correct as the first of our heroes to fall is Shepherd Book. Even though it was anticipated, it was still a very sad moment for me the first time I saw the movie. Sad, but understandable. Joss wanted to up the realism, needed a catalyst for Mal to strike back against the Alliance. Book's was a safe death, storywise, a beloved character who nevertheless was not that necessary for the climax. My only regret then and now about his death is that non-fans might not realize why he was important to the crew and to Mal specifically. Book and all of the people in his compound on Haven have been killed by Alliance military working under the authority of the Operative. They have also wiped out all the other places where in the past Serenity's crew has found refuge following one of their less than legal operations. The Operative is convinced Mal will see reason when he realizes he has nowhere else to hide.

But you can push Malcolm Reynolds just so far before he decides it is time to push back. I am sure that Mal understood that even if he had turned River over at that time his life was already forfeit. The Operative would not leave anyone alive who could tell the tale of River's sad fate. This is really the only time in the movie where I felt Mal's character was strikingly different than what we had seen before. It still pains me to hear him tell the crew that if they do not support what he plans to do he will shoot them down, but it does play back to his previous line to Inara that if he starts to fight a war she is going to see something different. The one constant in Mal's life since the war is that he is convinced that he was on the right side, and now he has confirmation of that fact. Not only did the Alliance brutally mess with River's brain, they think nothing of killing hundreds or thousands of innocents in the attempt to keep hidden the secrets they fear she possesses.

I don't want this to devolve into nothing more than a synopsis of the movie's plot, because if I did that I might also get bogged down in pointing out some of the inconsistencies and illogical devices Whedon uses to get the crew to the point where they learn the big secret. Suffice it to say I feel the journey is the worthier part (as the Shepherd would say) rather than the way we get there. I don't know if this was the exact way the series would have gone, or whether Whedon might have altered the Reaver origin in any way from his original concept, but this is the only part of the story I felt was too conventional and predictable. Heroes discover secret conspiracy, race to get the word out to deal strong blow to mighty Alliance, chase ensues, cue loud and cacophanous music. The giant space battle between Alliance and Reaver ships seems tacked on simply as something one expects to see in a science fiction film set in space, not what would have happened if this was a real incident. Why did the Operative feel the need to call in "all the ships in the quadrant" to deal with one unarmed transport ship? He had no reason to expect the Reaver ships, as seems evident by his panicked reaction at their appearance.

One of the few reasons I can think of that Whedon included this scenario is to give Serenity's pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) the spotlight to show off his amazing skills in weaving in and around the other battling ships, to give him his heroic moment. And Wash is a hero, just as much as Mal or Zoe or Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Several other times in the movie, and countless times in the series, his skill was the difference in them surviving. If it was not for him they would have crashed into one of the other ships or not made it out of the tailspin and been nothing but a scorched cinder planetside. Repeating his mantra of "I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar," he is able to dodge the weapons of the pursuing Reaver ship and glide Serenity into a landing, although the ship itself takes quite a beating.

What follows is without a doubt the most emotionally shocking moment I have ever witnessed in a motion picture, and it is one that seems to have polarized the fanbase, although it is hard to tell just how widespread the criticism of Joss' decision actually is. I'm not ashamed to admit that Wash's death upset me quite a bit the first time I saw it, so much so that I don't think I was viewing the rest of the film very rationally. It really doesn't matter that Wash was the one I most closely identified with. I've lived with these characters for three years and the death of any of the others would have been hard to contemplate as well. As I stated earlier, the death of Book was anticipated, and the fact that he had no more than five minutes screentime and his death scene was just the second appearance for his character, made it more like the typical movie death. He had the time to talk to Mal, give him one last little bit of advice, then he was gone. Wash was not given that opportunity. Bam! He's dead, and the Reavers are still firing their huge wooden stakes into the cockpit, and Zoe would have been hit too if Mal had not pulled her out of the way.

Five viewings later and that scene still gets my heart racing and I start feeling a bit dizzy and nauseous. I haven't decided yet whether this plot turn by Joss was clever and courageous or outlandishly crazy. This is going to be argued for a long time and my opinion of it is likely to fluctuate at various times. Fans who are supporting it are implying that those who don't like it are not true fans, while I feel the ones upset by it (and that included me for a while) are actually mourning the death of Firefly more than they are the death of a fictional character. Many can't seem to contemplate any further stories from the 'verse that do not include Book and Wash, and the argument that these events would have happened in the series if it had continued is falling on deaf ears. How many main character deaths were there in Buffy and Angel? And yet those series carried on for seven years and five years respectively, and Firefly would have survived death as well given the chance, and so can Serenity. I truly want to visit this 'verse again, to mourn with Zoe, celebrate life and love with Kaylee and Simon, and learn if Mal closes himself off even more or opens up to allow a bit of happiness into his life.

A quote from Joss that has been frequently cited goes something like this: "I don't give my audience what they want, I give them what they need." This is not meant to be critical of Joss, he can believe what he wants, but I don't really buy that. The audience is made up of a wide spectrum of individuals, and they all have varying reasons for getting pleasure from a television show or movie. To say that they all need the same thing is ridiculous. What Joss should be saying is "I give them what I think is needed to complete the story I want to tell." And what this story needed, or at least what Joss thought was needed, was the element of true danger for the entire crew. So many movies and television shows are extremely predictable, with the stars making it through every crisis unscathed, to continue on another day, and get into other scrapes but make it out unscathed again, and yadda yadda.

The first time I saw Serenity I actually thought that everyone was going to die, that Joss took this opportunity to complete the story he wanted to tell because he had no illusions that he would be granted a second reprieve. I'm sure he has some ideas as to where the story could go from here in case he does get another chance, but if not then this would be a fitting end for our heroes. There are worse things that could happen than dying for your beliefs, for instance living while denying you have any chance of making things better for yourself and others. That has always been the core message from the Firefly 'verse; to live free and to be true to your ideals or die trying.

I'm sure there are some who are wondering why I haven't mentioned a lot of the other scenes, or talked about the main storyline of the secrets River has locked in her brain. As I said before, I didn't want this to simply be a synopsis, nor a "Wow! Great movie, go see it!" type of review. Serenity is too important to not try to disect it a bit more thoroughly than that. It does have its flaws, but its strengths far outweigh them. The plot and character interaction is dense, the dialogue crackles with wit and substance, the camera movements and editing are tight, and the acting is superb, with the highest accolades going to Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I should really say it is all the main cast, since they are the best ensemble ever brought together in one place, and they have fallen back into these roles as if they never left, almost as if they are these people rather than actors. I sincerely hope we seen them together again, and real soon.

I might as well end this the same way I ended my Firefly review.

Joss, keep Serenity flying. I'll keep watching.

Related Links:
My Firefly review

 

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Writer/Director
Joss Whedon

Released
September 30, 2005

Cast
Nathan Fillion
Gina Torres
Alan Tudyk
Adam Baldwin
Jewel Staite
Morena Baccarin
Sean Maher
Summer Glau
Ron Glass
Chiwetel Ejiofor
David Krumholtz

Awards
Hugo, Nebula, Saturn and SFX

Nominated for Saturn, Black Reel, Empire & Online Film Critics awards

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray