Retro Review – Serenity
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a special screening of Joss Whedon’s Serenity put together by fans for charity purposes. The event was an awesome success so well done Edinburgh Browncoats for making this happen and giving us all something that we could enjoy.
Since I haven’t seen Serenity in a couple of years I felt that this would be a great time to talk about it. At the time of writing we’re about a month away from the 10 year anniversary of the release of this film so it’s definitely worth talking about. Beware, this review will be brimming with spoilers.
My relationship with Serenity and the show that spawned it, Firefly is possibly different to that of other people. Living in the UK I had no exposure to Firefly when it came out. I had heard that Joss Whedon was doing a sci fi show but didn’t really know much about it. At the time a friend told me he watched the first couple of episodes and didn’t really like it so I dismissed it and forgot all about it. I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel at the time which seemed to be ample Joss Whedon for 13-14 year old me.
When Serenity came out in 2005 I saw trailers for it and remembered the TV series but didn’t actively seek it out at the time. I saw Serenity in the cinema and thought it was great but it wasn’t until months later that I spotted the DVD box set going relatively cheap in a shop so I bought it and binged it over 2 days. I’ve been a big fan ever since and like everyone, feel that it was cancelled before its time.
The fact that Joss Whedon was given the opportunity to bring this show back to life in cinematic form is nothing short of a miracle. Films don’t tend to get made out of failed TV shows, certainly not without a full reboot coming with it. I’ve had plenty of TV shows across my short lifetime that lacked a sense of closure due to rapid cancellation so this is definitely a big win for fans of anything. Sadly nothing has happened with this outside of comic books and I imagine a lot of fan fiction. since but we should be happy with what we got.
Now, onto the film before I ramble on even more. The opening shows Simon Tam (Sean Maher) posing as a government official in a clandestine medical facility that is experimenting on his sister River (Summer Glau). It’s amazing how the very first scene plays so differently for fans of the show and people getting their first exposure to the concept. If you’re a fan of the show then running through your mind is probably something along the lines of “Oh cool, we get to see how Simon rescued River” and if you’re approaching this blind then it’s a cool surprise to have Simon be a guy rescuing his sister. Whedon’s script does a great job of both winking to the audience and making the surprise worthwhile.
From here we’re introduced to the central antagonist in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mysterious Operative. We learn a lot about him in this short scene. It’s made known that he works for the Alliance (the ruling body in the Firefly universe), he has no name or rank for some reason and he will stop at nothing to track down Simon and River. He knows very little about his mission but is completely committed to carrying it out. It’s clear that River has had exposure to a secret that the Alliance doesn’t want getting out so even if you haven’t seen the show it’s very clear that the Alliance are the bad guys.
Whedon has a reputation for being a funny guy in his screenplays and there’s a really clever joke here when the Operative is talking to the director of the facility who seems proud that he has managed to get the interest of “Key members of Parliament” but is immediately shown up when the Operative says “the minds behind every military, diplomatic and covert operation in the galaxy and you put them in a room with a psychic”. The Operative has such an intelligent and refined way of saying “you’re an idiot” to someone. This is an absolutely fantastic introduction for the film’s villain as it shows him as being resourceful and brilliant which suggests that he’s more than a match for the rest of the characters. Seeing him calmly killing everyone for their failure says a lot about him too. We know that he’s singularly focused on what he needs to do and shows no apparent remorse when doing it. Also, he uses a sword and that’s just cool!
Next up we’re introduced -or reintroduced- to our crew. The introduction begins with an absolutely gorgeous shot of Serenity -the ship- as she enters the atmosphere of a planet on the way to attempt another job. Some jeapordy is associated with this landing as a piece falls off the ship that makes a safe landing far less than a certainty. Of course the captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) doesn’t seem worried so the suggestion is that this is all routine and we shouldn’t really worry either.
This scene works great to give the audience everything they need to know about the characters. Malcolm is the Captain but has quite an informal relationship with his crew who all call him Mal except from Zoë (Gina Torres) who addresses him as sir and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) who calls him Cap’n. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) likes guns as can be seen from him unable to decide what to bring with him and Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the pilot. Simon is the Doctor but he and Mal don’t see eye to eye on account of him sheltering Simon and his sister River which means he has to turn down a lot of jobs. There’s some tension between them as Mal wants to take River on this job because of her psychic abilities but Simon thinks it’s too dangerous for a 17 year old girl so they have a significant back and forth about this which ends with Simon having to agree with the whole thing due to the absence of any real choice in the matter.
I always found this part of the film to be really impressive. The camera follow Mal -and later Simon- as he wanders through the ship checking up on his crew. Joss Whedon absolutely loves these single take sequences as evidenced by both of his Avengers movies. I like them too as it’s awesome to see things happen with the illusion of no cuts. This particular usage accomplishes mainly two things. The first is that Serenity is a small ship but big enough for the crew and enough room for a reasonable level of comfort. It makes the audience feel like they are inside something with areas that connect to each other rather than a bunch of disconnected sets. Secondly it shows where the crew belong and where that is in relation to everyone else. It just makes the ship seem like so much more than a ship.
The job starts off routine enough, they got into town and attempt to rob an Alliance payroll. There’s lots of dialogue around why this target specifically to show that they are honourable criminals and some amusing exchanges with the people they rob to show that it’s really nothing personal. There’s a great exchange between Mal and one of the guys guarding the vault to agree where Mal should shoot him to make it look convincing without causing permanent damage. Mal is doing this to make it look good to the superiors of the guy being shot so that he doesn’t seem like a coward. Again, honourable thieving.
It’s about to be a clean getaway until a Reaver raiding party shows up unexpectedly. In the show the Reavers were a mysterious group of people who went completely insane for reasons that were never made clear. They spend their time cutting on their own skin, raping and killing. To be attacked by them is a very scary prospect so it’s no surprise that Mal wants to get his crew out of there as quickly as possible. He ensures that as many bystanders as possible are locked up in the vault before making his escape but is forced to get rid of someone hanging onto their transport and then shoot him when he is grabbed by Reavers. An exciting chase follows which results in them all making it back to the ship safely.
The way this turns out is the last straw for Simon who decides that he’s taking River and jumping ship at the next available port. This is something that Mal is very enthusiastic about as he’s had enough of Simon’s complaining. Once I got caught up on the series this scene confused me a bit as in the episode “Safe” Mal said to Simon “You’re on my crew” which obviously detracts from what is going on here. There’s not that significant a time jump between the series and the film so I wonder what happened in that short space of time that led Mal to have such a change of heart about his passengers. I understand that Joss Whedon dialed up the tension between them for the purposes of a more engaging film narrative but I wonder if it confused any other fans.
I really like the scene that follows between Kaylee and Jayne as they deal with the stowaway Reaver corpse and the debris they’ve accrued by way of their escape as it is important for many reasons. Most importantly it offers a deconstruction of Mal’s character from people who observe his behaviour rather than taking him at face value. It is learned -or reinforced depending on your perspective- that Mal has a code of honour that makes sense only to himself. Everyone else finds him very difficult to read with the exception of Zoë who calls him out on his decisions and forces him to question his actions. Kaylee and Jayne don’t have as close a relationship so their take on the enigma that is Malcolm Reynolds offers some interesting insight into his character. As far as they can see he is a man who alienates those around him and drives them away for reasons they don’t understand. This sentiment is echoed with the recording that Mal watches where Inara (Morena Baccarin) insists that he doesn’t know what he wants.
What really strikes me about the dialogue from both Inara and Kaylee is that there is affection there. Neither of them want to leave but feel that there comes a point where they have no real choice. Inara is clearly hurt when she insists that Mal doesn’t know what he wants so it suggests that she doesn’t quite mean what she says.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about these opening scenes as I think they’re very important at establishing the emotional theme of the film. As with the show, the concept of family is at the bottom of everything that happens in this film. The characters are a family and there’s plenty of dysfunction as the cramped quarters cause them to get on each other’s nerves.
As established in the opening River has some really sensitive information that threatens the Alliance in some way and the Operative has been tasked to bring her in before she has the chance to uncover whatever dirty little secret hides in her brain. Mal and crew find themselves on the Operative’s radar when River is exposed to an advert containing a subliminal message that triggers her and causes her to wipe the floor with everyone around her. Joss Whedon just loves to have women kicking ass. There’s nothing wrong with that of course I just never felt that it suited River necessarily. I liked the idea of her being a mentally disturbed psychic but turning her into Buffy wasn’t really needed. It does make for a cool scene and allows Summer Glau to show off her skills as a ballerina as River gracefully fights all comers.
It becomes a matter of necessity for the Serenity crew to find out the truth about River as the Alliance are now coming for them whether they like it or not. Dumping Simon and River will make absolutely no difference at this point as they are now accomplices.
This allows the audience to see a different side of Mal as his character arc involves him reawakening his soldier instincts despite trying to suppress them in the years since the war. The narrative builds his character to that point subtly as piece by piece his world is eroded away with the destruction of Shepherd Book’s (Ron Glass) home complete with his death and the eventual reveal of the secret the alliance has been hiding.
Book isn’t in this film much and that’s a shame but his character proves very important to the plot. Mal takes the ship and decides to hide out there while they get their bearings. In the show, Mal and Book always had an interesting relationship where the use of common sense always made Mal listen despite his aversion to the concept of religion. Book always had a deeper knowledge of the working of the Alliance that confused those around him. It’s information that he chooses to keep for himself and there is some playfulness in the exchange where Mal says that Book will have to tell him all about it sometime and Book replies with “No I don’t”.
The exchange is important as it gives Mal everything he needs to see this through. Book talks to him about belief but not in the religious sense. He points out that the Operative will be laser focused in the belief that he is doing what must be done and in order to come out the other end Mal is going to have to believe too. It’s a simple thing but it gives Mal the tools he needs to finish this.
It takes him a while to realise this as evidenced by the call from Inara who has been approached by the Operative to lure Mal into a trap. Mal can tell it’s a trap immediately due to the courteous nature of the conversation rather than their usual confrontational banter. There’s so much awkwardness when he talks to Inara as well which hints at the feelings that were hinted at throughout the run of the show. The film doesn’t dwell on this as it isn’t important to the overall narrative but it’s nice to have that hint in there.
Mal’s first meeting with the Operative doesn’t go well. In physical combat Mal is absolutely no match for him and at this point he’s not quite fully committed to the belief that he needs. He only finds himself there to rescue Inara as well as the potential for satisfying the curiosity as to who is behind all of this. He does remind the audience of how resourceful he is when he uses a few tricks to evade the Operative’s technology to amusing effect but physically he’s absolutely no match so running is of course the best plan.
One thing that comes out of the first meeting between these two men is that the Operative has a great deal of respect for Mal. All he wants is to take River with him and once that’s done he’s willing to let Mal and his crew go free. In his own way the Operative is an honourable man who doesn’t hold a grudge against the man opposing him. His understanding of how an honourable thief thinks is interesting as well. He identifies that if he offers Mal payment then he’ll take offence and if an appeal is made to do what’s right he’ll fall back on a dislike for authority.
I also feel that Joss Whedon brings his own version of the Han shot first debate to this film when he has Malcolm instantly shoot the Operative after finding out that he’s unarmed. Since Mal has a lot in common with Han Solo it’s an obvious reference and it remains in character for him to make the first move. He has an opportunity, knows this guy will kill him if given the chance so he does what he can to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s perfectly logical and fits the character wonderfully.
When Mal and Inara return to the ship the crew have a really candid discussion about what they should do next. Jayne is the most vocal as always and takes no prisoners berating Mal in front of the rest of the crew. It even backfires for Mal when he asks Jayne if he’d like to run the ship and Jayne tells him that he could do a much better job. He also hits a nerve when bringing up the war which brings Zoë into the whole thing.
I like to see scenes like this where the crew aren’t seeing eye to eye on a particular issue. The problem that Simon and River cause by being around them is life threatening so it’s only natural that there would be differing opinions on what the right thing to do is. Most of the crew are only there because they get paid to be despite the fact that they like each other. Jayne has always been the one who is most separated from the familial atmosphere so having him be the voice against Mal makes a lot of sense. Mal finds it difficult to disagree with Jayne as his points aren’t incorrect, only insensitive.
The ship returns to Haven to have Book shelter them again but the Operative has anticipated this and staged an attack that leaves the place in ruins with Book taking his last breath. This is the turning point for Mal who decides that he’s not going to run any more. Everything about his demeanour changes at this point echoing the recent conversation with Inara where he says “I start fightin’ a war, I guarantee, you’ll see somethin’ new.”. His soldier instincts are reawakened and he compromises his own principles for a greater good.
When he orders the crew to make Serenity look like a Reaver ship and mount a cannon to the hull they are all horrified as this has never been their way. It feels to them as if they are dishonouring the memory of Book’s people by using them in such a way. The use of the cannon is significant as leaving Serenity unarmed has always been the point. Mal purposely turned away from the soldier lifestyle and Serenity was a symbolic way for him to live life on his own terms. Having a weapon mounted to the hull would attract too much unwanted attention and serve as a reminder of what he opted to turn away from. I like the change in Mal here as he exudes authority and doesn’t even let the crew have the time to grieve or say a word against him. He offers the ultimatum of helping him or staying behind. There’s so much anger and venom in his voice that it’s hard not to want to follow him. In many ways he’s acting like a Captain from more traditional space opera should act and it’s an intriguing change for him.
Mal’s purpose is to make it safely across Reaver territory and find out the secret behind the planet Miranda -a word that River has had in her head for the whole film- so that they have a bargaining chip with the Alliance and specifically the Operative. The sequence of Serenity crossing Reaver territory is beautifully tense. Everything is so dark and the designs of the Reaver ships are really grotesque so there’s a massive sense of foreboding as the ship slowly makes its way across this dangerous area of space. Combine this with a quietly effective score and we’re really onto a winner. The characters are holding their breath and so was I.
On Miranda the crew discover the Alliance’s big secret. They used an experimental compound to try to pacify the population but it worked too well and people stopped caring about doing the most mundane tasks so happily just lay down and let themselves die. It’s a horrifying image to think about, imagine not caring if you lived or died.
The compound didn’t affect everyone the same way. A percentage of the population had their aggressive instincts enhanced and started attacking the apathetic among them. Basically they became the Reavers and the Alliance covered the whole thing up. Getting to the bottom of this is an important step for River who had been driven insane by the knowledge without really knowing why. She calmly states “I’m alright” suggesting that her mental healing has begun.
I love how this segment of the film puts across a melancholic tone as the crew of Serenity wander through what is essentially a forgotten graveyard. They say little to each other but the despair and horror that they feel as the situation becomes apparent is beautifully done. It speaks to the versatility of the cast that they can pull this off with very little dialogue.
Mal’s speech following the discovery is equally awesome. There’s a lot of commitment in his voice and a genuine desire to rise up and do something about it. He wants to take the Alliance head on and appeals to his crew to join him which of course they all do. It’s a fairly standard “hey we’re a family” moment but it’s dripping with sincerity. It’s easy to believe that all of these characters would go along with this due to the obvious connection they all share.
What follows is absolutely immense. The Serenity crew provoke the Reavers into following them to their destination to provide a very explosive distraction to the Alliance fleet waiting for them. It’s great to see the Operative lose his cool when he spots the Reaver fleet. This is clearly something he didn’t anticipate and has caught him off guard. It’s a significant moment for him as he has been calm and in control the rest of the time.
The ensuing space battle is brief but incredible. Wash pilots Serenity right through the middle of the carnage around them and manages to evade it all right until the very end. The infamous line “I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar” provides a pretty perfect description of his piloting skills through this.
Like in Star Trek with the Enterprise, Serenity is as much a character as the humans so to see her take that much damage is more than a little heartbreaking. She really gets torn to pieces as she crash lands and it’s brutal. The unexpected death of Wash almost immediately after just piles on more tragedy to the moment. Trust Joss Whedon to give us an out of left field death like that. Zoë goes straight into warrior mode to deal with the death of her husband but it’s clear to see that she wants nothing more than to break down. It’s not the best time for it though so she gets the job done.
There’s not much to say about what follows other than it looks hopeless for the Serenity crew as they suffer major injuries from Reaver forces. I really wouldn’t have put it past Whedon to kill all of them but he spares us the heartbreak and doesn’t so that’s a plus. River gets to reprise her kickass combat skills and save them all so Whedon gets to indulge his fetish and everyone except Wash and Book are left standing by the end of the film.
Mal’s conflict with the Operative comes to an entertaining close as both men are now fully committed to what they need to do and will stop at nothing to see it through. Mal manages to sneakily get one up on the Operative and wins as well as getting to broadcast the truth to everyone out there. The Operative nobly stands down as he has nothing left to fight for at this point. They even part on the best of terms considering the circumstances with a promise to never see each other again.
From there the crew of Serenity rebuild, get rid of the cannon and move on with less of a crew than before. Sadly they won’t be seen in live action again unless some miracle happens. At least this has had a positive effect on the careers of the actors involved who have gone on to basically become nerd royalty and as far as I’m concerned it is well deserved.
It must be obvious by now that I’m a huge fan of this and the people involved with it. Is this a perfect film? Of course not! The character of Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) annoys me a little and the deaths felt a little tacked on for shock value but none of that really matters. If you look at this as a series finale of the TV show then it delivers in that regard with the perfect balance of narrative integrity and fan service. Aren’t you just glad it got made? I know I am!