Serenity by Joss Whedon (Review)

But when all is said and done, there’s a sweet sense of vindication throughout the movie.
Serenity, Joss Whedon

I initially ignored Joss Whedon’s Firefly series for two reasons; one, I had never been a fan of Whedon’s other titles (e.g., Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel) and two, everytime I heard the premise of Firefly — it’s essentially a western set in space — I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I’d seen other series try to pull off something similar, with disasterous and cheesy results (I’m looking in your general direction, Space Rangers).

But when I finally did see Fireflys series premier several years ago during my first trek to the Toronto Film Festival, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact, I found it fairly engaging and enjoyable. But I just sort of filed it away, thinking that would probably be all I ever see of it. I liked it, but didn’t feel particularly compelled to track down the rest of the series. That changed when one of my co-workers asked if my wife and I would like to watch it with them. Something just clicked for me and suffice to say, I became hooked. As in obsessively.

The series felt like a breath of fresh air for me as someone who had basically given up on TV-based sci-fi (thanks, in large part, to that beating of the dead horse which is Star Trek). But Firefly had it all — a unique world that hinted at intriguing possibilities, a wonderful (and often twisted) sense of humor, witty dialog that was thankfully free of technobabble and cheesy inspirational moments, poignant moral explorations, plenty of genre-tweaking, and a cast of some of the most well-developed and thoroughly enjoyable characters I’ve ever encountered, period.

Of course, there was the slight problem that the boneheads at Fox had cancelled it several years ago after less than half a season (and that was after airing episodes out of order, waiting weeks between episodes, etc.). However, that only seemed to make Firefly stronger. The show became a massive cult phenomenon, with fans (who term themselves ​“Browncoats”) purchasing ads in support of the series, starting massive petitions, and making the series a huge hit when it came out on DVD. All of which brings us to Serenity, the big-screen adaptation of a plucky little show that somehow managed to survive all manner of efforts to derail it.

Serenity takes place 500 years in the future. Earth has become too crowded due to over-population, and so mankind has left their home, taking up residence in a new solar system full of worlds waiting to be colonized. Eventually, one government, the so-called Alliance, begins to assert its control over the system, attempting to bring order to the new frontier.

Of course, one can’t have a big, bad totalitarian government without a rebel faction attempting to resist them. Unfortunately, unlike Star Wars, the Alliance crushes the rebellion, scattering its remaining members who now attempt to eke out a living on the edge of the system, as far from Alliance control as possible.

One such rebel is Malcolm Reynolds, a survivor of the war’s most brutal battle. Along with his former second-in-command Zoe, he captains a small ​“Firefly”-class transport ship named ​“Serenity,” doing all manner of jobs (most of them underhanded) to stay afloat while nursing a major streak of bitterness and cynicism.

Mal is content to stay on the rim, far from Alliance control, flying under the radar and occasionally sticking it to the régime whenever possible. That, however, changes after he takes Simon and River Tam, a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance, onboard. River had once been part of top secret Alliance experiments before Simon rescued her, experiments that have left her with extraordinary powers but which have also left her with a very damaged and unstable psyche.

They’ve managed to make a home on ​“Serenity” along with the rest of its ragtag crew, staying one step ahead of the Alliance. But River is getting worse, her mind full of visions of dead planets and horrific once-human creatures known only as Reavers. What’s more, her powers seem to be growing, leading her to violent outbursts that endanger the entire crew.

On the Tams’ trail is an enigmatic individual known only as The Operative (played wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a very dangerous individual who is willing to slaughter untold amounts of innocents to recover River and the information she posesses, information that could apparently bring the Alliance to its knees.

Although Whedon has done a pretty good job of translating his small-screen adventures to the theatre, it’s pretty obvious that concessions have been made to make it more palatable to folks unfamiliar with the TV series. For starters, it’s impossible to have a focus on 8 or 9 major characters. And so he shifts things around.

Two of the series’ characters, a priest named Shepherd Book and a high-class prositute named Inara, aren’t even onboard the ship when the movie starts. And other characters, such as Wash, ​“Serenity“ ​‘s smart-alecky pilot, and Kaylee, whose ability to keep ​“Serenity” flying is matched only by her crush on Simon, fade into the background, getting a slightly shorter shrift.

The movie’s focus is primarily on Mal and River, and on providing some element of closure for their stories. Mal finally has a chance to take a stand against the Alliance, to maybe have a chance to finish the war that was over years ago but which he has continued to fight. And for River, it’s a chance to finally exorcise the demons that have been tearing her mind apart.

However, for all of its limitations, the transition to the big screen also seems to have had a freeing effect for Whedon. He pushes the story, and the characters, to extremes that even diehard fans might find wrenching. Make no mistake, Whedon puts it all on the line with Serenity, creating cliffhanger situations like you wouldn’t believe and making sacrifices that are certain to have longtime fans of the series both cheering and lamenting (though newbies might find themselves scratching their heads at all of the hooplah). I know that I won’t be able to ever watch the TV series the same way again, in both good ways and bittersweet ways.

Obviously, the movie has a much bigger budget (though still far below a normal blockbuster-type amount), and Whedon makes the most of it. Some might point out that the effects don’t look as polished as, say, Revenge Of The Sith, but I never noticed. I was too caught up in space battles that have real oomph.

They might not look it but they certainly feel like a complete 180 from the video game cutscenes that comprised the ​“epic” space battles in Revenge Of The Sith (the recent Star Wars movies are used by many as a comparison, and in most cases, Lucas’ recent trilogy is found to be quite lacking). Unlike Lucas, who gets lost in the razzle-dazzle of his computer-generated scenery, Serenity remains resolutely focused on the characters and their situations, sacrifices, and relationships.

One of the things that I always loved about Firefly was the moral situations it raised, especially in the character of Mal. Here is an individual who is a smuggler, thief, and worse. And yet he operates according to a strict code of honor and loyalty that finds himself constantly at odds with both the Alliance and other lowlifes. But in Serenity, we see that Mal has reached his limit. The constant cynicism has left him empty, the constant running has left him tired. So much so that he can barely keep himself going, and much less his crew, which finds themselves bearing the brunt of his desperation.

In the character of The Operative, Mal finds his exact opposite. Unlike Mal, who has no belief or faith of any kind, The Operative is an ardent believer, which makes him very dangerous. His belief is so strong that he’s willing to commit untold atrocities for it, in hopes that it might lead to a better world, a ​“world without sin” as he puts it. It raises one of my favorite moral quandaries, one that I love to see played out in stories — how much evil must one do in order to do good? Is it necessary, and even right to slaughter innocents if a better world might be the result?

As is pointed out time and again in Serenity and Firefly, the only things that can stand up to such zealotry is faith, loyalty, mercy, and even love. It sounds terribly cheesy, but when seen time and again in ​“Serenity“ ​‘s ragtag crew, which behaves more like a semi-dysfunctional family than a group of co-workers, it takes on a whole new resonance.

It’s in the dynamic of Wash and Zoe’s marriage, which is full of passion, friction, and humor. It’s in the boneheaded comments of Jayne, who speaks his mind at the worst of times and in the worst of ways, such that you simply love to hate him. It’s there in the sexual tension between Mal and Inara, and in the existential friction between Mal and Book. But it’s probably most visible in the constant sacrifices that Simon makes for his troubled sister, as he time and again puts aside his own desires for River’s sake.

Unfortunately, the sacrifices that Whedon made when bringing Firefly to the big screen means that some of this isn’t as strong in the movie as it is in the series. For example, the one newbie who came with us to Serenity didn’t even pick up on the fact that Wash and Zoe were married. If you aren’t completely up on all of the nuances in the characters’ relationships, the series’ sense of humor is still thoroughly intact, with one-liners, zingers, and laugh-out-loud moments aplenty. (And if you want to get the full brunt of what transpires in the movie, both good and bad, do yourself a favor and rent, borrow, or buy the Firefly series.)

This is due first to Whedon’s ear for sharp dialog — compared to Lucas’ clunky script, Whedon’s writing feels like Shakespeare — and second to an amazing cast. Everyone is firing on all cylinders in this movie, and everyone gets a moment to shine. And it’s worth watching the movie again if only to try and catch the interactions you might have missed the first time — the background conversations, the constant jabs and quips that pepper Whedon’s dialog, and even just the facial expressions (River is an especially good source of those, due to Summer Glau exceptionally expressive performance).

Even after all this typing, I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface of Serenity. There’s so much to enjoy, so much to savor — the humor, the characters, the stories. But for all of its excitement, Serenity is not without its more heartwrenching moments. All of the characters go through major transitions, and noone is left unscarred.

But when all is said and done, there’s a sweet sense of vindication throughout the movie — for Mal and the rest of ​“Serenity“ ​‘s crew, who finally have a cause after years of running; for Whedon, who finally gets to conclude a story that’s been years in the making; and finally, for fans, who have patiently waited for the time when something this creative, this fresh, and this original finally receives its dues.

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