Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Ron Glass, Sean Maher, Adam Tudyk, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Review: Like Firefly, the failed-until-DVD TV series that spawned it, Serenity is destined to find its success in the home market rather than in theaters. The TV show got shafted by Fox, but found enough popularity (rabid, vocal, online popularity) to motivate Universal to greenlight a big-screen version. The film, shot on a shoestring budget, was a disappointment at the box office. But even before its release on Tuesday, the DVD for Serenity was scoring high on Amazon’s top 100, giving the show yet a third bite at the profitability apple to go along side its critical acclaim.
The movie was a hard sell. It had no stars and a complex storyline, which is why it’ll find its audience on DVD — especially with a fanbase that works harder to move the product than a Girl Scout with a van full of Do-Si-Dos. And audiences should find Serenity — it’s a satisfying, multilayered adventure with great characters, plot hooks and emotional resonance.
This review, for those keeping score, is going to be relatively spoiler-free. So if you’re on the fence about watching this DVD, it’s safe to come inside
Firefly moved at a laconic pace that was driven by character over plot. The suits at Fox barely tolerated this. The movie kept them happier on that account. It’s a frenetic adventure film. Whedon has said he took the two seasons worth of plot and compressed it into a two-hour movie, and it shows. Not only is the story dense and fast-moving, but the cast shoots through its dialogue like they’ve got espresso in their IV drips. Once you adjust to that double-time rhythm, it feels like you’re getting a good four hours of film in a two-hour feature.
However, it’s not the action that makes the film work. Oh, it’s good action, particularly with Summer Glau, as the ethereal River Tam, doing almost all of her stunts. (In a big showdown fight at the end of the film, pay attention to the very long take that has Glau going through well over a dozen stunts, fighting as many attackers, in a single shot.) But it’s what studio schmucks call “heart” that makes the film work. The Serenity‘s captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is an emotionally scarred war veteran who clearly aches over the lonely, hard-scrabble life he’s living. He has created a family that he’s fiercely loyal to — but he can’t articulate that love. His lack of faith in the universe is central to the film as well, contrasted with the fanaticism of the government operative who is his nemesis. These elements, and great jokes interlaced throughout, add up a lot more to all the ‘splodey shit that makes the movie good fun.
The movie picks up several months after the series ended, with the crew of the rickety transport ship Serenity preparing to rob a government payroll from an outpost colony world. But first, the film wisely opens with a brisk summary of the show’s setting and the essential conflict that will drive the plot — a government agent’s relentless pursuit of fugitive River Tan, who has been hiding out on Serenity. We get a lesson about colonists fleeing a “used-up” Earth to terraform a new star system with dozens of planets and moons, creating a society of technology and wealth ringed by outlying planets that look like the Old West. We find out that River Tam was turned into a crazy psychic assassin before her brother, Simon, boldly rescued her from an off-the-books facility. Then we cut to Serenity, where a brilliant one-take shot (okay, it’s two shots, cleverly masked, but still…) takes us through the entire ship and introduces everyone aboard.
The film is dominated by the most action-oriented threads left over from Firefly — River’s fugitive status and the existence of lunatic cannibal savages called “Reavers” who attack from the edge of explored space, raping, killing and eating everyone in their path. And not always in that order. Threads hinted at but completely backburnered is Mal’s unspoken love for (now former) Serenity passenger Inara Serra, a high-class courtesan, and the mysterious background of Shepard Book, a preacher who has been shown to have military expertise and a lot of clout with the Alliance (the semi-totalitarian government). Not touched on at all are the marital strains between two crew members, and another’s propensity to betray his comrades when the money’s right.
Whedon was wise to pick the high-octane elements and whip up an exciting movie that satisfyingly resolves those questions. It also puts the Mal/Inara thing into a place that’s satisfying as a stopping point for the film, but leaves everything open for later sequels, whether onscreen or in comics, TV, novels, wherever Whedon takes his universe next.
PREPPING FOR SERENITY
You don’t need to watch Firefly to get Serenity, but why the hell wouldn’t you? If you’re not familiar with either, and want to go into the film with the not-small amount of backstory firmly in mind, start with the series. Here’s a short course on which Fireflyepisodes most relate to the goings-on in the Big Damn Movie.
01. SERENITY — Everyone’s introduced, and we get the first report on the pursuit of River, even meeting a government operative who’s much less scary than the one in the film.
04. SAFE — Flashback to the Tams’ childhood, and a climax that really plays to the theme of love that’s key to the movie.
08. ARIEL — A great caper story that unfolds more of River’s problems. Also, the film portrays Simon as more active in her rescue than the show had led us to believe. It seems almost out of character, a retcon to make the film more exciting, until you remember Simon’s role in this film as sudden criminal mastermind.
09. WAR STORIES — It’s just River’s moment during the big action scene that first betrays the extent of her abilities later explored in the film.
13. OBJECTS in SPACE — The bounty hunter here is clearly a forerunner of the film’s spooky “Operative.” The nature of River’s mental capabilities is most revealed in this episode, though what’s said in the movie remains fairly oblique here. While “War Stories” revealed River’s capacity for violence, it’s this episode that shows how truly formidable she can be.
If there’s a drawback to the film it’s that the density of story — and backstory — is going to put off a fair percentage of potential viewers. Similarly, the science-fiction setting is likely to put off viewers who would otherwise appreciate the solid dialogue, well-drawn characters, strong cast and strong issues of loyalty, love and faith. If you’re the sort to be daunted by these things, make an effort. You will be rewarded.
The DVD has a good selection of bonus features — Whedon does a commentary track on the film that is informative and infused with his trademark humor: a candy coating of self-deprecation over a chewy center of big (but not undeserved) ego. The deleted scenes are more interesting than on most DVDs, and the documentaries do a good job of explaining how we got from failed TV show to Big Damned Movie.
If you’re new to the entire property, you’d be wisest to start with the Firefly series, because moving from the slower, lower-budgeted TV stories to the big effects and action of the film is probably an easier transition than going from spectacle to lower-key episodic television. Plus, that’s, you know, the actual narrative order. Don’t make things hard on yourself.