Serenity is so many things trying to find an exact hook is a challenge. It’s an abortive start to a film franchise. It’s a second season arc compressed to a film. It’s a standalone action film. It’s a farewell to a beloved series. That’s the risk a work like this faces. It takes a big swing at being a lot of things and can only succeed as a few.
Serenity follows a long tradition I think is bafflingly misunderstood: the TV show spun off to film with the original crew in place. Because of Star Trek successfully launching, we have it in our heads this must work. But it doesn’t. The list of failures is in fact quite endless. The X-Files did ok its first run at theaters but flopped try 2. Batman and Transformers were unable to take their animated shows to the big screen. Maxwell Smart utterly humiliated himself with The Nude Bomb. (Somebody please explain to me a Get Smart movie without Agent 99.) Highlander took its show up and the very next time back to TV. Batman: The movie barely broke even. And even Star Trek actually hit a rough patch with its first entry and only massive budget cuts forcing a better script led to the all time classic second film.
When you look at it, there was really not much of a chance this movie was going to succeed unless it was a wholly stand alone entry, something that could be watched without knowing the show and could be hyped without it while still trusting fans to show up. We did not get that even in the least to be blunt. We got an ad campaign that leaned hard into the previous existence of Firefly with trailers that stressed the cult phenomenon. Look, I’m not wasting much breath on this. Universal tried to sell something that rarely connects as is in the worst way.
But let’s put that aside to look at Serenity as what it is at its core: a coda. This is the end of Firefly. And it’s a damned fine ending. It has some flaws but it’s the perfect closure to the story. It of course wasn’t planned as such. It was meant as a start to a film series. There’s a nice open ending. Things are a bit wrapped up and contractual obligations forced two deaths but this wasn’t supposed to be the end. But it was.
The story picks up after the show and what feels like several unmade episodes. The crew has scattered a bit with Book and Inara leaving the ship. There’s tension. River knows something. The government or Alliance wants to know what. They need her brought in once and for all. Finding out what she knows will force the crew into their most direct conflict with the entire galactic government.
Let’s just get this clear: No, this does not really stand on its own. Oh it’s perfectly enjoyable on its own but you need to see the show to grasp the interactions here. You might grasp a basic element or two of Mal and Inara’s interaction but you need the hours. You need to understand exactly what Simon lost and that he used to be Zac Efron. You need to have a vague sense of why they haven’t just shot Jayne even though he deserves it. Without this information, it’s like being at a really fun party where you don’t know anyone.
That said, this isn’t being watched as a stand alone now. No, if you want to watch this film you want to watch the whole project, episode 1 to the film. And that’s the appropriate context. It’s the culmination.
So I have to confirm it’s a pretty satisfying ride. Writer/director Joss Whedon uses the 119 minutes well. It’s maybe a shade too padded. This is 30 minutes longer than the 2 parter it belonged as and it needed to be that. But everyone gets fulfilling space here. That’s nice and rare. Indeed this film’s strongest element is that it’s a decently multifocus film. Mal is the inevitable center but River and Simon get vital threads, Simons intertwining with Kaylee’s. Every character has a good scene or two.
It helps that the plot is a simple MacGuffin plot with River’s knowledge the thing everyone wants. Thus the film becomes a straight on chase, the best structure for this kind of film. It’s a constant momentum plot that Whedon hangs the universe on. And that secret is clearly something he was going to make a big reveal in the show. We learn here that the Reavers, cannibalistic (I hate this word) savages, were created by the Alliance after an experiment went wrong. They’re a war crime basically.
So let me pause to talk about the climate of the show vs the film. The difference is pre-Iraq war vs post. The war on terror was going in 2002 but not as blatantly horribly as it was in 2005. There was a profound cynicism about the government and I think the film wisely leans in. It saddens me I think it would be even darker today, as at least this suggests people would care about a crime exposed, but it’s a vital theme.
And that theme is best expressed in the antagonist but absolutely not the villain The Operative played by an impossibly cool Chiwetel Ejiofor. With his intense class and good looks, he’s a worthy opponent not just to the crew but for our affection. We don’t want him to suffer. We want him to see the light. And in the end doing the latter causes the former. Ejiofor utterly destroys in his final scene as a man who knows a truth he can’t live with. He is Javert to their Valjean.
And really the performances are across the board good to great, even regrettably Adam Baldwin. Nathan Fillion has never been stronger as a man completely worn out but still determined to do right. Summer Glau sells so much her character can’t say and does it so well it’s easy to forget (as the industry has!) that she can do more. Alan Tudyk ably launches into his career as a character actor like none other here. I do wish Sean Maher got more work as he’s got leading man chops still but the industry is homophobic sadly. And yes, Jayne makes me laugh but I just on principle have to grouse ok.
So if I think there’s a lot of good here, I have to address the three big flaws. The first is the problematic stuff. And I don’t like having to note this–you won’t see a word of it when I write up Hamilton–but it’s impossible to ignore here. There should be at least um ONE Chinese character in the cast if you’re going to use their language and imagery this much. The women are still either connected to men or mentally ill and that’s a bad look. Also come on, it’s the future. There are no gay characters? Whedon really is stuck in 1980s comic mode.
The second is going to earn some rage but hear me out. Wash’s death derails this franchise. It’s such a jarring shift that the series couldn’t go forward. To be clear, there was a reason with Tudyk wanting out. OK, what you do with this if you know that’s coming is you weasel out. You agree he can leave after this and then move ahead if you get more films. But as is it throws the breaks on everything and makes it hard to want more knowing the soul of the show is gone in a way they can’t undo. It’s not a shock to me the fandom, while still often bringing up wanting another journey here, didn’t really mobilize too hard in 2005/2006 for a sequel. They wanted it but something was gone.
But the third one? That’s the one I want to go into. Have you seen the experiment where different lenses are put over a face? Firefly and Serenity are that experiment in film form. Firefly is a lens that looks normal and solid. Everything is in proportion and nothing looks wrong. But Serenity is the same material except a new lens. And suddenly everything looks and feels off. Everything looks smaller, less real.
That’s the difference between tv and film. And I hate to say it but that’s still the difference no matter how much “prestige” tv you watch. Sci-fi looks and feels smaller on TV. You have to upgrade. And I hate to say it but for some reason they never actually do. Honestly the only great looking tv to film SF we have is The Wrath of Khan and that’s down to limitations.
Serenity feels like you can’t help but notice the difference. The sets, the direction, the acting? They’re TV. And they’re handled by a film dp, Jack Green, who was admittedly at the end of his major film era but still shot film. It feels weird. And that’s further accentuated in the climactic showdown between Fillion and Ejiofor. The latter is a film character with the acting of one. The former is a tv character in a costume. It’s distracting.
This doesn’t make it bad but it makes it a bit of an uncomfortable transition. It didn’t really become a film. It became a very high caliber tv movie. And that’s fine but it is what it is.
Again, this was the end, intentional or not. The fate of the Tams is open but I lean on they’re safe. Wash is gone as is Book. River has a new job and can heal. Simon and Kaylee get together. The future is open but it’s appropriately closed too. And that’s why I feel this was indeed it. Because when it was over, it was truly over. And we didn’t need anything else. It might spoil this perfect ending.
And yet… We’re not done. Next time, we’re headed to look at the first tie-in novel. And with time I’m going to hit the ongoing comic too.