You can’t stop the signal.
The rise and fall of Firefly has been well documented elsewhere. The short version: It was a TV series beloved by critics and viewers, but cancelled prematurely by Fox. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. Thanks to a huge fan base and impressive DVD sales, Universal agreed to let writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) revisit the Firefly universe as his feature debut. Serenity paid off on a lot of what was set up in the series, and also showed off Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue and smart plotting. Then, history repeated itself somewhat. The film drew a loyal following, but did not light up the box office. Numerous Firefly fans discovered the series for the first time on DVD. Will the same follow for Serenity‘s highly-anticipated DVD release?
It’s the future. River Tam (ballerina Summer Glau) is a young genius experimented on by an oppressive galactic alliance. Doctors there have turned her into a powerful but unpredictable psychic. After she’s rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher, Party of Five), the two of them are fugitives, hiding out with the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. And what a crew it is: Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Saving Private Ryan) and first mate Zoe (Gina Torres, Cleopatra 2525) fought on the losing side of the civil war that created the alliance. Zoe’s husband Wash (Alan Tudyk, Dodgeball) is the ship’s quirky pilot. Tough guy Jayne (Adam Baldwin, The Inside) is good in a fight, but not exactly loyal. Tomboy mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite, Wonderfalls) has a thing for Simon, but can never find the right time to admit it. This ragtag bunch flies from job to job, legal or otherwise, on the outskirts of the galaxy, its only goal to stay out of the alliance’s way. The alliance wants River back, though, and has sent a deadly operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Four Brothers) to retrieve her. While on the run, our heroes reunite with two former crew members, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass, Barney Miller), an unconventional preacher with a mysterious past, and Inara (Morena Baccarin, the voice of Black Canary on Justice League) a professional “companion” and possible love interest for Mal. Finally, there’s the Reavers, vicious subhuman savages lurking somewhere out there on the edge of space. Before it’s all over, they, too, will have a part to play.
How do you describe Serenity to someone unfamiliar with Firefly? It’s not a premise that can easily be summed up in one sentence. Instead of listing character names or reciting background info, I just tell people it’s a “crowd pleaser.” You’ve got it all here—big action, high drama, huge laughs, romance, sharp dialogue, and eye-popping special effects, all blended together into just the right mix. It’s a hearty meal of a film, one that leaves you full and satisfied.
For Firefly fans, know that some changes had to be made. It’s subtle at times, but a few of the characters act slightly different than they did on the TV series. This was a necessary evil for Whedon. In order to tell the story he wanted to tell in a single feature, certain elements of the characters had to be streamlined. With a large cast on his hands, Whedon had to give audiences a sense of each character in short, economic bites. We first get a very quick rundown about the alliance and fringe planets. Next, there’s a flashback sequence introducing us to River and Simon, followed by our first look at the villain. Then, we get the movie’s celebrated “walk-through,” where Mal walks from one end of the ship to another and interacts with every member of the crew one-by-one in a single take. This is meant to introduce the whole cast to newcomers. While it makes a nice first impression, the real introductions come during the movie’s first big action scene, in which Mal and company attempt a heist. It’s both funny and thrilling, but it also reveals the characters in their element. So are newcomers going to be lost by not having seen the series first? I say no. If you’re confused as to who is who after the first 10 minutes, just keep watching, and you’ll everyone straightened out in no time.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at our cast:
Jewel Staite as Kaylee
Kaylee doesn’t get as much screen time here as some of her fans might have liked, but she does get a few moments to shine. Kaylee’s duty on the ship is not just as mechanic, but as “the vulnerable one.” Whenever something serious goes down, we can look into Staite’s wide, expressive eyes and know just how serious it is.
Alan Tudyk as Wash
Like Kaylee, Wash’s screen time is short, but he still has enough of a presence to make a difference. Wash is the wisecracker, with a clever quip always on hand. Whenever the action breaks out, though, he’s right there in the pilot’s seat to save the day. There is a slight duality to the character in that he’s a goof most of the time, but when it comes to piloting, he’s brilliant. He’s the one crew member who saves the day more than any other.
Morena Baccarin as Inara
Inara’s character is changed slightly from the series. Her, uh, profession goes mostly unmentioned, only referenced in lines that describe her “telling men what they wanna hear.” Instead of exploring issues of sexuality and gender issues as she did in the series, Inara’s role here is simpler—she’s all about the romance. For Mal, she’s the one that got away. When the operative uses her as bait to draw out Mal and River, it forces Mal and Inara to reunite. In doing so, they must in some way deal with their feelings for one another. There are no big dramatic outbursts between the two of them, but there’s still plenty of sexual tension to be had. Fillion and Baccarin have great chemistry and could arguably carry an entire movie by themselves.
Ron Glass as the Shepherd
Sporting a cool new hairstyle, Glass makes his appearance as a friendly face in the film at a moment when the crew—and the audience—needs one. He offers Mal safe harbor and a few moments of peace needed to reflect on his adventures so far. Like any good spiritual leader, Book gives Mal the guidance he needs to make his next step. On the series, I found it interesting how this preacher rarely did any actual preaching. Even the lesson he delivers to Mal in the movie is given in a simple, non-sermonizing way.
Adam Baldwin as Jayne
Jayne is what gamers refer to as a “tank.” He’s the muscle, storming into every situation bullheadedly. Although he’s often played as comic relief, don’t dismiss Jayne as the dumb guy. Instead, he’s always thinking and calculating. Fans of the series know that Jayne is not often one to be trusted, and his shifting loyalties are hinted at in the film. But mostly, Jayne’s bluntness in both his words and actions is what makes the character enjoyable. When he’s not throwing grenades around, he’s deflating serious situations with the occasional sarcastic wisecrack.
Sean Maher as Simon
Simon’s character has changed the most in the transition from the series to the film. On TV, he was very much a fish out of water, awkwardly trying to fit in to a world that he never wanted to be a part of. In Serenity, though, he’s more confident and decisive. He stands up to Mal, and he goes to dangerous lengths to protect River. He’s only a few steps away from turning into Simon Tam: Action Hero. But that’s all right, because all the audience needs from him here is to know just how intense his caring for his sister is. It’s important to him to keep her safe and that makes it important for viewers as well.
Gina Torres as Zoe
Often described as a “woman warrior,” Zoe is the person you want at your side in a fight. Not only is she tough, but she’s fiercely loyal to Mal, thanks to their shared past as soldiers. Zoe gets a lot of great character moments in the film. She acts as Mal’s conscience at a few points, revealing her to be one of the crew’s more level-headed members. Zoe also has some great scenes during the movie’s conclusion, in which we see just how strong she really is.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as the operative
Villains come in all shapes and sizes. There are the irredeemable villains who are so rotten you just want them dead by the end. There are the conflicted villains who are always one step away from being good guys if only they didn’t make that one bad decision. And there are the determined villains who believe that what they is doing is the right thing. The operative is a curious take on that last category. He willingly does horrible, evil acts, all in the hope that what he does will lead to a better world. Ejiofor plays the role in a calm, relaxed manner, so that the few times when he does raise his voice, it almost seems out of place. By the time it’s all over, he, too, will reveal his human side. It’s a strange choice, to make the operative so emotionally distant while also trying to make him somewhat humane in his cruelty. It’s to Whedon’s credit that he tried something different with the villain, rather than just write another “cold-hearted assassin” type that we’ve all seen a dozen times over.
Summer Glau as River
River and her past were kept mostly a secret on the TV series, but in Serenity, the plot revolves around her. She sets events in motion, she’s the antagonists’ motivation, and she’s the key to saving the day. There is still some of the “babbling psycho” River that annoyed some TV viewers, but Glau brings all aspects of the character to her performance here. We see her caring relationship with her brother, her wonder at all the new experiences around her, and the pain of her troubled past coming back to haunt her. It’s a lot to ask of a young actress, but Glau pulls it off.
Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds
In previous interviews, Whedon has compared Mal to Han Solo from Star Wars, speculating about where Han’s life might have gone if had walked into that cantina just a few minutes later. Without running into the old guy and the farm kid, Han’s adventures may very well have played out like Mal’s. Like the young Harrison Ford, Fillion combines tough-guy swagger with guy-next-door accessibility. Mal begins both the series and the movie as a man who’s lost his faith. He never wants for anything except his own personal freedom. Keep flying, that’s his only goal. But thanks to River, his crew, and his experiences here, Mal now has something worth fighting for. He finds a purpose, like so many of us wish we could. Fillion wears his brown coat well. He sells as the action scenes with the best of them, and he’s a natural when comes to delivering Whedon’s faux-western dialogue.
Audio and video on Serenity are superb. The film’s earth tones come through deep and rich, and the occasional bright reds are strong and vivid. Colors are washed out in some scenes intentionally to convey a feeling of isolation and loneliness at those times. To see just how good the audio is, check out the above-mentioned “walk-through” shot at the film’s opening. It starts out just with music, then combines music and sound effects as the ship experiences some technical difficulties. The two sound elements blend together well, never once competing with each other. Then, as Mal walks from aft to stern talking to the crew, the dialogue and the rumbling of the ship comes through with clarity. This makes the most of all the speakers, providing an immersive experience.
Honesty time: For this review, I received an advance screener with “NOT FINAL PRODUCT” stamped all over it. This matters to you the reader because the disc does not contain Joss Whedon’s feature commentary. Whedon has yet to disappoint on any commentaries he’s done in the past, so I have no reason not to recommend this one.
As for the other features, the best ones are the deleted scenes, which fill in a few small gaps in the story. Poor Inara, though. A good chunk of these scenes involve her. For anyone who came out of the film wanting more, these should satisfy. A collection of outtakes is amusing and shows off how well the actors got along during filming. The three featurettes discuss the history of the alliance, the film’s special effects, and the task of reuniting the cast after the series was cancelled. All three are good, but short. Finally, there is a witty introduction Whedon recorded for fans who got to see the movie at advance screenings six months before the film opened.
Where are the trailers? Where’s the short film, The R. Tam Sessions, starring Summer Glau as River? Why isn’t there more depth to the featurettes? What’s with that cover art? I’m only guessing here, but it seems that a more elaborately-produced special edition might be in the future. Nothing’s been announced, but we’ve seen this pattern before, haven’t we?
Does Serenity conclude the story of Mal and his crew, or are there more adventures to come? I could go either way. While the movie does tie up a lot of plot points set up in the series (but not all of them), the possibility for more stories exists. Serenity holds up just fine as both a stand-alone film and as a conclusion to the TV series. If you’ve heard all the fans’ praise but still haven’t given it a try, now’s your chance. Highly recommended.