Director : s Joss Whedon
Screenplay : Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Nathan Fillion (Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon), Summer Glau (River), Ron Glass (Shepherd Book), Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative), David Krumholtz (Mr. Universe)
Having never watched Joss Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series Firefly, I have no basis from which to judge its big-screen incarnation Serenity except as a stand-alone movie, and in that respect it works quite well. Knowing as I do that it is an extension of a TV series, and therefore has all the trappings of television (multiple characters, multiple story arcs, etc.), I was aware throughout the movie that there were layers of meaning and histories that I was missing, although writer/director Whedon clearly worked hard to keep it understandable to those not in the know.
For those who aren’t aware, the world of Serenity is the distant future in which Earth has become largely uninhabitable and humanity has spread out into the universe, colonizing planets much as the Old West was colonized. Thus, like many sci-fi movies since Star Wars (1977), it is really a disguised Western, with spaceships standing in for horses and covered wagons and various planets taking the place of lone settlements. The story centers on a group of interstellar outlaws who live by their own moral code and resist the conformist power of The Alliance, which seeks to bring everything in the universe under its control.
The name of the movie is derived from the name of outlaws’ tin-bucket spaceship, which is commanded by Malcolm (Nathan Fillion). The story kicks off with one of his crewmembers, a doctor named Simon (Sean Maher), rescuing his sister, River (Summer Glau), from the clutches of the Alliance. River is a psychic who can read minds, and she has also been programmed to turn into a highly effective human weapon when the right words are spoken to her (welcome back to the world of Cold War-era fears of military brainwashing). The Alliance obviously wants River back, not only because she is a dangerous weapon, but because she may have read the minds of higher ups who have secrets they don’t want to disclose. To get her back, the Alliance sends out a nameless operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who will stop at nothing to get her back, even if it means killing a lot of people.
Thus, Serenity hinges on some classic Western tropes, particularly the dynamic of the noble outlaw hero standing up to the corrupt barons who want to tame the Old West to their benefit. Malcolm’s crew contains an odd assortment of characters, from the uber-masculine Jayne (Adam Baldwin), to the comical pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk). These characters and their various interactions will clearly resonate more with viewers familiar with the series who know them more intimately, but Whedon’s screenplay does a more than serviceable job of sketching in their backgrounds and relationships quickly and efficiently.
Whedon can be a very smart writer, and he’s best at making the banal inspiringly surreal (as in the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer endowed overworked clichés about high school trauma into trials of supernatural proportions). In Serenity, he reworks both elements of the Western and the sci-fi action extravaganza (with a few bits of outright horror thrown in), but not to particularly inspiring heights. He includes some intriguing elements of political critique, but they tend to be so broad (large bureaucracies will inevitably instill their will on the people at any cost, rather than the other way around) that they lean into barn-sized proportions. Still, the secret at the heart of the movie is a rare one in that it has genuine, disturbing gravitas to it and is almost more than the otherwise featherweight narrative can sustain.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Universal Pictures