‘Firefly’ Rewind – ‘Serenity’ (the motion picture)

Senior Television Writer
09.14.10 129 Comments


Time to finish up our summer-long journey through Joss Whedon’s outer space Western series “Firefly” with a look at “Serenity,” the feature film that Joss and company reunited to produce a few years after Fox canceled the TV show. My review coming up just as soon as I think you’re going to start a fair fight…  

“People don’t like to be meddled with.” -River

“I believe in something greater than myself: A better world. A world without sin.” -The Operative

“So no more running. I aim to misbehave.” -Mal

There’s a phrase widely attributed to Napoleon – and used as the title to an episode of “Deadwood,” yet another TV twist on the Western, which debuted a little over a year after “Firefly” was canceled – that says that history is a lie agreed upon.

The main plot of “Serenity” deals with just such a piece of history – the lie of what happened to the people of Miranda, and how the Reavers were created as a result – but the movie itself is something of a lie agreed upon.

Basically, Joss Whedon and his fans convinced the executives at Universal of several things: 1)That the audience for “Firefly” was much larger than the Nielsen ratings showed, and that the Browncoats would therefore turn out in huge numbers for a feature film release, and 2)Despite the film being a spin-off of a short-lived, allegedly low-rated TV show, it would be accessible and appealing to the non-Browncoats.

Neither proved to be entirely true.

The movie was a box office disappointment, not making back its production budget until the DVDs came out. The Browncoats went to see it, but not many non-fans. The reviews were generally positive (it has an 81% score on Rotten Tomatoes), but the strongest praise tended to come, unsurprisingly, from critics who had watched the TV show. (Roger Ebert, for instance, gave it three stars but closed his review with the line “it was made by and for people who can’t get enough of this stuff. You know who you are.”) Clearly, it was possible to enjoy the film without knowing the backstory – Joss is too good a craftsman to not have the film work on that level – but it’s so, so much better if you about Mal’s history, if you’ve seen what Jayne was like before “Jaynestown,” if you’re familiar with the Zoe/Wash marriage(*), etc. It was a film made, first and foremost, for fans of the show. Those fans unfortunately weren’t large enough in number to keep the show on the air (not that Fox’s various scheduling decisions helped), nor were they big enough to turn the film into a hit.

(*) One of the movie’s bigger failings, on the appealing-to-newbies level, is that it does such a poor job of even making it clear that Zoe and Wash are married. There’s a line during the long introduction to the Serenity crew where Mal tells Zoe “talk to your husband,” but if you don’t know he’s referring to Wash, it comes by too quickly to register. They’re a bit affectionate in a later scene, but Zoe’s reaction to Wash’s death likely didn’t hit a newcomer nearly as hard as it did those who understood. 

But if “Serenity” is a lie on some level, it’s a glorious, wildly entertaining lie, from first minute to last.

Joss had worked in movies before as a screenwriter, but never had control over what the director would do with his ideas. (“Buffy” the series was in a way seven years of Joss giving a middle finger to Fran Rubel Kuzui, and I remember mentioning “Alien: Resurrection” once to him and Joss wincing at what Jean-Pierre Jeunet had done to his script.) And he had directed episodes of his shows, but always on a TV schedule and (relatively low for the medium) budget. “Serenity” wasn’t a budget-buster for Universal or anything, but the scale of it was vastly bigger than anything Whedon had had full control over before, and his joy at getting to play with his new toys is palpable.

The film opens with one flashy bit of storytelling after another: the Universal logo becomes an image of the exodus from the Earth that was, which then turns into a history lesson about the creation of the ‘verse, which then becomes River’s nightmare of her school days, which then becomes a video flashback being watched by the Operative before he makes poor Michael Hitchcock literally fall on his sword. Story on top of story on top of story, and all of it being controlled by the winners. (In the film’s universe, that’s the Alliance; in the real world, it’s Joss for getting to make the film.) We then get the movie’s logo, which becomes a part of Serenity’s hull, and after a Whedon-esque bit of undercutting cliches (the heroic music is interrupted by a piece of Serenity flying off), we travel inside the ship for a  tracking shot of the whole Serenity crew like we got at the end of “Objects in Space”, only much, much more elaborate, as Mal walks the length of the ship chatting with all the remaining members of the crew. (Book and Inara are gone, though they of course turn up later in their new homes.)

And the movie climaxes with one great action set piece after another: Mal wiping the smugness off the Operative’s face by siccing the entire Reaver fleet on him, Wash being a leaf on the wind, the crew making a final stand to buy Mal time, River finally taking control of her gifts and becoming a prototypical Whedon heroine, and Mal and the Operative fighting while dangling from chains in the bottomless shaft that must exist at the center of every sci-fi space station (see also Niska’s space station, Cloud City on Bespin, etc.).

What makes those action sequences special isn’t just that they look cool, but that all the moments are tied to character in some way: Mal is using the Alliance’s deep dark secret against it by luring the Reavers to fight the Operative. Zoe is simultaneously grieving and being her amazing warrior woman self as she goes after the Reavers. River, having shared the secret of Miranda with others, starts to feel whole, and then the transformation is complete when she realizes how much Simon needs her. Etc. It’s not just wicked explosions and kung fu(**); the moments go much deeper than that, and are paying off everything we’ve seen over 14 episodes of television and an hour-plus of the movie.

(**) In fact, the character stuff is strong enough to compensate for some lesser action moments. Mal’s fight with with the Operative at the Companion training house looks fairly slow and awkward, like the two actors are trying really hard to remember fight choreography they learned five minutes before, yet it’s still a good scene because of how the two characters play off of each other, and because Inara is hanging on the sidelines heckling Mal like usual (and then saving the day).

As the series mostly was, the film is Mal and River’s story. Whedon tries to give everyone else a good moment or two, like Book’s nighttime chat with Mal on Haven, or Jayne offending Mal and Zoe by bringing up the Battle of Serenity Valley, but essentially everyone is there to help illustrate aspects of the cold, hard captain and the damaged, dangerous girl traveling aboard his ship. Given how well we got to know the whole crew, it’s disappointing – particularly that Wash dies one of those trademark Whedon sudden deaths in the climax of a movie in which he’s had so little to do(***) – but understandable. If Whedon had set the story aside so he could service all the characters equally, “Serenity” would have been 100% fan service, rather than the 50/50 or so ratio that the film ultimately achieves.

(***) Wash’s death, far more than Book’s, has always seemed to rankle fans. And I get that, to a degree. Alan Tudyk was so likable and funny on the show, Joss has this history of using death to break up happy couples, Book was the show’s most marginal character during its brief run, etc. But the stakes are impossibly high here, and it would feel like a cheat if every one of the regular characters from the show had survived both the Alliance and the Reavers. If the only casualties involved ancillary characters like Mr. Universe or the twins, then the threat Mal and company faced isn’t as real, and the risks they took to get the message out there don’t mean as much. Somebody had to die – more than one person, preferably – and then it comes down to picking favorites. Like, I never developed much of an attachment for Simon and wouldn’t have cared if he died, but I know he had his fans, and I know that it would have been a much darker ending for Kaylee and River if he had. Or could you imagine the revolt if Jayne had been the one to fall? Somebody was going to be unhappy no matter what if Joss was telling the story honestly, and at least Wash got a triumphant moment in guiding Serenity down through that maelstrom before he died in mid-sentence. And the death is only really bad from a narrative standpoint if you assume there were going to be more movies after this one, which the box office numbers made moot.

Fans of lots of canceled shows hold out hope that some other network will rescue their favorite show – or even, wonder of wonders, that there might be a movie made. “Firefly” is one of the rare shows to pull off the latter trick (“Police Squad!,” which begat “The Naked Gun,” is another, and of course there’s “Star Trek”), and the existence of “Serenity” is as much a miracle as what Mal and the Serenity crew pull off over the course of the film. These people have no business surviving what happens, let alone winning, and yet most of them do.

And even though the movie wasn’t a hit (and is likely used as a cautionary tale when movie execs consider an “Arrested Development” or “Veronica Mars” film), it exists, and it’s great. And that, as the hero of Canton once said… well I guess that’s something.

Some other thoughts:

• As written by Joss and played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Operative may be my favorite Whedon villain other than the Mayor of Sunnydale (or Angel during “Buffy” season two). No pretense, no hypocrisy, no bluster: he knows who and what he is, and when Mal eventually proves him wrong about the people he’s working for, he concedes the point and spares the crew’s lives. (And recovers in record time from a blow to the Adam’s apple and a broken back in order to reach his communicator and give the order to his men.)

• Another sign of the increased budget from TV to movie: the mule is transformed from an ATV into a hovership.

• That’s Glenn Howerton from “Always Sunny” as the man Mal kills to spare him a worse fate at the hands of the Reavers, and of course Sarah Paulson as the woman making the Miranda recording about the Pax.

• Krumholtz! I always love David Krumholtz (I even watched a half a season of “Numbers” for him despite not caring much for crime procedurals) and was pleased to see him as Mr. Universe, including his Jewish wedding ceremony to the Love-Bot. I’ve also always found the scene where the Love-Bot is cradling Mr. Universe’s corpse and relaying his dying words to be weirdly tender and moving.

• Lots of good humor in the film, unsurprisingly. I’m always partial to Mal and Jayne’s very different reactions to Kaylee’s lament about her sex life. And she and Simon ultimately get their happy ending, as do (in a less overt way) Mal and Inara.

• I’m a bit puzzled on the timeline, in that Mal says it’s only been eight months since the Tams came aboard his ship in the pilot, yet Book has clearly been at Haven for quite a while. Exactly how much time lapsed over the course of the series, and then between the series and the film?

• Lotta good Fillion in this one, particularly the one-two-three punch of Mal holding Book as he dies, Mal arguing with the Operative and then Mal ordering the crew to desecrate the ship and the bodies of their friends so they can make it through the Reaver space. Again, a lot of this show’s best moments involved Malcolm Reynolds making hard, horrible choices and imposing his will on others to make sure his orders get followed.

• And my favorite part of the scene with Mal’s post-Miranda speech isn’t the monologue itself, but Jayne’s response. For once, even Jayne Cobb realizes the selfless course of action is the only one that should be taken.

• The tiny woman who kicks ass has almost become a cliche because of Whedon’s work on “Buffy,” et al, but you watch Summer Glau move through the Reavers during the climactic fight and she carries herself in a way that really does make it seem believable. Makes me want to see a movie about a team of ballerinas who are taught kung fu and recruited to be soldiers of fortune.

• Mal’s line in the final scene about how “Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down” – that’s as much about the fans as it is about the crew, is it not?

So that’s it for me on “Firefly.” Been a fun bit of nostalgia. Hope next year’s rewind selection is half as entertaining.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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