d. Joss Whedon / 2005 / USA / 119 mins
Serenity is an odd amalgamation of both failure and success. It is a creative work in its death throes but also a respite from this demise and a brief, phoenix-esque rise from flames. It’s not my intention to be overly poetic but it’s rare that a much loved series or work of fiction is offered such an opportunity to have one last chance in the spotlight and is certainly seen by its fans as being a monumental victory.
Based on Joss Whedon’s short lived television series Firefly, Serenity owes its existence to the high DVD sales of its predecessor, huge demand from a frankly rabid fan-base and Whedon’s own connections in the industry. It seems Universal was willing to stake the bet for success that Fox had folded on in 2002 when they cancelled the series in its first run. Although Fox seem to be in the habit of abandoning projects before they have the ability to gain momentum, it should be said that Firefly did do poorly despite high expectations and that its success would be found only with later DVD sales. Serenity itself would fare poorly at the box office, scuppering hopes for a continuation of the franchise. Again, it would only begin to make profit for its studio once it received a DVD release.
Serenity (named after the Firefly class ship its heroes inhabit) is best viewed as a last hurrah for its crew and as such (despite Whedon’s best efforts) would probably seem incomprehensible to those without prior knowledge of the series. Not to downplay its importance, but as an attempt to gain a new audience Serenity was a failure; although as wish fulfilment for its fans, it proved anything but.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) heads a misfit crew aboard the cargo-ship Serenity. The film follows their latest and greatest escapade as they attempt to keep bread on the table and their engine running in a universe that offers the thrills and dangers of both the old-west and the last frontier that is deep space. The spanner in the works is that the ship is home to two fugitives, siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau). Soon into the film we learn of River’s importance, that the experiments she was subjected to have rendered her not only psychic but have also led to her being privy to some of the greatest secrets the shadowy Alliance wish to hide. Reynolds’ rebellious nature and refusal to accept a totalitarian government sees him and his ensemble embroiled on a quest to not only discover the truth of their enemy, but to make sure that it is propagated for all to hear.
Serenity is without a doubt, a wonderful finale for fans of the show. It might not quite make up for the scores of series its followers were hoping for but the opportunity to see much loved characters on the big screen is one to be savoured. Whedon worked wonders with a budget a third the size of what a normal genre-picture might expect and manages to create a film that (due to its lighting and special effects) is a major step up from what was seen on a standard episode. Still, there is something slightly surreal about the whole experience; due to the need to re-establish characters for an unknown audience, the cast seem to have stepped outside their own characters somewhat, offering less of a continuation of themselves and more of a reinterpretation. Whedon’s witty dialogue still snaps and crackles in all the right places but his direction is clearly more suited to television and many of the cinematic and visual devices he employs to tell his story fail to impress.
As part of an ongoing franchise Serenity is an enjoyable experience but the simple truth of the matter is that it doesn’t hold up well enough as a film in its own right. Whedon’s need to manoeuvre pre-existing characters into their carefully decided destinies feel forced at times and more than a little arbitrary. After all, he has less than two hours to summarise a story that was intended to take dozens of episodes to tell and so characters come and go at breakneck speeds, leaving the uninitiated more than a little baffled as to the importance of events.
Anyone with an interest in the series will no doubt have already seen the film, but to avoid spoilers I’ll simply say that Whedon misses his mark when it comes to characters’ deaths and pivotal dramatic moments, unable to invest enough meaning the events deserve at the pace with which they happen. Perhaps a wiser move would have been to make this offering less finite and more of a stand alone space-opera adventure but Whedon’s decision to underline and punctuate all his loose ends so rapidly probably pays off to his fans’ best interests. There is a very odd paradox between happiness that the characters are afforded such a spectacular send off and frustration that many key issues are swept aside unceremoniously in the name of brevity.
For those who enjoy adventures of interstellar renegades, Serenity has much to offer and does so with more heart than your standard sci-fi flick. Alongside memorable moments that show off Whedon’s writing at its best (Mal shooting an unarmed enemy being a brilliant revision of Han Solo’s longed for Greedo killing shenanigans) and some impressive space acrobatics, it’s an easy sell for those with a view for light fantasy entertainment or essential viewing depending on your penchant for geek-hysteria. Serenity is an odd beast, one that pays its crew homage with a miraculous rebirth… But unfortunately, butchers much of what subtlety the series had to do so.