As I have mentioned before, I always have my finger on the pulse of modern culture. Because of this I recently watched an obscure TV show none of you have ever heard of called Firefly. Yep, it’s a show none of you know about and because of that you’d be totally unaware of the equally obscure film made a couple of years after the shows demise. You don’t know about this stuff because you’re, like, nowhere near as cool and in tune with the fringes of pop culture as I am. So shut up and let me tell you why Serenity is a great film. Also, you should watch Firefly too. Cos if you’re the sort of person who’s waited nearly 12 years to finally watch the show you’re probably an idiot or something. I mean, I would have watched it sooner but I’m so “cool” and “with it” that I just had way too much other stuff to watch. What’s your excuse. Click the link for my words about this film called Serenity.
Right, I’m done being a stuck up, know-it-all turd now. But I’m afraid, for those that genuinely haven’t watched Firefly, I must get you all up to speed. The TV series Firefly was written and produced by Joss Whedon in 2002. It was show set on the frontier of space 500 years in the future and followed the crew of a Firefly class spaceship named Serenity captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). The show fused wild west adventure with a science fiction setting and had a strong focus on character interplay and subversion of expectations. Because of it’s sheer quality, of which there was an over abundance, it managed to gain itself a very strong cult following. Unfortunately that following wasn’t big enough for the executives at FOX, who had been against the direction of the show from the start, and after 11 episodes Firefly was cancelled with 3 episodes left, at the time, unaired. Joss Whedon wasn’t happy with this at all. He managed to meet a Universal Studios executive called Mary Parent and, after showing her the series, she signed Whedon up to produce a film, giving him the chance to tie up loose ends and provide some semblance of closure for the fans. Serenity is that film and, man, it pays off.
I was exceptionally late to the Firefly party. When it was on in the UK it was shoved away at stupid’o’clock at night and I just ended up missing it. Last week I decided I’d finally get around to watching the show having only ever seen a few minutes of one episode, which turned out to be the pilot episode funnily enough. Firefly had me hooked from the start. It’s mixture of science fiction and Western clicked with me right away. Mixing old an new styles is hardly a new thing, people love that steampunk stuff for example, but Firefly was wholly committed to its Wild West tone and had the writing to help it get past what could have been a simple gimmick. Over the course of the 14 episodes you got to know the crew very well and by the end they were more fully developed than most shows manage over the course of multiple series. By its end you could see the threads of where the over-aching story involving the crew was headed so when it suddenly ended with no climatic finale you were left with a sense of actual lose. This leaves Serenity in a very difficult position.
Taking a show that hadn’t managed to pull in the ratings required of it’s scope and attempting to make a feature film that would, hopefully, be seen by a much wider audience brings with it a very serious challenge. How do you take all the plot points and character backgrounds established over 14 episodes of a show and condense them into a film in a manner that anyone can just jump right into. There really is only one way. The dreaded exposition dump. Whedon isn’t an idiot though. He’s a master at efficient storytelling and as such he manages to get everything you’re required to know out of the way in a total of 5 scenes whilst creating intrigue for new viewers and informing you of the all the principle character roles.
These 5 scenes are almost entirely exposition but they’re crafted in way that doesn’t reek too strongly of spoon feeding the audience its diet of information. We get a short opening dialogue for the back-story of the Alliance, a conglomerate of nations out to control all of human populated space. We see a dream of a young River Tam (Summer Glau) who then wakes in a lab being experimented on. Her brother Simon (Sean Maher – recently seen in Eastenders!) is posing as an Alliance official and he quickly breaks River from her captors. We then see that this escape is a holographic recording (introducing you to Whedon’s trademark subversions of expectations). A man known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) explains how dangerous River is, to the Alliance at least. Her head is full of secrets you see. Also she’s psychic and may also have been turned into a super assassin. We then transition to the Serenity where, in one extended scene, we are given a tour of the ship as captain Mal interacts with each character. This scene is probably the most important as far as getting the film to click with new viewers. Without it you wouldn’t have any idea of the roles of the crew members, their personalities or what kind of life they lead until later in the film. This one scene is incredibly efficient storytelling and a strong sign of just how good the film is likely to be.
Once this exposition dump is completed the film rockets along with a pace that’s decidedly faster than the Firefly series. This suits the scope of the film well as Serenity is focused on dealing with the two biggest threads the series left incomplete. What happened to River when she was being experimented on by the Alliance and who are the Reavers. In the series the Reavers are often mentioned but very rarely seen. They’re described as men who looked into the blackness of the edge of space and came back damaged. They’re basically the Firefly universes equivalent of irrationally insane and violent bandits of the wild west. Considering the show would usually drip feed you revelations as it progressed the speed and clarity at which those elements are presented here is quite startling, but very necessary. Without any idea if the film would be successful enough to get a sequel Whedon really had to ensure that Serenity delivered on some of the closure lost by the show’s cancellation.
Production wise a number of the computer generated effects do stick out as being a little second rate. Considering this epic space western was done for a budget smaller than most big name actor’s pay cheques I’d say they did quite a good job. The Serenity set, rebuilt entirely for the film, is highlight. The entire ship was built as one self contained set and that previously mentioned single shot scene goes some way to showing off just how greatly designed it is. Early in the film there is a high speed chase between Mal and his crews floating transport and a Reaver shuttle. The whole sequence is frantic, well cut together and mirrors the sort of stagecoach chases of a Western adventure film. In the series shots in space were always depicted with no sound effects at all. This is maintained here in all but one scene. That scene is a huge space battle set piece between an Alliance fleet and a large number of Reaver ships that were chasing Serenity. It’s a little disappointing that they opted to include bombastic sound effects in this scene, which would have been very unique if presented entirely in silence, but it’s likely a choice based on casual audience expectations. It feels like a compromise but not one too damaging to the film itself.
Serenity is a very efficiently written film that, with the exception of the required opening exposition dump, at no point treats the audience as idiots. Nothing is explained multiple times over. Dialogue is written to be concise and, once in full swing, takes the time to ensure that every character is given their moments to progress and enrich their arcs and personalities. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operative is an interesting take on the calm, ruthless assassin character, under no illusions that he is anything other than evil. Despite his honesty regarding his moral standing he isn’t presented as a scenery chewing spotlight hog. He’s a quiet, understated, villain that almost comes across as charming by the end. Hell, he’d probably be an interesting addition to the Firefly crew if he wasn’t so gorram evil.
Overall Serenity is a fine film that has only a few minor issues. Those issues would likely be compounded if you haven’t seen the series though. Despite its best efforts there’s a fair amount of background that would help enhance your enjoyment of the film if you had seen the series first that would be lacking for anyone joining here. Firefly was a show that often relied on you genuinely caring about the lives of the crew and Serenity isn’t much different. A great job is done conveying each character’s standing a role but some of the films more emotional moments would be lacking if you haven’t already experienced why the characters are the way they are. For fans of Firefly though, Serenity is a great send off and an excellent piece of sci-fi far more deserving of being viewed than a large amount of similar films in recent years.