May 23 2011 5:47pm

Still Shiny: An Appreciation of Serenity

In a better world, Firefly, Joss Whedon’s best television show, would have continued past the first season. Hell, it would have at least had a full first season. But in the world we were given, it was canceled before it really had a chance to begin. We got (eventually) 14 episodes, and fans of the show were left helplessly longing for more.

So when Serenity was released in 2005, almost three years after the show finished airing, it was both the fulfillment of that longing and the vessel of hope that we would be given more of the story.

Full disclosure, I am a proud Browncoat and rate Firefly as one of my favorite television series of all time, despite its limited run. So I went into Serenity already fully in love with the world, the concept, and the characters. However, what Joss Whedon managed to do with Serenity is reintroduce the characters to (what should have been a much) wider audience and give those of us already fans some resolution on plot threads introduced in the series.

I’m not going to review the plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it—rectify that. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s on Netflix streaming. It’s on DVD. It’s on Blu-Ray, it’s on the web. Go now, watch, for here there be spoilers.

Rewatching the movie recently, I was impressed at how Whedon handles the opening of the movie. Within the first five minutes he manages to recap River and Simon’s important backstory and sets up the villain and the main plot for the film.

Then we’re onto an opening tracking shot on the Serenity, following Captain Malcolm Reynolds, and establishing everything we need to know about the crew—what their basic personalities are, how they relate to one another, which are the main conflicts. Plus it acquaints us with the ship and the close quarters in which the crew lives.

It’s a delicate balance that Whedon strikes, trying to catch new audience members up to speed while giving us seasoned Browncoats the characters that we want to see. And it never feels belabored. Whedon eases (or re-eases) us into the world of Firefly while also moving the plot forward.

Whedon is great at villains, of course, and Serenity has a few. In addition to the Reavers, who are more of a brutal, violent force, we’re given the Operative, played brilliantly by Chewitel Ejiofor. A man dedicated to service who follows orders without question. A man who wants to change the world for the better so much that he’s willing to compromise those ideals to get there. The Operative is the kind of villain I wish we saw more in movies—intelligent, capable, and perhaps most importantly, relatable. His ultimate goal is order; it just comes at the expense of choice. Contrasting him with Mal, the champion of personal freedom, I think is one of the strengths of the film.

The Operative’s arc is also compelling. Rather than the expected finish at the end—his death at Mal’s hands—he instead faces the death of his beliefs. The opening of his eyes to the hypocrisy of what he serves. In the end, Mal and the Operative part as fellow soldiers, not bitter enemies. And they’ve both grown from the experience. Though Mal still does promise to kill the Operative should they ever meet again.

Then, of course, there’s the death in the film, another thing that Whedon is good for. Serenity gives us two notable deaths, the first being Shepherd Book who gets far too little screen time in the movie. Book was always the spiritual heart of the Serenity crew so his death, while Mal and company are already being pursued, raises the stakes considerably.

The other death is Wash. Poor, wonderful Wash, who successfully pilots Serenity down through a chaotic clash between Alliance and Reaver forces and, in his moment of triumph, is killed by a Reaver harpoon. It’s classic Whedon, the unexpected death that happens for no significant reason. And he picks perhaps the one member of the crew who deserves it least, the one who isn’t a soldier, the one who provides the humor and lightheartedness, and, so very often, common sense. It is a horribly cruel moment, and yet it makes sense. For all of this, there is a cost. And it gives the message that no one is safe.

That message came across so well that when I was in the theater, when the Reavers attack the crew, I expected half or more of them to die. If Wash could die, then any of them could. I wondered if Whedon was trimming down the cast to help increase the chance of future movies. Uncertainty in movies, especially when it comes to survival, is another thing all too infrequent these days.

And I didn’t even mention all the great character moments in the film. For example, when the Operative faces Mal at Inara’s place and admits to being unarmed, without a moment’s hesitation Mal draws his gun and fires (unfortunately, the Operative is wearing armor). It’s a great moment and illustrates his character so well. There’s River upset, after surviving the Reaver attack, that she swallowed a bug. There’s Mal and Inara, Jayne being Jayne, Simon and Kaylee finally getting together, River going all Slayer on the Reavers, the Serenity dragging the Reaver fleet behind them, and so many more.

In a better world, audiences would have flocked to see Serenity giving it a much larger box office and leading to a series of movies. Alas, we only got one film. But what a hell of a film. We got more of the characters that we loved and some resolution to plot threads and loose ends from Firefly. While it may have failed at being the first of an ongoing series of movies, Serenity succeeds at being a great movie, and that is, certainly, nothing to be ashamed of.

Rajan Khanna is, in addition to being a loyal Browncoat, a writer and narrator and a lover of westerns of all persuasions. And while the cynic in him says that we’ve seen the last of the Firefly universe, at least in film and TV, part of him will always hold out hope.

This article is part of Decade's Best SFF Movies Viewer's Poll: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. trench
I agree completely

once your in Serenity you never Leave.
Sean McGuire
2. Exorian
Serenity was actually my introduction to the world of Firefly, so it's always rather close to my heart, and I do appreciate this article. I remember picking up the dvd for $2 at a movie rental store that was going out of business. I had never seen anything Whedon before, but I had heard good things about Firefly/Serenity. My first time watching this movie was unforgettable; it was, without a doubt, one of the best movies I have ever seen; the pacing, the characterization (I felt like I knew all the main characters within the first few minutes), and the humor. I do especially love the humor. Since then, I've pretty much been a "Firefly Evangelist", showing this movie and lending my copy of the show to pretty much all of my friends; I even got my grandmother (who was an old-school Trekkie) obsessed with Firefly as well.
3. An Owomoyela
I actually considered the opening sequence to be one of the worst parts of the movie, not for its execution but for its characterization. In the series, I believe Simon paid someone to smuggle River out, though I might be misremembering – which is a perfect, in-character way for Simon, who's been living a coddled Core World life and is almost completely naive to Life Out There – to have handled things. In the movie opener, he becomes some sort of action hero, which makes no sense for him as a character at that point in his story.

Aside from that, though, a resounding +1 to your other points. And there are far, far too few works in just about any medium which can make me feel like characters might actually die. Every time I find one, it claims a special place in my heart.
Daniel Goss
4. Beren
I'm sorry, but thinking about this movie now just makes me sad. I loved Firefly when it was on, and Serenity was everything Firefly could have been with a big budget.


The fanbase for this series has gotten insane to the point that I can't keep up anymore. There was actually a short-lived effort to get Nathan Filion the rights to the show and make more of them? WTH? Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of the show and movies, but they're over. We need to start appreciating what we have (like this excellent article) instead of bemoaning what could have been or trying to find some way to bring it back.

Which is why watching the movie makes me sad, now. The movie has now become inextricably linked in my mind to the rabid fanbase that couldn't just like a show for the time they had it and enjoy a movie for what it was. Yes, it was cut short before its time. Yes, it could have been much more. Yes, it is time to move our mourning for this series past the anger, denial and bargaining phases into acceptance.

5. Taylor_S
This was a great read today. Being a huge Browncoat myself, this was a shiny find in my RSS list. I agree entirely with all that was said here.

There's another point I found very powerful in the movie: the pacing. There's never a dull moment, the story is always progressing (even if it seems like an interlude). I find myself on the edge of my seat every time I watch it, entirely drawn into the story as Whedon takes us to the left and to the right, cruising through this excellent tale.

I'm pleased you went into such detail about the Operative. He was one of my favorite aspects of the movie, serving as a superb foil, particularly that ending where he and Mal share a mutual respect and understanding. It's powerful, and starts a conclusion with a wonderful depth of character.
6. K_Mike
My only complaint about the film is we didn't get as much of the moments and interactions things that flesh out the characters as much as we get in the series, and so little Inara (although I do disagree with the commenter above re: Simon in the film - I thought him taking a central, and notably non-lethal - role in getting river out made more sense for his character, that we see as early as in the pilot is not afraid to take great risks for River's sake, and seems to have a flair for getting into places - e.g., Ariel).

The cinematography and lighting was gorgeous in the film as well - colder than in the series, but it added to the tension.
7. Marian
It took me such a long time to get to this film. It came out around the same time as Katrina and I was too preoccuppied. Loved it when I saw it and watch it almost every time it shows up on the schedule. It has been strange watching the reruns on the Science channel and knowing where the characters end up.
nat ward
8. smonkey
Ahh...firefly.....a friend recently posted on a list if someone could give her the rest of the first season as she apparently was missing a disc. Sadly, nobody had told her it was only 14 episodes. I thought she was going to cry.

oh, and as an aside, if you like cowboy stuff gone strange,
see "The Good, The Bad, and the Weird", its a korean western
set in China in the 1930s. It is, to say the least, awesome.
9. Hatgirl
I do love this film, but I always felt there was something... off... about it. I only figured out what it was a few months ago. It's a victim of cinema's obsession with teal and orange *shudder*

Apart from that, it is a great film. Would have preferd a Season 2, though *sigh*
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
I really enjoyed this movie...and have finally been able to watch the original episodes as they are being re-broadcast on the Science channel over the past few months. Almost done with the season - just saw Heart of Gold on Sunday night. Really good stuff.

Mike Dominic
11. MDominic
I just watched Serenity again this weekend; great stuff.None of Whedon's
other work has gripped me like Firefly did. It really was one of the
finest TV shows I've ever seen. Although Serenity left as much
unanswered as it resolved, it was still a nice capstone to the whole
story. While it's unfortunate that we likely won't get any more
Firefly, I am glad that we got such a well-made finish to the series.
Rajan Khanna
12. rajanyk
@Exorian - I'm glad to hear that. I obviously went into Serenity after already watching Firefly so I already had a relationship with the characters. But it's nice to know that it does, indeed, work in reverse.

@An - I can see what you mean about the River/Simon scene. I guess, knowing something of the backstory, I didn't think about it too much. And it wasn't like Simon was all ninja'd out. But I do like seeing him show some steel, especially when it comes to River.
13. Jobi-Wan
Browncoat for life here, good appreciation of the series/movie Rajan!
14. iansagefire
I remember watching a few episodes of Firefly when it was on TV, but didn't become a true fan until they were out on DVD. I enjoyed Serenity, and was glad of a little closure; but, it alway seemed a little convinient for me. I think the overall arc of Firefly was moving toward a different conclusion, but Wheldon needed to change and compress it to make a movie. It felt a little too convienient, and not in line with the main Firefly story. Overall though, I think he did a great job with what he was given. Definitely a great movie, one I'll watch for years to come.

P.S. Thank you firefly for making Summer Glau famous.
15. James Owens
I still have hopes that the short legs that sprouted after the movie's run will grow to run circles around lesser franchises of scope and quality. The bottom line would have to be a labor of love and a risk of return by investor whose idea of risk goes as far as trotting out Johnny Depp or Angalina Jolie for "Pirates XII" or "Salt VII." Both Serenity and Firefly shared great writing, direction, world crafting, and were at the best of what the media could be/do at the time. Yes, I hope to see more, but, not at the expense of it becomming less!
Fake Name
16. ThePendragon
I loved the movie. I was pissed off and saddened by Wash's death. By Book's too, but more because I felt we'd never get his backstory. Not to say I didn't like the character, but his mysterious backstory was what was truly intriguing about him. Wash's death on the other hand had me livid. I loved the movie overall but felt like that was a nail in the coffin for the future series. All the movies that follow would be that much less awesome without Wash, how could they do that? Of course, no other movies were to ever come. So looking back now, his death doesn't bother me as much. I am still saddened by it, but since there will be no more Firefly, then I can be a little more accepting, since either way, I would never see him again. :(
17. Burns Flipper
Great read. For me the very best moment of the film was the final speech of Mal, about love, and how it mantains the ship in the air, and makes it a home. It had so much sense with everything that Joss went to bring these fantastic characters to us. And by the time we get that amazing swan dive of the Serenity among the clouds, with that gorgeous music, I was in tears ;_;
18. colldev00
@ThePendragon et al - for Shepherd Book's backstory you might want to try "SERENITY: THE SHEPHERD'S TALE." Not a film or TV show unfortunately, but a graphic novel by Joss Whedon telling of Book's life before he met Mal and the crew of Serenity.

It was published by Dark Horse back in November 2010. The title is not everyone's cup of tea (read the customer reviews on Amazon) but interesting to see where Book came from (according to Whedon) ...
19. SherryMarie
I remember having an AHA moment during the final credits of this film. They listed the actors, then the stuntmen and the next credit was for Visual Effects. I said "What visual effects?" then froze when I realized what I said. I was so into the movie and it was so believably realistic that there couldn't possibly have been any special effects. Now that's a great movie.
Ian Johnson
20. IanPJohnson
@19: …now you have made me sad. Not because you were so engrossed in the movie that you forgot it wasn't real– I applaud you for that. No, I am ensaddened because I never had the experience of forgetting that Firefly wasn't real, and now I'm pondering a world where Joss Whedon and Universal Studios got ahold of an actual Firefly and flew around the 'Verse. And it just reminds me of how much I want to have a spaceship…


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