Serenity (2005)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Logan's Run


Soylent Green


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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Forget the lack of seatbelts –
this bridge is standing room only.
This is the comeback story being told and re-told in the entertainment press right now: how Joss Whedon, creator of cult hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel made a TV show that was cancelled in just one season, and how that show became one of the first real DVD success stories generating enough buzz (and revenue) to trigger that rarest of entertainment phenomena: a second chance. With a modest-by-Hollywood-standards budget of $39 million and the encouragement of a legion of fans, Whedon set about an unenviable task: to wrap up the central plot of the show's first season while simultaneously fashioning a film that stands on its own.

On the road of life, there are drivers
and backseat shootists.
As fans of the show (called Firefly) who practically lived and died with the original rumors of its cancellation, we are the wrong men to ask about Whedon's success in the latter portion of the task. We suspect that lovers of old-fashioned adventure and well-written science fiction who somehow missed the show on its first go-round will enjoy the film's energy and wit. The picture's built-in audience will embrace it as they should, though some will be troubled by the rushed pace of what was meant to be a long-form story and the regrettable – if perhaps necessary – sacrifice of some of the show's core characters.

Serenity takes place in a future where humanity has colonized a new solar system with a half dozen or so stars and dozens of planets of moon that have been habitable for humans through terraforming. The central planets are civilized and glossy, looking like a combination of Star Trek and Blade Runner, while the outer planets are set in TV-budget-friendly back country where people are as likely to use horses as hovercraft. Our heroes reside on a ramshackle spaceship named Serenity, travelling the fringes of the system looking for work and trying to avoid the Alliance, which established its authority over all of the planets in a civil war some years earlier.

"I know – I can't decide which
one of us is prettier either."
Though nearly everyone aboard is a fugitive from the Alliance in one way or another, the most wanted members of the ship's crew are also the most helpless: Simon Tam (Sean Maher), the ship's doctor, and his befuddled sister River (Summer Glau). Simon, we learn, rescued his formerly brilliant and apparently psychic sister from a military brainwashing installation and found passage aboard Serenity, captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the heir apparent to Han Solo's title of spacefaring scoundrel. (There is never any question, however, as to whether Reynolds would shoot first.) Reynolds fought against the governing Alliance in the war, and so shelters the runaway siblings for his own reasons. When River frightens her shipmates with an inadvertent display of her military "training," Mal begins to doubt the wisdom of having her aboard.

"I'm pretty sure I saw the
Batcave back there!"
Further pressure arrives in the form of a man known as "The Operative" (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who pursues Serenity on behalf of the Alliance. It seems that during her military imprisonment, mindreader River inadvertently learned secrets that could ruin the careers of ruling members of the Alliance government. The question quickly becomes one of survival: River is incapable of evading the Alliance on her own, but she endangers her fellow crew while aboard ship.

Eventually Mal decides to pursue the few clues he has to the secret River is holding, leading Serenity into the territory of the Reavers, a strange tribe of space-going cannibals who live on the edge of known space. One of the best things about the film is that Whedon takes two of the mysteries he established in the TV series' brief run and resolves them in this one film. The treatment of the Reavers, who were never seen in person on TV, is particularly satisfying. That's not to say every lingering question from the TV series is tied up. We don't find out any more about the background of Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and the following dialogue exchange may be Whedon telling us we never will:

Mal: It's of interest to me how much you know about [the Alliance].
Book: I wasn't born a Shepherd, Mal.
Mal: You have to tell me about that some time.
Book: No I don't

She's hoping the sequels will be in 3-D.
Whedon brings the same brand of folksy charm to Serenity that he established in Firefly, eschewing princesses and Jedi knights for garage mechanics and prostitutes. Though it would have been easy to simply continue the TV adventures on a larger screen, Whedon's instincts serve him better than that. He takes advantage of the grander palette afforded to him by the movie screen, taking bigger risks and telling more elaborate stories. It's not that the characters of Firefly have changed – it's that their stories must be told in a faster, more monumental fashion. For some fans that will feel strange; there isn't the time for the lingering character moments that typified the series. To make up for that, however, there are a number of dramatic set pieces and plot developments that wouldn't have been possible on the smaller scale of television. No doubt that will be of little consolation to those who fell in love with Firefly's confident, deliberate pace and the promise of a protracted story arc – fans may shed bitter tears when they think of what Whedon could have done with the five seasons afforded to Babylon 5 – but the cast and crew of Serenity do their best to cram an epic story into the two hours allotted to them. The film is more than we dared to hope for, but at the same time not quite enough.

Review date: 10/3/2005

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