There are some movies that you respond so well to that they get under your skin and seem almost alive to you. You remember every detail of the plot, every visual cue, every aspect of the characters, as if they were old friends. There are a select few science fiction movies that I feel this way about, and Serenity is one of them. It’s almost as if it were a late sibling of those five astounding sci-fi movies from 1997, Starship Troopers, The 5th Element, Contact, Cube and Gattaca – all of which are super-favorites of mine.
Serenity, of course, is a movie sequel to the short-lived TV show Firefly (2002-2003). Sadly, the movie was not successful enough to spawn more material in this franchise, but maybe it’s just as well. Because the movie was a conflated version of plotlines that would probably have run for years in the TV show, weighed down by a lot of soap opera nonsense. That is, after all, what usually happens. My history with the Firefly show is a somewhat bumpy one. When I first saw it, I thought it was ridiculous and terribly right-wing. It is a western/sci-fi show with the Union and the Confederates of the U.S. Civil War obviously represented by the sleek and powerful interplanetary Alliance on the one hand, and the independent colonies whose veterans call themselves the Browncoats on the other. We follow Browncoat Captain Mal Reynolds and his ragtag band of adventurers on the transport ship Serenity (Firefly class), carrying out odd transport jobs for odd people, mainly on the wrong side of the law. Captain Mal spends a lot of time brooding over how his side lost the Unification War, and we are led to believe that The Alliance is a fascist government that brainwashes all its citizens.
Once you stop to think about this, however, something gradually becomes clear: our heroes on the Serenity are actually the bad guys. They are the bitter conservatives with outdated morals who refuse to be a part of an advanced, progressive and tolerant society. The TV show doesn’t show us much of The Alliance, but I think we can assume that rather than a fascist rule, it’s actually supposed to be a Utopian civilization, rife with the power of science and technology, using it for the benefit of all. But because of its liberal morals (prostitution is an honorable profession, for instance), some of the more old-fashioned people just can’t adapt to it, and it is these unfortunate outlaws that are our main characters. It’s an ingenious way to have conflict on the fringes of a Utopian civilization where, presumably, there is rarely any. Well, all right, it is plain that there is some corruption going on somewhere in the system, but it must be exceptional, kind of like Section 31 on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (now, there’s a nerdy reference for you!).
The TV show does have bigger problems, though. The overall western style starts to strain credibility from the very beginning, when we see that a space-faring culture is actually employing old-style telegraph poles next to the floating rail roads, and every independent colony world is just like the old West, complete with horse-riding, saloons (with holographic windows), sherifs and marauding bands of bandits. It’s just not believable that interstellar colonization would happen like this (and just happen to take place on a string of worlds all having nearly identical Death Valley type landscapes). One might argue that this style needs to be maintained in order to keep up the basic symbolism of this setting, and I suppose that’s true, but it makes the show more “planetary romance” or “science fantasy” than actual science fiction. But that’s fine, too – an element of comedy never hurt a good sci-fi show.
However, I am a much bigger fan of the movie Serenity than the Firefly TV show. A main reason is that the whole western thing is massively toned down in the movie, making it better, purer science fiction (yes, I’m a purist, so, sue me). And the movie has so much going on in it that I am still feeling as if I’m watching something new and fresh every time I see the movie. The TV show left two big plotlines dangling. One was the origin of the Reavers (a completely rabid-crazy group of sadistic space marauders), and the other was the origin of crem-member River Tam’s implanted super-human abilities which are driving her borderline crazy. The movie sequel focused mainly on the first of these, but intertwined it quite carefully and intriguingly with the second one (without resolving it completely).
The movie is about a secret operative of the Alliance, known only as The Operative (played amazingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose mission is to bring River into custody, so she will not reveal some top secret information that she has gleaned from top politicians via her psychic abilities. Captain Mal musters all his resources to keep River away from this super-capable Operative. Meanwhile the crew stumbles upon the secret of the Reavers, and it’s a pretty mind-blowing one; so much so that it makes the monstrously well-trained Operative question his own loyalties.
It’s a great movie. It is full of great action and great effects and great character moments. It’s a great story; as I watched it unfold, all the questions I had were answered in the course of it. It is the best science fiction movie of its year; there certainly weren’t any other really good sci-fi movies in 2005. So all hail to Joss Whedon for providing a motion picture sequel to the Firefly TV show which exceeded the show and brought satisfying closure to the Firefly ‘verse, even if it also left us hungry for more.
My Danish DVD release is completely crammed with cool extras, incl. feature commentary, introduction by the Joss, and multiples featurettes. Just luscious.
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gine Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite and others
Runtime: 119 min.