REVIEW: Serenity [2005]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 119 minutes | Release Date: September 30th, 2005 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Joss Whedon
Writer(s): Joss Whedon

“Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down”

Seven years after hitting the theatre cold to watch what appeared to be a unique sci-fi space western, Joss Whedon‘s Serenity proves much more powerful and lush with a couple “Firefly” viewings under my belt. The film that should not have been—Fox unceremoniously canceled the television series despite fan protest post-Season One—stands on its own as a mere shadow of its potential without the contextual details of the titular spaceship and crew living inside so I implore you to watch the contemporary classic first. A thematic cousin in concept to Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Malcom Reynolds’ (Nathan Fillion) bird is perfect for legal transport and illegal smuggling, a beacon for surprisingly compassionate protection, and a worthy vessel to house an intelligent mythology worthy of the fervent following at its back.

Beginning in prologue, the film’s stage is set by showing Simon Tam (Sean Maher) breaking his sister River (Summer Glau) out of the Alliance facility holding her for psychic experimentation. We see the bureaucratic and hubristic nature of this newly Terra-formed planetary system and understand right away that the government is this tale’s antagonist. Not a Star Trek/Star Wars type environment of space traveling alien encounters, everyone populating these frames is human of some form or another. Earth simply became too crowded, necessitating expansion to keep our increasing numbers comfortable and our power-hungry nature in reach of uncharted land to rule. A war fought between the Alliance and its rebel Browncoat counterparts was for freedom from tyranny and sadly justice lost. The species-wide civil war left a Fascist regime in power and the tenacious few left from the losing side were made to fend for themselves outside the law.

Where “Firefly” was handcuffed into leaving a litany of unanswered questions, Serenity opens the throttle and dives right into its biggest mystery—why does seventeen-year old River have a bounty on her head? Like an extended episode, the Tams escape and our subsequent introduction to the villainous Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hunting them fast-forwards months later to where the show left off after its stirring finale “Objects in Space”. We return to Reynolds’ ship through an intricately orchestrated long take traveling from cockpit to back hatch and every room in between. We’re at once thrust back into this world to Wash’s (Alan Tudyk) pilot’s sarcasm, Zoë’s (Gina Torres) second in charge militant demeanor, Jayne’s (Adam Baldwin) simpleminded thuggery, and Kaylee’s (Jewel Staite) mechanic’s ever-blissful optimism.

The difference this time around is Mal wanting to take River on his latest heist rather than pray she doesn’t destroy the boat while gone. Simon is understandably reluctant and Mal’s trademarked irascibility comes through as his respect for rank and order always supercedes any false desire to be kind. Serenity is his ship and his word is gospel. Whether this bright surgeon has held his end of their tenuous bargain to patch up the crew’s gunshots and stab wounds in return for harboring them despite their fugitive status or not, River has yet to be anything but trouble. A quirky, crazed young girl who’s brilliant mind has been ravaged by the Alliance and broken into shards of incoherence and latent violent outbursts, the discovery of her psychic abilities finally means she may be of use after all.

And from this point on the film steps away from its small screen counterpart to exist on its own as an action-packed adventure putting an end to the chase. River’s insane martial arts abilities are revealed in a few exciting, high-octane fight sequences; the elusive Reavers—self-mutilated humans lost to the darkness and turned cannibal—only touched upon previously are brought to the forefront in grotesque horror; Ejiofor’s psychopathic Operative waxes philosophically like show favorite Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) but with devastatingly brutal effect; and our ragtag bunch of misfits sees cataclysmic loss as characters we’ve loved since 2002 tragically meet their maker. This is the send-off droves of forgotten serials cancelled before their prime wish they could have had.

Not everyone is given much to do—Morena Baccarin‘s Inara and Ron Glass‘ Shepherd Book simply take up space—but it’s not a tragedy since neither would really have been involved in the type of large-scale war Mal enlists the rest into fighting anyway. Since there really isn’t time to dwell on the quieter sides of their lives with death waiting at the end of the Operative’s sword, the story is much better served by jumping from battle to battle as Serenity gives the Alliance the slip time and time again. But while the ship proves elusive, the collateral damage of this war of attrition rises high with its blood staining Mal’s hands. He was made to surrender the last time he fought against oppression, but this time there will be no quit. The future of the universe rests in his hands and River’s head, the fight not just for their survival but of mankind’s too.

It’s Fillion’s show as the role he crafted in front of Whedon’s words comes full circle and becomes the man only alluded to in flashback and anecdotes before. The harsh warrior we wondered about hiding beneath an omnipresent smirk and acerbic wit is coaxed out for all to see. The old adage “Leave no man behind” holds deep meaning in his code of conduct despite being a mercenary for hire, but anyone who watched the show knows the nuances supporting his complicated persona. And while we see this leader rise above his deceiving air of indifference alongside tidily closed subplots like the ‘will they or won’t they’ saga between Simon and Kaylee, there are always more loose ends left to speculation and subsequent graphic novels. But with plenty of details infused—see Jayne’s knit cap and Blue Sun beverage—and a consistent hand breathing life into these characters one last time, fans couldn’t have asked for a more ‘shiny’ miracle to properly say farewell.

[1] Nathan Fillion in Joss Whedon’s Serenity, also starring Gina Torres and Morena Baccarin – 2005
[2] Summer Glau on the set of Universal’ action, Serenity – 2005
[3] Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) and Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion).

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