Adam J Purcell Ponders… Serenity
Published: 31 October 2005
Before I start I should warn you that this review of Serenity is full of spoilers! If you haven't seen the film yet do not read on. I mean it! Even if you don't normally mind being spoiled don't do it this time! Really, I'm serious. The end of the film, in particular, will be much more dramatic if you don't know what happens. Final warning...
As I write this I've been to the cinema to see Serenity four times. That should probably tell you something about how good I think this film is. I think the most I've seen a film at the cinema, prior to this, is probably three times. I'm sure this must be a record for me (and I'd like to go see it again if I can persuade anyone..!) I think it is an excellent film.
If you know the TV series it continues, Firefly, you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect. It certainly isn't exactly like the original, for one thing it is noticeably darker (both in terms of photography and general mood. It is, however, more like the original that unlike it. We've got the same great cast and they all knew their characters so well before they started making this film - they are those characters from the very first scene they appear. The fantastic Joss Whedon dialogue is very much in evidence throughout - the slightly odd, but nonetheless very engaging, speech patterns of the characters are very much retained from the series. While some of the obvious Wild West motifs of the series are somewhat downplayed (apparently not deliberately, just a function of the story and locations) the characters still look and sound as if they could be from a Western. I know that might put some people off seeing the film but it really shouldn't. It is not distracting, quite the contrary, it is immersive. This isn't the great aspect of the dialogue, however. The great part is the sense of humour throughout the film - a brilliant fusion of Whedon's lines and the actor's delivery. You can tell that the actors 'get it' and Whedon gets them - this is a script written with these actor's voices and mannerisms in Whedon's head. Here's a list of some of my favourite lines (so much better when seen performed, however):
Kaylee: "goin' on a year now I ain't had nothing twixt my nethers weren't run on batteries!"
Mal (horrified): "Oh god! I can't know that!"
Jayne: "I could stand to hear a little more..."
Mal: "Nothing to fear, Doctor."
Simon: "This isn't fear. This is anger."
Mal: "Well, with a face like yours it's hard to tell."
Simon: "I imagine if it were fear, my eyes would be wider."
Mal: "I'll look for that next time."
Mal (angry): "You want to run this ship?"
Mal (taken aback): "... Well....... you can't."
Zoe: "Those grenades?"
Jayne: "Yeah, Cap'n don't want 'em!"
Zoe: "Jayne, we're robbing the place, we're not occupying it!"
Mal: "Doctor, I've taken your sister under my protection here. If anything happens to her, anything at all, I swear to you: I will get very choked up. Honestly. There might even be tears. "
Jayne: "Eating people alive? Where's that get fun?"
Wash (amused): "Can we start with the part where Jayne gets knocked out by a 90 pound girl? Because that's *never* getting old."
The Operative: "Do you know what your sin is?"
Mal: "Oh, I'm a big fan of all seven... but right now, I'm gonna have to go with wrath."
Zoe: "How much ammo do we have?"
Jayne: "We got three full cartridges and my swingin' cod. That's all."
Zoe: "You really think any of us is gonna get through this?"
Jayne: "Well, I might?!"
Those of you who have seen the series will not be surprised to know that this film revolves around the Alliance trying to catch up with the fugitive siblings River and Simon Tam. As explained at the very beginning of the film, Doctor Simon Tam rescued his 17 year old sister from 'The Academy' - really a top secret research facility that was apparently performing nasty experiments on the smartest children in the 'Verse, most notably cutting into their brains to alter their minds. From the series it became clear that River had psychic abilities and was scarily accurate with a gun (with her eyes closed...) She was also somewhat nuts. After rescuing her, Simon and River ended up taking refuge on a small transport ship known as Serenity that tended to keep to the edge of Alliance space thanks to the captain's dislike (to put it mildly) of the Alliance.
In essence it is a chase film, with Captain Mal Reynolds and his crew trying to stay one step ahead of the Alliance's 'Operative', who has just been dispatched after them. During the chase we discover that River was being conditioned into some kind of perfect warrior (though we don't find out for sure why, there is enough info to guess) and also find out the other part of the reason she has such mental stability issues. It turns out slicing up her brain wasn't enough torture for her but she also, though (presumably) accidentally, discovers a dark Alliance secret. Little is actually discussed about the origins of her psychic ability - is it something she already had, perhaps adding to her suitability for the conditioning programme, or a byproduct of their alterations?
After having set up the back story of River and Simon we are immediately introduced to the antagonist of the piece, a character know only as 'The Operative', played brilliantly by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. It's good to see British actors making a come back as the Hollywood bad guys! The Operative is no normal 'bad guy', however. I don't think I'd really even think of him as an 'evil' person - he doesn't appear to take any particular pleasure in his work. He does it because he believes the outcome will make a better world for everyone. He trusts the leaders of the Alliance and follows their orders unquestionably - sure they have everyone's greater good in mind. That is, of course, his error. It was good to see that, by the end of the film, he realises this - no doubt going against conditioning his Alliance masters have been feeding him since childhood.
"Where are you hiding, little girl?" asks the Operative to a hologram of River and we cut to a shot swooping around the Serenity, or first sight of the ship in the film. What a sight for sore eyes, after these past couple of years wondering what on earth possessed the Fox TV channel when it axed the wonderful Firefly series without giving it a real chance. As the camera moved around the the front of the little ship we get out first glimpse inside the bridge and the unmistakable browncoat wearing silhouette of Mal steps into shot through the window and then the pilot, Wash, also comes into view as we move a little further across and in. It was at that moment I really thought 'Yes! It's back!' An absolutely wonderful shot, clearly aimed as a triumphant moment for the fans. And it really worked!
For about the next four and half minutes there is a single, unbreaking, shot as we follow Mal around Serenity, introducing both the ship and all seven of it's crew and passengers. In the series the two levels of Serenity were in actual fact side by side on the sound stage but in this new (slightly enhanced but basically identical) version of the Serenity writer and director Joss Whedon revels in showing off the fact that the entire inside of this ship is now absolutely real and complete. We walk up and down steps, visiting every major room on the ship on our little tour, with no cuts to hide the change of sets. There's no turbolifts on this ship! A lot of the film is in this ship and the detailed and wholesome nature of this set really does bring a gritty realism to it - we can wander around the ship with the characters as if we really were there.
True to the premise that Mal and his crew are like Han Solo and Chewie, before they met up with Luke and Kenobi, having to undertake petty criminal activities like smuggling and stealing from the Empire (or Alliance, in this case), we accompany the crew on a little bank heist. It is interesting to see Mal use River as a danger detector and gives some clues as to where the series might have gone toward the end of the first (full) season and beyond. Over the years I've found myself giving a great deal of thought to the potential of telepathic characters and nothing, not even B5's teeps, has come close to showing what they could or would do. Here we only get a glimpse of River's potential but it was nevertheless a welcome glimpse. The bank heist itself was full of humour and very well done - classic Firefly that was.
Before we know what was happening we are introduced to the other antagonists in this piece - the Reavers. No, not ex-super hero actors bound to wheelchairs but a rather nasty group of insane humans (well, they were once) that rape people to death, eat their flesh and sew those victims skins into their clothes. I doubt they smell too good. You don't get to see too much of them throughout the film - only glimpses really. Partly this is to keep the film rating down to PG13 in the US (they are rather grotesque looking given their joy in cutting into their own flesh) and partly because it just adds to the suspense. As in the series the Reavers were handled very well. They don't talk, instead they make inhuman screams, and we don't get presented with a 'Reaver King' (we're thinking of you, Star Trek: First Contact...) These are savages that cannot be reasoned with. After Mal and crew's narrow escape we nearly have all the pieces in place ready to start cranking the story up.
The final piece that really propels to story towards its destination is River's subliminal triggering into the deadly warrior the Alliance wanted. Joss Whedon must have some very interesting fantasies given the way he likes to turn slight and nimble girls into killing machines. At least this one doesn't ram wooden phallic objects into peoples chests! River's bar - I was going to say 'brawl' but that really isn't the right word - River's bar fight was performed excellently and almost entirely by Summer Glau (save for the flipping down the stairs, I believe). She started out as a professional dancer and it really showed. A very fluid and natural looking fight style with every movement serving a specific purpose. It's a style not too dissimilar to the Operative's, though he tended to use more hand jabbing, blocking and nerve hitting (I couldn't help but think of Xena!) Both were in stark contrast to the only other real hand to hand fighting we saw in the film - that of Mal's. Mal is a brawler, pure and simple. There's no technique beyond punching as hard as he can. It is good to see a Hollywood film where the main hero of the piece isn't a martial arts expert and is completely outclassed by his opposition.
Pilot Hoban 'Wash' Washburn is then revealed to have a rather convenient association with a chap named Mr. Universe (or, at least, he appears to be most associated with Wash). This is a strange character whose purpose is as a clear plot device to broker information. Of all the new characters in the film (and there are only a handful) his is the one that makes you think 'why wasn't he ever referred to in the series?' The obvious answer is that he simply wasn't required in the first half of season one. Nonetheless he is a very different character to those that Mal normally deals with in Firefly and some did find him a bit jarring for the 'Verse. Personally I didn't have any problem with him, though the lack of back story did make him seem to come from nowhere. Why did he have an entire planet, apparently, to himself? How did Wash know him? How was Mr. Universe able to access such sensitive information without the Alliance taking care of him? I've no doubt all these questions, and the others I haven't mentioned, have an answer in Joss' head (and perhaps even the Serenity novel, which I must get around to reading) but it would still have been good to hear something in film. Obviously that information wasn't required and it didn't make the cut (probably not even the original script). It has to be said that the final edit is very economical - every scene, almost even every sentence, had a plot purpose. It was very tightly scripted indeed. Even the disjointed babble of the disturbed River makes sense when listen back to it (even going back to her first words in the series pilot episode - "Simon... They talk to me, they want me to... to talk...") Like Babylon 5, there is much here for the observant viewer to speculate upon! It also makes the second viewing at least as good as the first, if not better!
Talking of the second viewing the most outrageous and blatant foreshadowing that I missed first time involved Wash. The fantastic and highly memorable scene on Miranda where the camera spins around River, then around Jayne and comes to a stop on the solitary looking figure of Wash as Jayne says "dead for no reason". I couldn't help but chuckle when I saw that a second time, now understanding why it was framed like that and almost kicked myself for not noticing it the first time! "There's no place I can be, since I found Serenity", says the Firefly opening credits. That's certainly true for Shepherd Book and Wash! Yes, they both die. Many fans are quite upset by that, particularly, it would seem, over Wash's death. I think that is more to do with the way he died rather than people not liking Shepherd Book. All the nine original characters are good, there isn't one that is redundant or two dimensional. That is quite incredible when you think of it, how many characters from any of the Star Trek series are truly complete and interesting characters? DS9 probably has the best ensemble of characters out of any Trek series but even they (after seven years, no less) are, in my humble opinion, less interesting and full than these characters after just 15 stories. That's what really makes it so difficult to see these characters get killed off. All would be missed. Though, it has to be said, that I personally would miss some characters a little more than others. Unfortunately Book and Wash are among those characters I will miss the most. If we'd instead lost Inara, Simon or Zoe I think I wouldn't have been quite so sad. But that was the point. Both Book and Wash are 'fan favourites', Wash for his sense of humour and humanity and Book for his mystery and many fantastic lines (that special hell!) Nine characters is a good number (especially if they aren't simple Voyager style ciphers) for a TV series but far too many for a film series. That said I don't think any of the characters where short changed at all, with the possible exception of Book but that was, I believe, mainly down to the actor Ron Glass' availability problems for filming. That many characters getting their fair due in a 2 hour film? I wouldn't have thought it possible and it is a real testament to Joss Whedon's abilities, as both the writer and director, that he has proved that myth wrong. Again harking back to Star Trek, every Trek film is basically about the 'big three' characters (either Kirk, Spock, McCoy or Picard, Riker and Data) with the other characters feeling distinctly short changed. Nonetheless, sustaining so many character over a potential 3 film series would be tricky and it makes perfect sense to thin out the crew a little. Killing Book midway through the film was perhaps, oddly, a way of putting people at their ease. We've had one major character from the series die - this is Whedon and a feature film, one of the crew has to die. We're safe now. Then at the beginning of the films climax Wash is killed in a spectacularly unexpected fashion. The audience laughs at Wash's joke, designed to release the tension built up after their chase through the orbital battle and the subsequent crash landing. On my second viewing, knowing it was coming up, I paid particular attention to the audience's reaction. They laughed at Wash's joke and before that laugh had faded it turned into a gasp as the massive harpoon slams through his chest. Absolutely fantastic playing of the audience. From that point on in the film there is a real sense that no one is safe anymore. That was the point of Wash's death. It raised the stakes (no pun intended!) and the danger level.
Mal splits with his 6 remaining crew to send the signal that will so damage the Alliance. The two soldier characters, Zoe and Jayne, plus the four civilians (the mechanic Kaylee, the refined companion Inara, the doctor Simon and his now gibbering sister River) are left to mount a last stand against countless hoards of vicious Reavers. The odds don't look good. Once the fight starts proper the grieving Zoe is the first to go down, with her back sliced wide open by a savage Reaver blade, Jayne is hit in the shoulder, Kaylee takes three poison darts to the neck. They fall back to their real last stand point - their backs against the wall. Then we have another fantastically filmed moment where Simon is shot in the chest, with wonderfully atmospheric sound as he calls River over to say his last words to his beloved sister, who this has all been for. At this stage I was really thinking we'd have a Blake's Seven style ending with everyone dying for their cause - a final end to the Firefly saga. I'd read some people's cryptic, but basically spoiler free, reviews of the film before I first saw it that asked 'how can there possibly be a sequel to this?' That's something I myself intentionally continued on our forum - the thought that this might really be it for all our favourite characters was really very powerful, especially to someone who was such a fan of the TV series. Really wonderful film making. That great despair is then transformed into such hope as River pleads to her dying brother "You take care of me, Simon. You've always taken care of me.", then she stands as the emergency lights flicker on, "My turn." It's a really triumphant moment as she runs towards the Reavers, her mind clear and purposeful - the final shedding of the fearful babbling disturbed girl we've seen so much of during the series and most of the film.
Unaware of any of this, Mal is making his way further into the complex to transmit their recently discovered knowledge that the Reavers were inadvertently created by the 'meddlesome' Alliance. The Operative, clearly guessing Mal had some 'secrets' to transmit catches up with him for a final show down. Mal's extra determination makes this fight a little less one sided, but only a little less so. Mal's clearly still outclassed and Nathan Fillion should be applauded for throwing himself around so vigorouslys, especially onto the transparent floor where we more than once get a shot from below of Mal's face slamming into the floor! Unlike the other fight I had less doubt about Mal succeeding in transmitting the vital information, even if he was killed doing so. One particularly good thing Joss does is play with the viewers expectations for the Operative's demise. The establishing shot showing the transmission terminal being in the middle of a vast chasm of almost massive fan-like blades far below. Clearly everyone is led to think the bad guy will be falling off the small platform to take his prescribed Hollywood come-uppance. Again Whedon is just playing the audience - the fact that chasm exists has no real bearing at all, it is only there to heighten tension! Another great moment in this fight, which always got a laugh from the audience, was Mal's rummaging in a tool box, pulling out a short knife and confronting the Operative with it, who instead brandished a 3 foot long sword! A very funny shot that really drives home just how much trouble Mal is in! The conclusion to the fight is similarly amusing and Mal's sparing of the Operative's life draws stark contrast to the seeming fate of his friends at the hands of the Reavers.
River's fight with the Reavers is a wonderful action piece that really draws on Joss' Buffy days but brings it up to a whole new level from anything he could reasonably do on a TV series. River, in the centre of the room, is constantly spinning and shifting, with each rotation or movement taking out another Reaver, each of her hands with one one of their fierce looking slicing weapons she has taken from them. The other 5 look on in dread as the blast doors open into the room they last saw River dive into. They expect to to rushed by Reavers - surely even River couldn't handle that many murderous madmen? We, of course, know she could. Instead they see a the strange sight of River, looking like some image of Death, with blood dripping from two massive blades in her hands - an image of Death that is actually quite the opposite for them - they have been saved. Wounded they look on in awe and relief when suddenly the situation turns yet again. The wall behind River explodes out and dozens of heavily armed Alliance special forces pour in behind River. We know even she couldn't handle that kind of threat. Helplessly our friends look on as the soldiers prepare to pull their triggers on them. We see River turn her head to assess her best strategy - surely she can't have a hope against these odds? The soldiers try to contact the Operative for orders but none are forthcoming as Mal has punched him in the throat, so he can't speak. In any event would he order them to fire, to rescue him? But now the Operative has seen the truth Mal has just broadcast for half the 'Verse to see. Hoarse and coughing the Operative, at the last moment, orders the troops to stand down. His faith in the Alliance destroyed.
Finally, we are shown the funerals of Mr. Universe, Book and Wash. Yes, they really are dead. Then we are shown the resurrection of Serenity as a montage of the crew hard at work repairing the damaged ship - their damaged home. And Serenity takes to the air again, fulfilling Mal's basic need: to keep flying.
What an incredible film! Since starting to write this piece and now finishing it I have seen it an additional two times, taking my total viewing count up to six. You'd think I might get bored of it. After seeing it the fourth time I was beginning to wonder if I'd manage to sit through it again so soon but the fifth time was just as good as ever, as was the sixth (and almost certainly final - I caught the final ever showing in the local area). It really barrels along, it really is tight and focused - relentless but not in an overbearing way. The fantastic Firefly series finally has the fantastic film that it deserves.
There are a few unanswered questions. The two that most immediately come to mind are: what was the injection the doctor was giving Mal at the beginning of the film and who really is, or was, Shepherd Book? I think all the clues are pointing toward Book being an ex-Operative but what is that backstory? Will we ever now find out? So much of the speculation around the Firefly series centres on Book's origins that his death appears suggest we will never get an answer. I'm sure we will get one, one way or another. Even if it comes in an interview with Joss in 20 years time! As for Mal's injection, I think that is new. I don't remember there being any mysterious medical questions around Mal in the series. Perhaps this is merely a red herring or, perhaps, it is setting up something for a sequel.
Talking of sequels, I'm not at all convinced we'll get one. This film is a complete triumph in all but one area - box office sales. Why has it performed so badly? I really don't know, it is certainly looking shaky financially - the studio may very lose money on it. They shouldn't lose too much after DVD sales but at very best it will be a very slim profit and I suspect it will actually be a slim loss. Either way we'll be very lucky, I think, to get another Firefly film. That's a real shame. Reviews have been very positive and I think audience appreciation figures in general will be well above the average Hollywood blockbuster but people just haven't turned out to see it - not the normal viewing public anyway. It's such a shame so many more people turned out to see the far inferior Stars Wars prequels but not this. There is no justice! Some Firefly fans are blaming the marketing of the film - all I can say is they may very well think that but I couldn't possibly comment!
In short - see this film. You won't be disappointed. See it a second time and you'll like it just as much but for slightly different reasons. If only they made more films like this...
Keep on flying.