“Serenity” Rewards Faithful Fans, Thrills a New Audience
Han Solo? Your ship has flown. Indiana Jones? Move over.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds is the big screen’s most engaging and heroic rogue in decades, and Nathan Fillion, the actor who plays him, is the most qualified candidate to fill Harrison Ford’s big shoes for a new generation of adventure fans.
Fans of slapdash, smart-talking, thrill-a-minute, serial-adventure films — the kind that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revived in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — have been hard-pressed to find satisfaction in recent years. There have been glimmers of it in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “X-Men,” and “Spider-man.” But you can bet they’ll be rooting for “Serenity” to become the next blockbuster sci-fi franchise after they catch “Firefly fever.” Writer/director Joss Whedon, the man responsible for the clever dialogue of “Toy Story,” “Speed,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has made matinee-going fun again.
And he did it his way: by defying the television network that canceled his fantastic, innovative adventure series “Firefly” just as it was getting started.
The Fox network blew "Firefly” out of the sky in December 2002, when only 11 of the 13 episodes had played. But the show’s flop wasn’t Whedon’s fault. Fox scheduled “Firefly” in an impossible slot, promoted it poorly, played the episodes out of order, and bumped some for World Series games. The few who caught the show caused a ruckus when it was cut, and the series became a cult sensation. When the DVDs became available, sales went through the roof.
Meanwhile, Joss Whedon tirelessly hunted for a way to bring the show back, and Universal Studios saw the potential. They gave him more money than he’d ever expected to make “Serenity,” a two-hour big-screen series finale, resolving many unfinished plot threads.
The best possible outcome, which looks likely, is that this “finale” will succeed and earn itself some sequels, fulfilling the dreams of its fans.
Not Just for “Firefly” Fans
Newcomers to this story will also be swept up into the action by the myriad of distinct, delightful personalities, the barbed and relentless humor, and by the surprisingly thoughtful — and, dare I say, relevant — storytelling. (There are more laughs in “Serenity” than in the year’s funniest comedy.)
But if you want to get all of the jokes, understand the characters better and know their histories, and feel the full impact of some of the storyline’s twists and turns, hurry to your local video store to rent or purchase the box of 13 “Firefly” episodes. Consider them first-rate mini-prequels.
“Serenity” is clearly the work of an imagination weaned on the Skywalker stories, the journeys of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, and old Westerns such as “Stagecoach.” It picks up right where George Lucas’s original space trilogy left off, with heroes who have no business being at the center of an epic. It also thrives on the sarcastic banter that was curiously absent from Lucas’ “prequels.”
“Serenity”’s distinct aesthetic difference comes from its Old West accoutrements. Instead of John Williams’ bombastic fanfares, there’s a trace of twangy guitar in the soundtrack. The heroes look like cowboys, right down to the leather holsters. For Whedon’s motley crew, space is truly the final “frontier,” an expanse bustling with bank robbers and cattle rustlers who work below the radar of an oppressive empire. (To confuse “Star Wars” fans even further, this empire doesn’t fight the Alliance. It is the Alliance.)
While the cast participated in several differing projects during the two-year interim, here it’s as if the cast never stepped out of character or costume. The strengths of the television show have been transferred to the big screen seamlessly.
The Plot — A Quest to Uncover the Truth
The film begins with a quick recap of the basics: 500 years from now, in a solar system where humanity took refuge after Earth became too crowded, the Alliance has won a war for supremacy and is chasing down rebellious “Independents” while it prepares planets for human residence — a process called “terra-forming.”
Two survivors from the losing side of the war, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres), tend to the bruises of their wartime experience while they engage in a life of crime, smuggling illegal cargo on their rickety Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. Mal, a kindred spirit to Star Wars’ Han Solo, is a brusque, tactless, but deeply principled gunslinger. He knows when to negotiate and when to come out shooting. But he’s lost his faith in any God, and lives to make a fair and honest dollar while dodging any questions about a higher calling. Zoe, his muscular, exotically beautiful partner-in-crime, is the one who can stop him before his impulses throw them into too much trouble.
But they’re not a “couple.” Zoe’s married to the ship’s pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk), who seems to steer Serenity as much with his wit as with his wisdom. A gutsy tomboy mechanic named Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps the engines oiled and fueled. Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the wisecracking human equivalent of a pit bill, keeps the weapons loaded for confrontations, deals gone bad, and quick escapes from the space-cannibals called Reavers. Filling the role of another archetype, the dazzling Inara (Morena Baccarin) is the virtuous prostitute who often takes refuge on the ship. She clearly loves the good captain, but her vocation is the controversial obstacle that keeps them apart. (If you remember TV’s “Moonlighting,” you can imagine the chemistry between these two.)
Another crew member from the series, a Christian preacher named Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), is planet-bound during the film, “shepherding” a community; but of course, the crew pays him a visit. As always, his words prod at the other characters’ consciences.
Keeping a low profile on this elusive spaceship, two mysterious fugitives bait the Alliance into hot pursuit. Simon (Sean Maher) is a young doctor who watches over his sister, River (Summer Glau), a psychological wreck he rescued from an Alliance lab. River may be missing a few marbles, but she’s developed some remarkable psychic abilities, and she’s about to stun everyone with battle skills that would make Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess stand back in awe.
That’s a lot of characters for newcomers to meet, but Whedon’s triumph is his efficiency in introducing and establishing each one. And the cast are to be applauded for such feisty, enthusiastic turns. Fillion deserves to be a big screen star from here on out, and any number of his co-stars could enjoy rapidly expanding careers the way members of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien “fellowship” have done. All of them score memorable points over the course of the film, although fans are sure to argue with some of Whedon’s choices regarding character development.
In this episode, the spotlight falls primarily on Mal, as he wrestles with whether to mount a resistance based on conscience or else run for the hills, and River, as she slowly remembers why it is that the Alliance wants her dead. The evil empire has sent a dangerous killer called “the Operative” after River, to eliminate her quietly before she remembers why they scrambled her brain. The Operative (played with soul and menace by “Amistad’s” Chiwetel Eijofor) is special because he silences his mind and conscience in order to carry out the Alliance’s dirty work. It’s just a job, and his dispassionate demeanor makes him a unique and interesting villain — the anti-Darth Vader.
Political? Personal? Profound?
This story echoes a familiar theme, the same one that fueled Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Fernando Mereilles’ “The Constant Gardener, or even Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Its heroes strive to document and publish information that exposes a government’s scandalous activities for the whole solar system to see.
Is “Serenity” a political commentary, then? Yes, on some level.
But it’s more likely that the plot reflects Joss Whedon’s passion to save a brilliant piece of pop-culture mythmaking from extinction. Consider the Alliance as the studio that looked only at the numbers and sentenced a good crew to elimination. Consider the heroes to be Joss and company, tirelessly searching for a way to let the people know about the show, so that viewers could make up their own mind about its fate.
Beyond that, it’s remarkable how Whedon, who denies any personal religion, takes on questions about character and spirituality head-on, and many of his stories conclude with lessons learned that will resonate with Christian viewers. Despite the fact that they’re running from the law, the crew of the starship “Serenity” are loyal, driven by conscience, and growing and changing in their moral convictions. They’re learning that while the safest path is sometimes the selfish one, the best path is to put one’s life on the line for a larger cause.
The fans may or may not realize how much the show’s lasting power stems from its spiritual inquisitiveness. They’re just glad to have a new batch of scrappy, smart-aleck heroes that consistently surprise, challenge, and inspire them. But “Serenity” proves that you don’t need to saturate your science fiction with computer-generated creatures and hyperviolence to hold an audience’s attention. All you need is a good story, engaging characters, and the kind of dialogue that people will quote to each other fondly for years to come.
If “Serenity” has a weakness, the “look” of the film betrays that it had a much smaller budget than, say, George Lucas’s bazillion-dollar productions. And near the end, many major developments alter the chemistry of the team permanently; it all happens so quickly that it feels like an “extended edition” might be in order so that these events have more opportunity to resonate.
But in the realm of action-adventure films, for humor, intelligence, and characters you care about, “Serenity’s” got “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” beat. Whedon clearly caught the spirit of recklessly engaging heroes exemplified in those early Lucas/Spielberg projects, and he’s brought this spirit back to the screen with a vengeance.
“Serenity” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references. It runs for 115 minutes.
A TALK WITH JOSS WHEDON AND THE CAST OF “SERENITY”
Response writer Jeffrey Overstreet attended press conferences with the writer/director and the stars of “Serenity” in mid-September. Here are some excerpts from those Q&A sessions.
Guests: Joss Whedon (writer/director), Nathan Fillion (Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Summer Glau (River), Sean Maher (Simon), Jewel Staite (Kaylee)
How nervous are you about this movie opening?
Joss Whedon: I’m actually pretty calm. I am being medicated right now, steadily, to keep me that way.
I got really nervous when I realized that ultimately I have absolutely no idea how this movie is going to do. I believe that if people see it they will like it. … But I have no idea if they actually will see it. And if they don’t see it, then how can they like it?
I believe in the film. I loved making it. I love what we came up with. I’m proud of all my actors. That’s going to have to sustain me. That’s me now. Talk to me on the morning of [September] 30th, when I’m hiding in the bathtub with a hat on.
What’s your secret for writing such great dialogue for “Firefly” and “Serenity”?
Joss Whedon: Part of it was getting to invent the language, which came from a lot of different influences. … And once I had, it reads like a kind of poetry. It’s very easy to write, it rolls of the tongue in a way that nothing I’ve ever written before does.
But in terms of advice… or, my dark secrets?
The most important thing to me is finding everybody’s voice very specifically. I build shows and movies on what I refer to as “the Golden Girls model,” which is, very simply [this]: Everybody’s gotta come from a different place, so that everybody’s reaction to something is different and equally valid and equally fun. … If a line is just a setup for somebody else to be funny, it’s disingenuous to the character and to the actor portraying them.
That’s the biggest thing for me — everybody, and that includes the Second Thug From Left, has perspective that they bring with them to the piece.
Do you have ideas for the sequel, if you get to make a sequel?
Joss Whedon: It’s very sweet to mention the word "sequel"’ Obviously that’s the way my brain works. It continues to tell stories. I’ve written sequels in my head for movies that other people made ... all the time. I had a great idea for “The Fly 2” before they made “The Fly 2,” and I never told anybody about it. But it was really cool!
It’s inevitable that I do that. And of course, I love this universe. I love these people. I would jump at the chance to do it again.
Talk about the challenges of opening it up from a series to a film, and how did you make it accessible to people who haven’t seen the Firefly series.
Joss Whedon: Oftentimes I’ve said … that the difference between movies and TV shows is [that] TV shows are a question and movies are an answer.
In this we had to have a definitive statement about freedom and humanity, and what we need and what we should be allowed to have as people … which is all of our flaws. And then I answer that and make a definitive statement, and put a period … or hopefully an exclamation point on that … as opposed to just sort of pursuing the question for years with the TV show.
The film answers many questions raised in the television show. Are these answers the same things we would have seen if the television show had continued? Or did you change the conclusions because of the limitations of the film?
Joss Whedon: Very little was changed for the movie. Obviously things were dropped. Obviously and most importantly, things were distilled into a fine two-hour liqueur instead of a more watered-down longer version. Yes, that was where I was going with the idea of River and her secret, and the Reavers and theirs, and how it all connected. I had planned to get there in a couple of years instead of in a couple of hours.
In the conversation between Shepherd Book and Malcolm, you raise interesting issues about faith and God. That shouldn’t surprise us, since other sci-fi epics like “The Matrix” and “Star Wars” dealt rather obviously with spiritual questions and conflicts. In the overarching story of “Firefly,” is there something besides the social and political themes, something spiritual you’re trying to bring across through this story?
Whedon: I think we all have different takes on it, we all have different things to say about spirituality. [“Star Wars” and “The Matrix”] used more deliberate religious iconography because they’re coming from that mythic place in a way that, I would say, “Buffy” did. But “Firefly” and “Serenity” don’t.
Again, to come back to the question and the answer – in “Firefly” there was a conflict between Mal and the Shepherd. … Mal is an atheist and he’s beyond that … kind of faithless. He doesn’t trust people. He doesn’t really think of anything as “a greater good.” Even though he has a moral code himself, he can’t really admit or understand it. Shepherd Book is very clear on his faith, and there was a conflict between the two of them that was supposed to be ongoing throughout the series.
Obviously, the movie being more about answers, I had one definitive statement to make, which was simply [that] the power of belief, the power of something greater than yourself doesn’t necessarily have to mean religion.
Shepherd Book himself says that. He doesn’t say, "Find God." He says,"‘Find your way."
Shepherd Book obviously believes in God. He believes that God is a part of what’s going on. Mal doesn’t, but Shepherd doesn’t judge him for that. He says, “The point is not whether or not you believe what I believe. The point is that you don’t believe in anything. And it’s killing you. And it’s tearing your crew apart. And it’s making you do stupid things.”
The word “belief” comes into the film a lot for that reason. It’s a simple act of subsuming yourself to the idea of something that is great. Believing that there is something worth structuring your life around that will direct your moral decisions … that is important. What that belief is ... is not.
What was it like for you when the show was canceled?
Adam Baldwin: It was very hard for all of us, and devastating emotionally.
Nathan Fillion: I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with “Firefly” the way I did. And I wasn’t prepared for “Firefly” to dump me the way it did. … I wasn’t prepared to have that hope and say, “Maybe, maybe.”
How did it feel to go back to the deck of “Serenity”?
Sean Maher: Everything just felt a little more spectacular, a little grander. There was a wonderful feeling of redemption, because we’ve come back with these people, this great reunion, and there was a wonderful energy.
Jewel Staite: “When we got canceled, it all happened very quickly. I’m from Canada … Vancouver, so I packed up my stuff and went home, and I felt like there was no closure whatsoever. So when it was decided, and we were green-lit to do the movie, we saw each other again and we were able to play these characters one more time. It felt ... very gratifying.”
Summer, how did your background as a dancer help prepare you for those intense fight sequences?
Summer Glau: I was used to … going to the gym and working out all day. Doing lots of different types of training. But … it’s completely different muscle memory. I had to completely retrain my body. It took three months, all day, every day.
Surely you had help with the stunts!
Glau: It’s all me. There were two dangerous stunts that they wouldn’t let me do. One, falling down the stairs — that was just two risky. One other flip … [which] my stunt double ended up getting hurt doing, and I felt terrible. But everything else—those swords, all of the blade weapons — I did myself. All of the guns I did myself … the daggers. Joss wanted it to look real.
What are your impressions of the faithful masses of “Firefly” fans?
Fillion: Did you see “Trekkies,” that documentary on Trekkies? There are people out there who are fanatical. And I prefer to use the entire term. They’re fanatics. I find “Serenity” fans to be thoughtful … pretty intelligent people. … And I can say this about the fans — we all have one thing in common. We’re all in love with the same … show. If they think they’re fans, they’ve got nothin’ on me. I’m a fan.”
Staite: I’m not sure we’d be here if we didn’t have such an amazing dedicated following.
Baldwin: They make us shirts and they make us trinkets.
Glau: They dress up like us!
Staite: They sing our songs. They quote our lines. I don’t even remember my lines!
Maher: This past summer there were a bunch of secret screenings with fans that we all attended. And watching the movie with fans is just an experience in itself. There’s really nothing like it. They’re incredibly loyal.
Baldwin: You get this huge cross-section of demographics. Young and old, men and women, left and right … everyone. They love the writing, they love the characters. They just love the show. It’s amazing.
What would you like to see happen in the sequels, if there are sequels?
Staite: You know what really bugs me is Mal and Inara. Their tension… I want them to kiss … and get it over-with. Those characters are so incredibly stubborn that, no matter what, they can’t admit how they feel about the other person. That’s definitely the story arc that I would like to see come to some sort of conclusion.
And I think Kaylee needs to have a baby.
Baldwin: I think we should meet Jayne’s parents. That would be fun.
— BY JEFFREY OVERSTREET, FILM CRITIC AND RESPONSE STAFF WRITER
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