Director/Screenplay – Joss Whedon, Producer – Barry Mendel, Photography – Jack N. Green, Music – David Newman, Visual Effects Supervisor – Loni Peristere, Visual Effects – Illusion Arts (Supervisors – Syd Dutton & Bill Taylor), Perpetual Motion Pictures (Supervisor – Richard Malzahn), Rhythm and Hues (Supervisor – Bud Myrick) & Zoic Studios (Supervisor – Randy Gouz), Miniatures – Grant McCune Design, Special Effects Supervisor – John Stirber, Makeup Effects – KNB EFX Group Inc (Supervisors – Howard Berger & Greg Nicotero), Production Design – Barry Chusid. Production Company – Universal.
Nathan Fillion (Captain Malcolm Reynolds), Summer Glau (River Tam), Adam Baldwin (Jayne Cobb), Morena Baccarin (Inara Serra), Gina Torres (Zoe), Jewel Staite (Kaylee Frye), Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative), Sean Maher (Dr Simon Tam), Alan Tudyk (Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne), David Krumholtz (Mr Universe), Ron Glass (Shepherd Derrial Book), Michael Hitchcock (Dr Mathias), Yan Feldman (Mingo), Rafael Feldman (Fanty)
Humanity has left Earth and spread out across the galaxy to terraform and inhabit many worlds. The universe is politically dominated by The Alliance but lawlessness reigns on the many outworlds. Dr Simon Tam has rescued his sister River, who has vast unknown telepathic powers, from a top-secret government laboratory and they have sought refuge aboard the spaceship Serenity under Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who operates as a smuggler and trader. During one business negotiation, River goes crazy and kills most of the people in a bar before Simon stops her. Fleeing, the Serenity crew discover that they are hunted by a top-level assassin who has orders to bring River back at all costs. Malcolm decides to risk things for River. Under her direction, they travel through the territory of the cannibalistic Reavers to the mysterious world of Miranda that exists on no maps. There they find the horrific secret of the origin of the Reavers.
Joss Whedon has become a cult figure as a result of the massive success of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) phenomenon and its spinoff Angel (1999-2004). Whedon has also written the screenplays for a variety of genre films including the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Toy Story (1995), Alien: Resurrection (1997), Titan A.E. (2000) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Subsequent to Serenity, Whedon was supposed to write and direct a movie version of DC’s Wonder Woman but then went onto make the science-fiction series Dollhouse (2008-10), produced/wrote/directed the web series Dr Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog (2008), a musical spoof of mad scientists, produced the fandom documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (2011), wrote/produced the horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2012), wrote/produced In Your Eyes (2014) about a psychic connection, and created The Nevers (2021- ).
Whedon’s biggest success has been in big screen superheroics as director of the big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ The Avengers (2012), its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), as well as as creator of the tv series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-20) and uncredited directing duties on Justice League (2017). He has also directed a modernised film version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (2013).
One of Joss Whedon’s less successful television ventures was Firefly (2002-3). Firefly was a well worthwhile attempt to create a space opera tv series. Here Joss Whedon set out to defy the stereotypes of the various Star Trek series and created a complex backdrop of an intergalactic future with bandits and smugglers operating on lawless frontier worlds. What made Firefly work was an excellent ensemble cast – one of the best one has seen in a science-fiction tv series – with each character having complex shadings and each actor doing an exemplary job in bringing them to life. Whedon and his team wrote with a wry sense of humour and Firefly flew rather well.
Alas, the series ran up against an indifferent network (20th Century Fox) who scheduled it in ways that seemed designed to kill it off, including screening the pilot episode that introduces the characters after the second episode. Firefly only lasted twelve episodes – not even a full season – before being cancelled. It has however gone onto a much loved fan afterlife, including a letter-writing campaign that eventually led to this theatrical spinoff.
Like other shows tv series that have spun off onto the big screen with their original cast (as opposed to being remade on the big screen) such as Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek: Generations (1994) and The X Files (1998), Firefly seems a little awkward in trying to adjust to its new medium. (It is certainly unusual to see a tv series that was so brief and did not even make it to a full season being given cinematic treatment). Serenity has the same problem that other series like Star Trek did when they emerged on the big screen – the weekly episode format allowed an ensemble cast full strength but a feature-length film spins these appeals out more thinly. The Star Trek films always seemed caught between giving each character a set-piece versus getting on and telling a story. Joss Whedon chooses the latter here and as a result the characters from the series end up lacking somewhat.
Nathan Fillion is an actor who has acting talent, natural charisma and handsome looks, and should be filling A-list leading man roles. Fillion naturally steps into the leading role here with the charm he brought to the series and Joss Whedon writes a number of tough moral complexities around him. Some of the others from the original series don’t get that opportunity. Gina Torres is an actress with equally as much potential as Nathan Fillion but does not get much of a chance to shine.
Adam Baldwin, whose crustiness and guns were always the comic strength of the Firefly series, emerges with some of the same here. Morena Baccarin is perhaps the most successful among the original supporting cast and gets to exude some of her mystery, elegance and allure. Jewel Staite, Alan Tudyk, Sean Maher and Ron Glass get little opportunity to do anything.
There are occasional glimpses of some of the plotlines that ran through the series – the Malcolm/Inara attraction, the unrequited Kayle/Simon crush. Certainly, Joss Whedon makes Summer Glau, the strangest and most mysterious of the characters on the tv series, into one of the central characters here, which works okay, although I found her sudden eruption into a hyper-martial artist like something out of The Matrix (1999) somewhat hard to swallow.
Serenity tells a passable story. Joss Whedon gives us glimpses into the character of River, while not completely explaining her mystery. He also gives us the origin of the Reavers, although surprisingly gives The Reavers themselves relatively little screen time. In the end, Serenity emerges as a fair, although perhaps not a great, Firefly episode. Serenity is also a film caught in the compromise between playing to the fans of the series and being a blockbuster. I doubt that somebody who had never seen Firefly would likely become fans as a result of seeing Serenity, which on its own would surely play out as a competent space opera with many clear backstories being hinted at but not clarified.
On the other hand, Joss Whedon has opened the tv series out, but still remains true to it. The film takes the opportunity to stage at least one spectacular space battle, although doesn’t overkill the show with effects – the sets for the Serenity have been left the same, for instance. Whedon does set up a captivating opening scene, although surprisingly the main storyline takes some way into the film to fully take its grip. Played out as an episode on the tv screen, for example, the story would surely have begun at the point about where River goes crazy in the bar. This is surprising considering the succinctness that each of the stories in the tv series had at 50 minute length – although, that said, once Serenity gets to the main drama of the film on the Reaver planet and the siege at Mr Universe’s base it works well.
Joss Whedon does an okay job directing, although one cannot help but think that a director more used to the big screen may have given the story much more dramatic flourish – as it is, the scenes often seem quiet and underplayed in Whedon’s hands. One aspect that Whedon does well is the character of the assassin villain who operates according to his own internal code and unquestioning loyalty as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. One would have liked to have seen more of Chiwetel Ejiofor and felt somewhat disappointed at the cursory way that he is written off and redeemed at the end. Frustratingly, that is much of the problem with Serenity, a film that is good but holds within it the promise of having been much more than that.