What if Han Solo's roguish edge hadn't been dulled halfway through the original Star Wars trilogy? What if he had walked the line between smuggler and hero instead of just crossing it at some point?Serenity tells the story that Joss Whedon originally was going to take two years to tell in the television show Firefly, which was cancelled in 2002 (was it really that long ago?).
What if Star Trek's "Wagon Train" to the stars had been less of a secular utopian fantasy of human progress and more like the real old West in the wake of the Civil War? What if the story were told, not from the point of view of the triumphant Federation, or Union, or Alliance, but the disgruntled eyes of the defeated Confederacy, or Independents?
What if, instead of a who's who of alien civilizations variously representing particular aspects of human nature, a sci-fi adventure merely allowed the personalities and behavior of its human characters to be as complicated and varied as that of real people in the real world, from preachers to prostitutes?
Set 500 years in the future, society is a mixture of "core" planets with all the luxuries and those on "the rim" where life is more like living in a old time Western. The Alliance, the totalitarian government, controls everything in the core and would like to exert the same control over all the planets.
River Tam has been rescued by her brother, Simon, from an Alliance facility where extensive brain tampering has been done on her. They take refuge on a spaceship whose crew will do anything, legal or illegal, to keep fed and in the air. As a survivor from the losing side in the recent civil war, the ship's captain, Mal Reynolds, doesn't mind going against the authorities but has to rethink his decision when the Alliance sends an assassin to track River down. What follows is a fantastic, fast moving adventure crackling with wit. As many movie critics have observed, it is the perfect popcorn movie.
Joss Whedon is a superb storyteller. Just when you start thinking that the movie is winding down to the ending, he cranks it up another notch and careens on to a more intense ride. This is accented with hilarious, throw away lines just when you least expect it (again, think Han Solo).
The other thing to know about Whedon is that he is no respecter of characters. In his TV series (Buffy, Angel, and Firefly) he has proven time and again that just because someone is a major character doesn't mean he won't kill them off at the drop of a hat if it moves the story along ... and sometimes even if it doesn't. That adds a certain amount of tension to any story he is telling and certainly was forcibly brought to mind more than once during this movie. Unpredictability is the watchword.
As in Star Wars, which in my mind is the most comparable model for comparison, there is a major conflict between good and evil. However, where Star Wars painted those themes very broadly (Darth Vader BAD, Luke Skywalker GOOD), Serenity deals with what different men choose to put their faith in and how strong that belief is. Early on, River says that the reason the outlying planets don't like the Alliance, despite the many obvious benefits of to belonging to civilization, is that " We meddle... People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads, and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome."
Just how "meddlesome" is shown over and over again while, in counterpoint, Mal Reynolds repeatedly says that he doesn't believe in anything except survival of "me and mine" meaning his crew. Shepherd Book tells him that he must believe in something, that it doesn't matter what but that he must believe. We know this isn't true because it becomes clear that the Reavers believe, and fervently, but in nothing with which any sane person would agree. Watching Mal it is clear also that his actions speak louder than words, although by the end of the movie he does articulate his belief also.
Jeffrey Overstreet has a good extended review that will be of interest to anyone wanting to dig deeper into Joss Whedon's moviemaking psyche. Decent Films' review (link above) also is very good and goes below the surface.
For Firefly fans, Serenity is a must see. It tells us the big secret of why River is being pursued by Alliance agents and why they were poking around in her brain in the first place. Possibly more importantly, it gives us the closure left when the show was so abruptly canceled.
I am such a fan that I honestly couldn't tell if non-fans would like it but my husband thought it was great. He's been forced to sit through a few of the Firefly episodes but is not what you would call a fan at all ... and, as anyone who has ever watched Lost with him can attest, he is not shy about saying if something isn't measuring up.
No power in the 'verse can keep me from talking about this movie a little more indepth so ...
SPOILERSI expected Shepherd to die (having seen trailers of smoking devastation and The Operative saying, "I do [kill children]." But Wash? There is no mercy ... though I did really like the exchange of lines between Zoe and Mal at the end about the ship's readiness to fly because it so obviously was also about Zoe herself:
Mal: Do you think she'll hold together?Also the doubletalk was at the end when River says the storm is really bad and Mal agrees but says they'll get through it to clear sky (or something like that ... as far as I can remember) ... which is about their future.
Zoe: She's pretty torn up, but she'll fly true.
I expected River to go settle the Reavers' hash and then be the only one there when the blast doors opened again. How about that scene where she was fighting the Reavers? It equaled the end of the Matrix to me. Pure poetry in fighting.
I also expected Mal to come to Mr. Universe with the Reavers' behind him like the mines in Galaxy Quest. That was fun to watch, huh?
Loved Mr. Universe glorying in his geekiness to the point of being so proud of his robot wife ... ultimate geek was his motto (if he ever had one), "Can't stop the signal."
It was interesting that the Reavers all had an uneasy cease fire with each other. I didn't expect to find them hanging thick together in space but that they'd be in hiding from each other. It was as if they had agreed that as long as one didn't turn on the other then they'd hang together.
I guess we're never gonna find out about who Book really was! Darn it! Unless there's a sequel and someone else reveals it.
I was honestly wondering if River wasn't going to be able to turn on that assassin-mode and everyone was going to die in the end ... while nobly sending out the message. Whew!
And I liked that Mal's' mercy in not killing The Operative (although he didn't intend it to be mercy really) was what saved them from being killed when the government broke through.
Nice touch also that when The Operative finally got mad it was because, "innocent people are dying in the air right now!" It was ok when it was him doing the killing because it was for The Cause.