I was late getting on the Firefly bandwagon. About three years late, to be precise. Firefly was a sci-fi series by Joss Whedon that had a sort of “old west in outer space” vibe to it. Now, I’m not one of those who subscribes to the theory of the “Whedon curse” — from the five TV series he’s produced, he’s gotten 16 seasons; most execs would give their eyeteeth to be so “cursed” — but there’s no denying that Firefly had a rough go of it on TV. Whether it was a simple mix-up or deliberate meddling as some of its more vociferous fans allege, FOX aired the episodes out of order, giving the show a tougher time finding an audience than it would otherwise have had. And considering that sci-fi and westerns are two genres that have sometimes had a tough time finding audiences anyway, that spelled death for the series. But the fans pushed and pushed, as they are wont to do, and it actually paid off for once: in 2005, three years after the series’ cancellation, Paramount released Serenity, a movie spun off from the series, with Joss Whedon writing, producing, and directing.
It was when Serenity was released and some of my friends started talking about it that I first heard of Firefly. Though they said the movie could be enjoyed by someone who hadn’t watched the show, I decided to wait anyway. A year or two later, Hulu put all the episodes online, and I got caught up on the series — and caught up in it as well. It’s a fun series, with great characters, a sense of style, and an interesting universe. So I was primed to watch Serenity. Of course, it took until now for me to actually catch the film.
The film begins with a brief sequence that introduces the viewers to the solar system that Firefly is set in, which is helpful to new viewers and also provides a bit of extra enlightenment to series fans. It then cuts to Simon Tam (Sean Maher) breaking his sister River (Summer Glau) out of the facility where she was being experimented on. And finally it cuts to the “present day” of the film, set a short time after the end of the series (a few months or perhaps a few years; it’s not specified and doesn’t matter much). All the series regulars are present in the movie, though only the Tams and the official “flight crew” of the Serenity are on the ship itself. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) has become testy about Simon keeping secrets from him, and has begun insisting that in addition to Simon providing medical care for the crew of smugglers, that River should start pulling her weight as well. Simon however remains highly protective of his mentally-disturbed genius little sister. This friction starts to bubble over until it becomes apparent that they have bigger concerns: the Alliance (the central government of the system) has sent an Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) out to retrieve River and prevent whatever secrets she might have in her head from escaping. And the Operative has no qualms at all about instituting a scorched earth policy when it comes to obtaining his quarry. Soon the whole crew of the Serenity are on the run, trying to keep ahead of the Operative and find out what it is that River knows that is so dangerous.
Fans of the series already know how good the acting is. For those who are new to the characters, they’ll experience a cast that is comfortable with each other and characters that — without getting huge amounts of individual development in the film itself — feel like well-rounded characters with established histories. This is, of course, because those histories are already fleshed out in the series, but it isn’t necessary to have seen the series to sense the personalities that result — this is, after all, why many films have a “story bible” filled with character histories that are never directly shown in the movies themselves. Simply having those histories written and available to the cast and crew helps them in developing the characters into well-rounded individuals. Here, the “story bible” is the TV series, but the basic result is the same. Gina Torres and Alan Tudyk play off each other as the military-and-civilian wife-and-husband team. Morena Baccarin as Inara bickers and feuds with Fillion’s Mal. Adam Baldwin is boorishly funny as the belligerent Jayne. And Jewel Staite as Kaylee manages to have an air of innocence (in some ways) despite their dire circumstances.
With the film essentially having a full cast brought in from the show, there really isn’t much room for characters beyond the main crew of the Serenity. Ron Glass reprises his role as Shepherd Book from the series, but it’s more of a cameo than anything. And David Krumholtz plays a peculiar fellow who is the future’s equivalent of today’s hackers — down to the extreme social misdevelopment. But these are small roles, and everything else is smaller yet; the film is about the Serenity’s flight from the Operative, and so three characters get the spotlight: Mal, River, and the Operative. Nathan Fillion gets to show off multiple sides of Mal as he learns what’s going on and has to ask himself whether he wants to go up against the Alliance again (part of his backstory is being on the losing side of a civil war). Ejiofor is magnificently chilling as the Operative, a man who really and truly believes that what he’s doing is a necessary evil — still monstrous, but believing with all his heart that the ends justify the means. As SF writer Roger Zelazny once noted, an evil man is nowhere near as dangerous as a misguided idealist. And Summer Glau gets to take her character through the paces of a few different forms of mental instability.
As for the story itself, the chase makes for some very exciting sequences, and the underlying mystery of what secret is locked away in River’s scrambled mind provides a lot of intrigue. When the revelations come at last, they make sense and are suitably impressive and frightening. Serenity tells a highly entertaining story for the audience.
One question I considered as I watched was whether it would indeed hold up well for someone who hadn’t ever watched the series. It’s always difficult to judge this without being such a person, but I think Whedon put enough exposition and development in the film itself that most people would be able to follow along and enjoy it even if they had never watched Firefly. Still, the film is without question more for the fans than the general audience. While the fans will likely find it to be a great continuation/finale for the series, people who are watching it as a standalone entity will find it to be a good film, but the occasional knowledge gap and the lack of a pre-existing love for the franchise will keep it from reaching quite the same heights.