Joss Whedon is best known for his light, fluffy forays into the world of the supernatural with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its follow up series “Angel”. Always a master of combining odd elements, Whedon stepped into a heavier sci-fi realm with the creation of “Firefly”, a short lived western-in-space which depicted life on the space frontier as lived by some of the less heroic elements. The show lived a sadly short life but has been partly resurrected in the form of Serenity, a movie that follows the characters beyond the television show, even if it doesn’t keep the total flavor that made the show interesting.
The basic premise of Serenity is simple. This is the kind of space ship the Enterprise would pass by without a second thought. The ship and its crew are outcasts verging on being Robin Hood types. The only real difference is that instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, they steal from those who have money and keep it themselves. The honorable attempt to do right is in there though, and as a result the crew isn’t exactly living the high life, forced to a minimum of jobs.
Part of the picky selection of jobs has to do with the ship’s doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau) who is an outcast from the Alliance (the big government running things in the universe). As introduced in the film’s opening, at one point River was the subject of Alliance testing which has resulted in a bit of mental distress and created some psychic powers for the girl. It’s also resulted in River constantly being the subject of Alliance attention, as an unnamed operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pursues the fugitive passenger.
The advertising and above paragraph would lead you to believe that, like Whedon’s other big projects, the movie centers around a super powered little girl who kicks much ass and cracks jokes while doing it. Don’t believe it. While River’s storyline is at the movie’s core, this is more of an ensemble piece with the captain of Serenity, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) at the center. Mal is captain of the ship, and he doesn’t let anyone forget it, whether that means rejecting a plan by mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin) that involves using grenades, or reminding the ship’s doctor exactly what his sister’s place on the vessel means. Mal calls the shots throughout, just as he did on the television show, and while people may not always agree with his opinions, they respect or fear him enough to stay out of his way. Thus, while the story may not be totally about Mal, it is his character that drives the movie completely, and this allows Fillion to completely shine as the conflicted, driven character.
For Serenity, Whedon steps away from just being a writer and, for the first time theatrically, sits down in the director’s chair. The result is something that’s not quite the normal theatrical experience, but a step above Whedon’s usually excellent television work. Whedon is a director who’s willing to accomplish more with less and take a few chances and that shows on screen, sometimes not as successfully as he would like I’d wager, but still it shows. For instance, we are introduced to the crew of Serenity and the locations on board the ship itself as Mal makes his way through the ship talking to each member of the crew during a not-so-graceful landing. Here’s the thing though: starting on the bridge, winding to the engine room, the medical lab, and finally the cargo bay, the entire five minute long sequence is one continuous shot. It’s this kind of brilliant trust in cast and crew to do their jobs that makes memorable movie moments instead of feeling the need to cut a film every 5 seconds, thereby keeping the editor and director in charge of things. Whedon had a vision when he created Serenity, and by playing both writer and director, that vision comes across as a delightful treat on screen.
The only real disappointment with Whedon’s vision is a sacrifice that had to happen in converting what was intended to be a television series to a two hour big screen film. Much of the universe’s deep wealth of atmosphere is gone. Absent is the twanging soundtrack that reminded us we were in the space equivalent of the western frontier. While the accents remain, gone are a lot of the parallels with the old west, leaving newcomers to the franchise a bit confused. When “Companion” Inara (Morena Baccarin) appears, her character is not very fleshed out, leaving many to wonder what a “companion” is: is it a simple hooker? Given how she acts and how she is surrounded, is she a priestess of some sort? That sort of detail that made the television show so rich is notably absent to those who fell in love with it, fortunately it's only missing for those viewers and people who didn't see the show should be able to pick up on Serenity's ideals easily, only missing a rich background they won't even be aware of. Still, some Serenity is better than none at all, although I still wish we had gotten more of Sonny Rhodes’ stirring Ballad of Serenity than the ten seconds or so that appears at the last of the end credits.
Those familiar with Whedon’s work should enter into the movie knowing his world is not all puppy dogs and rainbows. Whedon always does his best to create a world that feels real, no matter how far-out it appears visually. As such, bad things happen, because that’s how life is. Despite being a Whedon fan for years, when those bad things happen in Serenity they are agonizing, almost as if Whedon himself slapped me in the face repeatedly while asking “Who’s your daddy now!” It’s a reminder of the fact that no matter how much we fall in love with something, love doesn’t always protect it. Members of the audience in-the-know might even think it’s a bit of a creative analogue for Whedon himself. After all, he created “Firefly” and had it taken away from him. What better way to repay the fans who brought Serenity back to life then by reminding them of that pain?
This disc review is based on material provided by Universal, but not on the actual DVD release. Items we usually consider in our rating like sound and picture quality, menus, and advertisements on the disc were not provided, and therefore not taken into consideration for this review. At the same time, some of the material may not make it into the final release (although since all of the press material has it listed, that’s probably unlikely) and items we didn’t see may be in the final release.
Serenity really is the type of movie you’d expect to have a decked out DVD release. After all, it has an instant fan base – that’s the whole reason this film was made in the first place. However, after a lackluster appearance by fans at the ticket booth, leading to what could easily be considered the most disastrous appearance by a film at 2005’s box office compared to expectations, it’s no big surprise to see Serenity get a less than stellar DVD release. That’s not to say there isn’t anything good in here. It’s just less than a film like this deserves.
There are roughly fifteen minutes of deleted scenes, some of which just add small bits and pieces, and the bulk of which enhance a storyline that never really fleshed out. For all those fans out there of Inara and Mal’s relationship, there are some good pieces in here: Jewel Staite’s Kaylee reflects on the crew members who have come and gone, Mal considers Inara’s absence, Inara reflects on her time with Mal fondly, and the two even get to share a soft moment that really would have played well in the film. It’s a shame to see these scenes cut, after all, it’s not like the running time affected the movie’s box office.
For those who have heard time and again how much fun the cast had making Serenity there’s now proof: around six minutes of outtakes which are very funny, but also quite a bit harsh on the language. It’s not uncommon to hear an actor drop the “F-bomb” when flubbing lines, but here it’s almost an art form. What’s more fun to watch, though, are the times where actors mess up and keep the scene going with the new dialogue.
There are three featurettes, mainly centered around Joss Whedon explaining different parts of the method to his madness. “Future History: The Story of Earth That Was” is an explanation of where the idea for Serenity and “Firefly” came from. “Re-Lighting the Firefly” reflects upon the process of mourning and celebration Whedon and the cast went through when their show was cancelled and then made into a movie. Finally “What’s in a Firefly” looks briefly at the effects from the movie and how this film, not being Star Wars has to work with more practical, tangible materials and less CGI. Honestly, I think that difference is one of the best things about Serenity, giving the cast more to work with by actually putting them in the environments their characters are in.
Finally there’s a “Joss Whedon Introduction”. I originally thought this was an emotional introduction by Whedon, acknowledging the power of fans for saving “Firefly” in some form or another. Then Whedon went on to talk about how the film wasn’t quite completed yet and I realized this was his intro for the dozens of screenings Universal set up for fans to see early versions of the movie. Now, it might just be my bitterness talking since I didn’t get into one of those screenings, but I wish this hadn’t been included. First of all, it’s mostly Whedon gushing about the power of fandom and how “they tried to kill us” when they shut down the show. Secondly, it’s no longer applicable since it does talk about finishing the movie. Finally, I strongly believe those screenings are what kept the film from doing as well at the box office as expected – if the die hard fans had already seen the film in screenings, what reason did they have to see the movie again and pay for a ticket? Most die hard fans will tell you they not only would see the film again and pay for it, but they did. The bottom line is the box office numbers never supported that claim. Either that, or there are a lot less “browncoats” out there then fan sites and Whedon himself would have us believe.
There should be a Whedon commentary on the final product. If so, then perhaps this is the DVD fans deserve. Sure, there are no killer behind-the-scenes documentaries, but it’s enough as it is – the film itself, a few deleted scenes, and endless thanks towards the fans who made the movie possible. Hopefully, if DVD sales are good enough, we will see the “Firefly” universe again in the future. If not, Serenity is one hell of a send off.