Looking back at Joss Whedon's Serenity

News Caroline Preece 6 Nov 2011 - 19:38

With Serenity, Joss Whedon got to wrap up the sadly cancelled sci-fi TV series Firefly in perfect style. Caroline takes a look back...

So well documented, and so little seen, is the eventual movie sequel to the cancelled series Firefly, that it's taken on an air of myth for those uninitiated viewers that might stumble upon it in a random HMV bargain-bin.

If you speak to one of the comparably few casual cinema-goers who caught Serenity when it was released in theatres, they'll inevitably say they enjoyed it, but it hasn't made any top-10 lists. When fans watch the film as a continuation of their beloved series, it's clear that they have a very different experience, and it's important to consider both sides.

For Joss Whedon's mission with Serenity was to make a major motion picture for the blockbuster audience not so acquainted with their television box-sets, whilst also keeping the notoriously loyal, but rabid when crossed, fanbase happy with the result.

Though fans don't like to admit this, the show got cancelled for a reason, and that reason was a lack of viewers. No matter how loved it had become in the intervening years, Universal would have been hoping for more bums on seats for the ensuing movie.

In what would be his feature film debut, Whedon, creator of some of the best loved television ever made, would attempt to tackle something that had both the maximum and minimum amount of expectation surrounding it. No one seemed to have heard of his original series, let alone seen it, but those who had invested their time and energy wouldn't tolerate anything below average. Promising to deliver it in 50 days, instead of the standard 80, and spending just $40m, instead of the usual $100m, he got to work.

Despite Nathan Fillion's Mal being front a centre of most of the show's advertising and artwork, Firefly had always been an ensemble effort. Luckily, all the cast members returned for the movie instalment with Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash (Alan Tudyk), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau) still on the ship, and Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) having departed since the series' finale.

Despite the strength of the cast, and various member's rising TV profile, it was still a film full of unknowns, and everyone involved seemed to know it would make the movie a hard sell. However, the story would remain that of the ship's captain, Mal, told intermittently from the perspective of their unstable house guest, River.

The first battle to be waged, then, was that of perspective.

While most films have the luxury of a first act devoted to introducing its world, characters and situation, Serenity had to be careful not to slip into redundantly repeating itself, while also making clear to a new audience exactly where they were and who they should be following. The film actually begins in the world of the Alliance, a government presence residing over the different planets now occupied by humans spun from 'Earth that was'.

A schoolteacher recounts the story of the civil war that had broken out between them and the resistance, a war won at the battle of Serenity Valley several years previously.

Soon, the atmosphere changes when a young girl challenges the ideas put forward, and we realise we've been experiencing the warped memories of an adolescent in a government lab. Clearly being mistreated and experimented on, we see her quickly saved and taken out of the facility.

For new audiences, it's already understood that the Alliance is not a force to be trusted, but for those already acquainted with the world, it's a chance to see Simon's rescuing his sister, something that had only been described in the television incarnation. With this juggling of flashback and exposition, the balance between pleasing different audiences had been struck.

We also meet the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in this pre-credits sequence, a man who would occupy the main villain role of the movie. A combination of all the Alliance officials used before, this courteous and honourable soldier was the perfect instrument to hammer home the ambiguity of the world.

Ejiofor does a fabulous job in the role, with his grace and politeness lending the character a creepy quality, while also keeping his charm and likability. Like River (and later, we find out, the Reavers), he is also a product of Alliance control, and it's clear that he's much more complicated the pantomime villain we've come to expect.

After such a cold and detached opening, it's a relief to step inside the ship at last, and we are introduced to the main cast through a continuous four-and-a-half minute tracking shot, showing off the rebuilt interior of the ship beautifully. One of the main draws of the show was its lived-in quality, and the depth of the world built around the characters.

With studio money pumped into it and a cast now looking movie-ready, it was a worry that the film would make everything look glossier and cleaner. But the team maintained what was great about the sets, costumes and locations. Serenity itself had always been considered a tenth character of the series, so the ship had to retain its personality in order for the film to work.

The narrative picks up several months after the end of Objects In Space, with Inara and Book having departed to their respective home worlds. The team are also taking River on heists now, giving Summer Glau something substantial to do before it all kicks off later in the film.

Most of these are welcome changes, and Inara's absence has caused Mal to sink into the darker character he was always intended to be. Apparently not at home on network television, here the characters could be as multilayered as needed. Mal had to be in a bad place at the start of the movie in order to emerge the hero by its end, and the departure of his love interest and 'spiritual teacher' of sorts achieves that as smoothly as possible.

All of the performers do an outstanding job of re-inhabiting the characters they had brought to life on TV. Summer Glau deserves particular mention, as she did her own fight sequences with a mixture of martial arts and ballet, using her experience as a dancer to learn the extensive routines.

This River is a little more sinister than the lost little girl we followed during the course of the series, but her eventual victory rings true to both interpretations and she never loses her humanity despite essentially being a glorified plot-device. The rest of the crew are sidelined in pursuit of a coherent narrative, but everyone's natural affinity with their characters helps them remain present, if not centre stage.

It's in the small group scenes that their dedication to each role is most apparent. Ensemble scenes in the dining room are filled with the quirks and mannerisms of each crew member, from the way someone eats, to the reaching of a gun or a reaction to Mal's assertion of leadership.

The way Mal fights is also vastly different from either the Operative or River as, instead of graceful dancing or traditional sword-play, his style is more akin to a drunken bar brawl. Like the use of lighting and colour to signify personality, these quirks sell the world as something organic and real, and it's all down to the stellar work of the film's actors.

But great science-fiction is about ideas, and what depictions of the future can tell us about the present state of our world. Like Star Wars or, more overtly, Cowboys And Aliens, Serenity uses western imagery in conjunction with the science-fiction of space battles and advanced technology.

It tackles the future in much the same way as most people would tackle the past, and plays up the cultural blend of American and China more than the series was able. Like traditional American fiction, Whedon wanted to tell the story of the losers on the fringes of society, and in his crew of misfits he found a sufficient avenue to explore the morality of a 'world without sin'.

The two juxtaposing missions of the film are the crew's search for Miranda and the Operative's search for River.

Miranda, a planet named after a character in Shakespeare's The Tempest ("O brave new world, / That has such people in't!"), is the desecrated site of an experiment gone horribly wrong. The crew are brought to it by River, who has been similarly defiled by the government's desire for a 'perfect world', and its discovery ties together almost all of the story threads of both the series and the film. The film works as one self-contained story, but it's easy to imagine how the planned second series of the show might have played out.

The film's cinematography gets brighter and more stifling at each location, until they reach the overexposed, almost indistinguishable streets of Miranda. The brightness represents the unrealistic expectations of the people who built the world, and the discovery of a video diary on the planet shows them that a drug designed to eradicate aggression actually created the other bad guys of the series.

The Reavers, monstrous creatures who tear through villages and lay waste to their inhabitants, are revealed to be a product of this experiment, a cruel twist for the sterile, innocuous force that the film's characters have been running from since the start. It's in this revelation that the film finds its purpose.

Both film and show had been about those people that did not fit in to the established ideal of 'proper' humanity, and here the danger of stamping out that strand of rebellion is violently demonstrated.

The conviction of the Operative suddenly seems even more naive and misguided, and River's plight much more tragic. Mal's hatred of the Alliance is vindicated however, and he's then able to become the 'big damn hero' integral to the arc of his character and the film. The crew are now fighting for something other than survival, and it gives the film a sense of continuation, while also enlarging the scale as you'd assume a second season would have done anyway.

But the film is also a Joss Whedon production, so you know that not everyone can survive.

It's a testament to the devotion some fans hold for the series that the reaction to certain deaths were so strong, but anyone who sat in cinemas to see the film know that the death of Wash elicited the same stunned silence no matter who was sitting around you. The crew were presented as a family, and it was with a real sense of bereavement that characters were killed off during the final battle.

I am firmly in the camp who believe the death of a main character is necessary in stories like this, and the film would not have had the same emotional power had Wash or Book survived.

I've always believed that shows like Firefly are sometimes better off cancelled, as it prevents them from being ruined by bad writers, dodgy ideas and external forces hell-bent on pushing the cancellation button.

Firefly was a great show, but it wasn't perfect. Serenity surpasses even the best episode by a fair way, and uses the promise of an unfinished series to create something a little bit special. Had there been more, we might not have liked it as much, so let us reach for the DVDs and be grateful for the unlikely blessing of a major motion picture finishing off a cancelled TV show. It may never happen again.

Serenity is an inspiring tale of fan power and the prospect of great stories finding an outlet against the odds, but this is not all that it is. With the various myths and accounts surrounding the film, the eventual product is often forgotten, and this shouldn't be so. Serenity, along with its television counterpart, is a great example of modern sci-fi, and deserves to stand beside other idea-driven genre output coming before and after it. It's also bloody good fun.

With the cinematic return of Whedon's work in The Avengers, Cabin In The Woods and Much Ado About Nothing, let's hope that people revisit this largely ignored debut, and appreciate it for what it really is: a sci-fi action film with big ideas and a solid execution.

Join us from tomorrow, as we begin our recap of Joss Whedon's Firefly, one episode at a time...

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