“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free, you can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be since I found Serenity
You can’t take the sky from me”
Those are just some of the lyrics from “The Ballad of Serenity” which was the opening theme to a TV series called Firefly that never really got a chance. Sprung from the mind of Joss Whedon, this was a series that was practically screwed by Fox the moment it made it to the air. Episodes were broadcast in the wrong order, it was given the death slot on Friday nights and it got barely any promotion at all and so it was cancelled after only eleven of its fourteen episodes had aired. However fan reaction was so strong, so many letters were written in that a film was greenlit to serve as a continuation of the series. And what have we here...
The year is 2518 and humanity has moved to another solar system, the Central Alliance planets. The plot picks up the thread from Firefly with River Tam, a young girl who was imprisoned by The Alliance and who is actually psychic, being rescued from their clutches by her brother Simon who takes refuge on a ship full of your average bunch of ragtag misfits, led by Captain Mal Reynolds. Eight months after the Tams joined the ship (which is named Serenity by the way) the situation isn’t good as the ship is falling apart and food and money are scarce. And an Operative from The Alliance is tracking River in hopes of “eliminating” her because they fear she has read the minds of key government officials and now has information they want to keep secret. Of course River likely doesn’t know she actually has this information because she has been driven nearly completely mad by what she went through while she was their prisoner. But she knows something – a name – Miranda. And that may be the very thing the Alliance wants to keep covered up.
This film is pretty much everything you’d expect from Joss Whedon. I mentioned in my entry for Alien Resurrection that he eventually reused many of his original ideas for that in Firefly and you can definitely see the parallels though of course this is much more fleshed out than Alien Resurrection was, having its own continuity and back story. We have something of a cross between a sci-fi story and a Western film with many of the characters’ costumes being modelled after cowboys and the like, not to mention having our very own space hooker. There are also a lot of desert landscapes and arid regions shown, with only one scene actually taking place in an actual city and that itself has a bit of a saloon feeling to it.
The setting of this futuristic world has some strong Chinese and other Asian elements to the culture with the characters speaking in Chinese a few times – actually a clever way to get cursing past the censors in the TV show, having them curse in Chinese – and a few signs of Japanese culture dotted around the place. With River’s fight scenes there is something similar to Ziyi Zhang in House of Flying Daggers where ballet and other dances are incorporated into the combat and, combined with River always fighting barefoot and in dresses, gives her a slightly elegant look like a proper lady of war. River looks a lot more elegant and “ladylike” when she’s fighting while Zoe and Kaylee don’t.
Lucky for fans of the TV show, all eight leading cast members returned for the film though one of them doesn’t really get that much screen time. Nathan Fillion gives the performance of his career, outstripping any excellent acting on the TV show and shows a deeper and more intense side of Mal that the TV series never really got to explore. We see his wise cracking cocky side but then it comes as a bit shocking when we see him abandon this persona and become more serious and determined. He certainly deserves his spot on the 25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends list (number 18 to be specific). Gina Torres plays Zoe and she likewise gives a much stronger performance than she got to do on the TV show. Like Mal, we see a softer side of her as she is not just a woman made of stone like she could sometimes come across in the show. Of course she does get a few of the best lines in the film (both comedic and dramatic) and her “he ain’t coming” line is one of the most heart-wrenching moments – you’ll understand soon enough. Alan Tudyk returns to my list using his natural American accent this time (though many still believe he is actually a Brit in disguise) and playing probably the softest character on the ship since he’s the only man in the film who never picks up a gun. Jewel Staite is perky as ever as Kaylee though Joss did seem to want to go down the “break the cutie” route with her, given the amount of bad stuff her character goes through (don’t worry, it doesn’t work). Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin and Sean Maher all do good jobs as Jayne, Inara and Simon respectively as well. Summer Glau is phenomenal as River and she is just so unique in that role it feels so weird when watching her as someone who isn’t mad. She just has a special innocence and cuteness that gives her a childlike quality even when she’s a grown woman in reality. Ron Glass as Shepherd Book only has three scenes but he makes the most of them. Chiwetel Ejiofor had some big shoes to fill, being the only main actor who wasn’t in the TV series but he is fantastic as The Operative, truly one of the best written villains in the Whedon-verse.
The big scene that re-introduces the characters from the TV show is a seemingly single take shot that lasts seven minutes and serves to act as a way to let people who didn’t watch the series know the characters and their personalities while not boring the older fans. It’s a pretty impressive shot though I’ve heard it’s actually two takes since two of the sets were in different parts of the studio. I can’t actually find the cut so if it exists then it’s very well hidden. All of the action scenes are pretty brilliant and I’m trying to find other adjectives to describe them (the dog still hasn’t coughed up that Thesaurus yet). My favourites are the one near the start where Mal, Zoe, Jayne and River are escaping from the Reavers in their hovercraft with the Reavers’ ship fast on their tail. There’s another cool one where they are trying to fly through a whole swarm of Reaver ships and land theirs on a planet but of course things can’t go smoothly or else the movie would be too boring. The final fight scene with the Reavers is pretty dramatic and I was almost annoyed that it kept cutting away to Mal with The Operative because I wanted to see what was going on in the battle. Summer Glau acts the hell out of that scene and a line as simple as “my turn” manages to be so powerful. I actually nearly shouted out “you go girl” before I remembered the rules and restrictions of my gender.
As is the case with many good films, it didn’t perform so well at the box office. I myself remember seeing previews for it but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and see it because they all made it look like a comedy and you all know where I stand on comedies. However it was successful in DVD sales and has more than made back its budget by now, as well as being firmly burned into the hearts of us loyal Whedon followers. I will say goodbye to Mr Whedon and to the entire cast of this film because I won’t be seeing them again on my list but I do give them a round of applause and a virtual pat on the back for giving a sort of undead TV show that never got a chance a shining send-off. And if you fans are still hungry for more, there is the inevitable comic book continuation. Until tomorrow, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.