Film

A Whole New ’Verse

The Death of Firefly and the Birth of Serenity

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Serenity
dir. Whedon
Opens Fri Sept 30
Various Theaters

Not to sound hyperbolic, but it was as perfect of a TV show as I ever expect to see. Smart, strange, funny, angry, and loving. Populated with sweating, bleeding characters who had more layers than one could ever entirely discover. Backed up by a concept that was as politically relevant as it was unique and challenging. In short, Firefly was something exceedingly rare not only for TV, but for any medium: a strikingly imagined, perfectly executed example of both expression and entertainment.

So, of course, Firefly was cancelled almost as soon as it began, with Fox broadcasting only 11 episodes. But following massive DVD sales and an unprecedentedly devoted fan base, Universal Pictures has resurrected Firefly—well, sort of—via Serenity.

In an interview, Joss Whedon—Firefly's creator, and the writer and director of Serenity—summed the film up thusly: "This is a science fiction western noir action suspense drama. (Yes, another one of those.)" True, Serenity's all of those things; more specifically, it's a film that, instead of following the easily likeable winners of a conflict—the sterilized Star Trek or bombastic Star Wars—it sticks the audience in with the desperate and bitter losers. Here, after a conflict inspired by the American Civil War, the insurgents—calling themselves Browncoats—are on the run from the monolithic government, the Alliance.

That Alliance is what resulted when the world's two superpowers, America and China, united; after using up Earth's resources, humanity terraformed small moons and planets, most of which ended up dusty, hot, and miserable—not unlike the Old West. The overstretched Alliance, in an act of both manifest destiny and ambivalence, tossed settlers on the planets to live off the barren land.

Along those shitty little rocks skips Serenity, the tiny, tough spaceship of a disillusioned, cynical Browncoat, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Backed up by her loyal crew, Serenity survives by smuggling—until a mysterious, creepy girl named River (Summer Glau), who's on the run from the Alliance, climbs aboard. And until the Alliance decides to hire a polite, principled, and remorseless assassin, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to get River back.

Firefly fans are going to be fucking delighted by Serenity. (I know I am.) The personable characters are here, and true, and portrayed, across the board, by the same talented actors from Firefly (even if the film suffers from overcrowding by shoehorning in a TV-friendly cast of nine core characters). The action is bigger and better. (Wait until you see the third act's stunning space battle.) The scope is larger, and the themes hit harder (including Whedon's favorites: independence, feminism, existentialism, and self-realization). The witty dialogue alternately crackles and sings, with the characters speaking with Western-inspired drawls and tossing in bits of Chinese. And thanks to cinematographer Jack Green, the film looks amazing. Serenity's as good as anyone could have hoped it to be, and it is, at times, both visually and emotionally arresting.

At first, I was wary that Serenity's appeal would be limited to Firefly fans—the introductions to the characters are quick and economic, as is the terse synopsis of their universe. But from the two screenings I've attended, I've seen how Serenity comes across to the uninitiated—it plays great, with just enough information provided to get them into the world and characters.

While Serenity's impressive in its own right, Whedon's film also proves something: There's a whole new method of making films. For the first time, the Fox suit who cancelled Firefly didn't totally kill it; instead, fans (who, rather appropriately, dubbed themselves "Browncoats") demonstrated how much they loved it, and studios took notice. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Serenity does well—not only because I'd walk barefoot over shattered glass to see Whedon do a sequel (or better yet, bring back the series), but because if it does, it'll mean that audiences will have more say in what future films and TV series they see. In an industry where the best and most original TV shows and films are either cancelled or relegated to cult status, I can't think of anything more promising than Serenity's success.

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