“I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.”
When television series Firefly was cancelled in 2003 after a mere fourteen episodes, Joss Whedon made himself a silver lining and created the critically acclaimed feature film, Serenity. Carefully crafted so that already established fans familiar with the show would get at least some of the answers they were hoping for, and new audiences could enjoy a seemingly self-contained narrative, Serenity is quick-paced, very smart, and – as is to be expected of Whedon – scripted with wit and care.
Set five hundred years in the future, Serenity (and Firefly) follows the exploits of Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew on board Serenity, a faithful rust-bucket space ship. Something of an anti-hero, Mal is simply trying to get by, taking any job – even honest ones – to keep his beloved ship in the air. Despite his loose ethics, however, he is a good guy, and a moral one; beneath his tough exterior, he can be counted to protect the things, and the people, he cares about. Among his crew are Wash (Alan Tudyk) and his wife (and Mal’s right-hand woman) Zoe (Gina Torres), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the delightfully ambiguous Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) – Whedonites will be familiar with several of these people, who have appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse.
In creating his sci-fi western, Whedon has created a future that is actually quite probable: English and Chinese are the only surviving languages (cleverly allowing the script to bypass certification issues by uttering every swear in non-subtitled Chinese) and, although humans have long since abandoned Earth-That-Was for new, less polluted planets, no alien life has yet been discovered. Technology, rather than becoming the cure-all for human woes, works in much the same way as it does right now – it has become part of the world, but has not taken over. While the central planets enjoy wealth and comfort, the fringe lands are less hospitable, and people are, as always, still people – flawed, imperfect, complicated.
Running through the television series was a mystery – that of River (Summer Glau) and the experiments done on her by the Alliance, the galaxy’s governing body. Fourteen episodes in, and there are the barest of hints as to River’s potential; the final episode tries to give a few insights, but without the film, fans would be left with a frustrating, infuriating lack of explanation. Serenity completes the story arc that was begun in the first episode of Firefly and, in transitioning to the big screen, adopts a grander scope than the series would allow, while remaining faithful to the original concept.
Joining the core cast is British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a well-spoken but ruthless foe filled with a deadly sense of purpose. As the Operative, he is the perfect counter for Mal, who is erratic and spontaneous, but can always be counted on to do what is right. Whedon juggles a large ensemble of nine main characters, each of whom feel complete, sparking off each other but retaining their own sense of identity – in a way, Serenity provides a preview of the successes he would achieve in Avengers Assemble. This film proved Whedon was the perfect man for that huge task, and the results (third highest grossing film of all time) speak for themselves.
When it was released, Serenity received favourable reviews, though it failed to reach a large audience. It did, however, revive interest in the ill-fated Firefly, and DVD sales of both series and film boosted profits substantially. The two formats compliment each other well, but taken on its own, the film is great fun – filled with likeable characters who interact in believable ways, some great action and several goose-bump-inducing moments, it is a smart film with an interesting, serious point, disguised as light-hearted entertainment; something that has come to be expected of anything with Whedon’s name attached.