By Shawn McKenzie 12/29/2005
I haven’t seen all of the movies of 2005 yet (I still need to see King Kong and Munich), but I can safely say that Serenity is my second favorite movie of the year…right behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The fact that the movie did about as well in the box office as the FOX TV show “Firefly” that it came from, which was badly, it’s a shame that it probably won’t see a sequel (or a return of the show to television.) My guess is that there just weren’t enough non-fans of the TV show to see the genius that is Joss Whedon and his space-Western creation.
The movie takes place six months after the events portrayed in the final episode of the show. The setting is around the year 2517, and Earthlings have colonized other planets in a far-away solar system because Earth became too overpopulated. The planets and moons were terraformed, a process in which a planet or moon is altered to look like Earth. The Alliance, which is the government that controlled the central colonized planets, wanted to take control of the outlying planets as well. The Independents, known as Browncoats, didn’t want to be governed by the Alliance, so they declared civil war against the powerful government, and that war was known as the Unification War. Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his second-in-command Zoë Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres) were the only survivors of the last battle of the war, the Battle of Serenity Valley, and now they survive doing odd jobs…some of which are illegal. Mal and Zoë’s crew includes Zoë’s husband-pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), engineer Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), and hired muscle Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin.) Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his younger sister, River (Summer Glau), joined the crew on the first episode of the TV show. Simon became the crew’s doctor, and they have recently been using River for her psychic abilities while doing jobs. She is a little unpredictable though, and she has occasional outbursts of violence against anyone around her (Simon calms her down by using a “safe word,” spoken in Chinese.) Kaylee has a huge crush on Simon, and she would really like to sleep with him. As the movie opens, a young River (Hunter Ansley Wryn as a girl) tries to explain to her teacher (Tamara Taylor) why “People don’t like to be meddled with.” We switch to the present, and River is being held by the Alliance so that their doctor, Dr. Mathias (Michael Hitchcock), could get something important out of her head. Before he succeeds, Simon rescues her and they board the Serenity. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a man who has no name or rank but has the full clearance of the Parliament of the Alliance, watches a hologram playback of the escape and kills Dr. Mathias. Meanwhile, the crew has been hired by a pair of twins named Fanty (Rafael Feldman) and Mingo (Yan Feldman) to steal the payroll of an outer planet security company financed by the Alliance. They bring River along to use her psychic talent to watch out for trouble. She sees the murderous, cannibalistic, ugly-looking Reavers coming, and she and the rest of her payroll thieves hop their hovercraft called The Mule and barely escape. They take Serenity to a bar on the planet of Beaumonde, where they haggle over the price of the payroll with Fanty and Mingo. River starts staring at an animated commercial on the bar’s TV, and she whispers “Miranda.” Suddenly, she beats up everyone there, including Jayne, despite weighing only about 90 pounds. River calms her down with his safe word, and she goes to sleep. Simon explains that the Alliance trained her to be a dangerous assassin so that she could be used as a weapon against their enemies. Mal contacts techno-geek Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who lives with his robot wife Lenore (Nectar Rose), to find out why she went crazy. He looks at the security camera footage of the fight and realizes that she had been hypnotized by the commercial. He also tells them that the Alliance has seen the footage as well, so the crew travels to a mining colony on the planet of Haven for refuge. The colony’s leader, a preacher named Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), takes them in for the night, but Mal realizes that the Alliance will be coming for them soon, so they take off the next day. Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a high-class courtesan, soon contacts them with a job offer. Mal realizes that it’s a trap, but he goes anyway, since he has a crush on her. The Operative confronts him, but Inara helps herself and Mal escape from the bad guy. River finds out that “Miranda” is an outlying planet that hadn’t been fully terraformed yet and was believed to be uninhabitable. Wash points out that traveling to Miranda would require crossing through what is now Reaver territory, so they go back to Haven to do some thinking. When they get there, they discover the colony in ruins. They disguise the ship to look like a Reaver ship so that they can safely go to Miranda. Once there, they stumble upon a recording that reveals the truth about the Alliance. They want to bring it back to Mr. Universe so that he can broadcast it throughout the galaxy, but the Zombie-like Reavers and The Operative still stand in their way.
The long and winding tale of how the excellent TV show spawned an equally excellent feature film started right after the show’s cancellation. First off…FOX did a great disservice to this show. They aired it on Friday nights…where there probably hasn’t been a hit show on that night in the entire network’s history. “Firefly,” “John Doe,” “Wonderfalls,” and many other low-rated cult favorites suffered their short runs there. If the death night wasn’t bad enough, they aired the show out of order (if you don’t happen to have the box set…and I highly recommend picking it up…it is in the correct order on the set) and it was preempted several times. I actually feel guilty that I only gave it 4 ½ TV stars originally. If I had seen more episodes before I wrote my original review, I would have given it a perfect rating. Anyway…the “Browncoats” (a “Firefly” fan, of which I am included) were livid, so they tried to see if another network would pick it up. When that didn’t happen, they geeked out like any geek would…they formed several tribute websites to the show. In December of 2003, the DVD box set was released with all fourteen episodes on it in its correct order (there were only eleven episodes aired, so three unaired episodes were available for the first time on the set.) It became a huge seller, and Universal Studios decided to greenlight a feature film with Whedon writing and directing it (the movie became Whedon’s theatrical directing debut.) He cast all of the original actors from the show and re-titled it Serenity to differentiate the movie from the show. The studio held sneak preview screenings in 35 cities between May and June where the Nielsen ratings for the show were the highest. All of the preview screenings sold out in record time. They also held screenings in Australia and in the United Kingdom from July to August, with the same sold-out results.
So…why did it bomb so badly in the box office? Honestly, I don’t know. I myself thought it would debut with at least $30 million and would shoot to number one. All of the critics I talked to loved it, and all of my fellow Browncoats were acting like it was a long-lost chapter of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. When it debuted with a disappointing $10.1 million in its first weekend and landed in the number two position, I knew that all hope was lost. My fears were confirmed when it dropped from second place to ninth place in its second week, and then fell out of the top 10 the week after.
If we are going to be completely honest…you almost had to have been a Browncoat to enjoy the movie fully. Despite Whedon’s attempt to give us an opening that would benefit audiences not familiar with the show, only Browncoats would recognize the back-story of the characters. Heck…even I wasn’t aware until now that there was a three-issue comic book series called Serenity that bridged the gap between the fourteenth episode of the show and the beginning of the movie. It explained why Book and Inara weren’t on the ship at the beginning of the movie, that The Hands of Blue agents were killed trying to capture River, and that The Operative was brought in by the Alliance to replace The Hands of Blue. Despite the cool action and hilarious dialogue, I bet many non-fans just didn’t “get it.”
It certainly wasn’t because of the performances. When Krumholtz is the biggest name in the movie…you are in trouble. Of course, all of the actors in it are familiar to TV geeks like me, and not because I am a Browncoat. Before “Firefly,” Fillion’s biggest claim to fame was as the boyfriend to the “Girl” on ABC’s “Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place.” He definitely embodies the spirit of Han Solo, and I hope that he is a lead in other projects. I don’t want to go through all of the cast members, but they were great as well. As for the cast members who are new to the Whedonverse, Ejiofor was terrific as the bad guy, and he reminded me of Jubal Early (played by Richard Brooks) from the last episode, “Objects in Space.” The Operative had a British accent instead of the low, menacing voice of Early, but physically and fight style-wise they were similar. Krumholtz wasn’t in the movie for long, but he was appropriately amusing.
I’ve heard rumors that there may be a Serenity 2 if the DVD sales do well. Whoever thought that the first movie would come into fruition? So…Browncoats and non-Browncoats alike…buy as many copies of the Serenity DVD (which includes commentary from Whedon, deleted scenes, and more) as you can and watch the reruns of “Firefly” on the Sci-Fi Channel constantly…and maybe that will actually happen. Wouldn’t that be shiny?
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