Serenity: Sci-Fi on the Raggedy Edge
If you’re familiar with writer-director Joss Whedon’s much-beloved 2005 science fiction film Serenity, you’ve likely heard the tale of the picture’s convoluted path to the big screen. It begins with the 2002 premiere and subsequent, swift cancellation of Firefly, Whedon’s hour-long TV series that fell victim to an impatient network (not to mention a dreadful ad campaign that featured Smash Mouth’s then-ubiquitous tune “Walking on the Sun”). Serenity picks up where Firefly was forced to leave off, and Firefly’s vocal fans (some who watched the initial broadcasts, many who were converted by the hot-selling DVDs of the series) embraced the big screen version, only too happy to have their favorite characters back. Fans championed the film with a missionary zeal; at the time of Serenity’s release, a story circulated about a Vancouver man who bought 320 tickets to the film just to give them away to strangers. Alas, Serenity didn’t set the box office aflame during its initial run, but it has predictably had a strong DVD afterlife, and indeed more staying power than the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan (a massive hit, moneywise, in 2005) that held the number one box office spot when Serenity opened, or the Vin Diesel vehicle Doom (even that had a bigger opening weekend). Serenity’s charms are many whether you’re a newcomer or a diehard, and in the past few years it has settled comfortably into a position of rare prestige in the cinematic sci-fi canon.
Much of the Firefly/Serenity universe’s unique appeal lies in Whedon’s ability to tell human stories within a fantastic context. And when I say “human” I do mean moving and truthful, but I mean “human” in the “insignificant speck” sense as well. It’s oft been noted that Whedon conceived “Firefly” as a kind of anti-“Star Trek”: it isn’t about some Starfleet types boldly going on noble missions with the best technology in the universe. It’s about the losers, the underdogs, the outlaws, and the lowlifes of the universe, flawed humans who can barely make it through the day. The world was routinely saved on Whedon’s famous TV creations “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”, but the characters on “Firefly” always kept pretty busy just trying to save themselves.
In Serenity, the story is popcorn-and-widescreen big, and suddenly the oft-overmatched crew of the titular spaceship are up against much, much more than they appear to be able to handle, finding themselves burdened with the power to expose some very serious abuses of power in the universe, and tailed by a sword-wielding government operative (a memorably menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to keep them from spreading the truth. Even for those who aren’t familiar with the TV series, it’s pretty obvious that these people aren’t used to trying to save the world, and maybe not cut out for it either. (Our first introduction to the ship and it’s crew in the film is classic – after a brief moment of standing at the spaceship’s helm, all captain-y and majestic, Nathan Fillion’s Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds hears the sound of the “primary buffer panel” falling off of his ship. Primary buffer panel. That sounds like something important.)
Of course, we movie fans love to route for an underdog (Remember how you felt when Stallone tapped boxing gloves with the bigger, scarier Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV? Yeah. It’s kind of like that.), and these are underdogs that are easy to love – from Alan Tudyk’s wisecracking Wash to Summer Glau’s fractured, enigmatic River. But Fillion’s Captain Reynolds may well be the iconic heart of the piece. Critic Mary Ann Johanson wrote in her review of Serenity that the all-too-human, antiheroic Mal “is Han Solo, and Mal would always, always, shoot Greedo first.” And like Star Wars’ Han Solo, Mal’s greatest vulnerability, and greatest saving grace, is that he’s deeply compassionate just beneath his hardened exterior. Fillion gives Mal just the right edge, and when he recently surfaced on an Empire magazine list of the “100 Greatest Movie Characters” (ahead of Luke Skywalker, but, alas, trailing his spiritual godfather Han Solo by a sizable margin), he looked right at home.
As a film, Serenity itself has much of the underdog appeal of its characters. Made on a fairly lean budget, fueled by a bounty of love and commitment on the part of cast, crew, and fans, it strikes a chord like few films of any genre manage to do (Did I mention that that gentleman bought 320 tickets to this picture?). It may not offer the shiny, idealized future of other sci-fi franchises, but audiences do see something striking in it. They see themselves, reflected in the best and worst possible lights, and they recognize that we insignificant humans may always be among the universe’s most compelling, infuriating, and inspiring creatures.