I consider Serenity to be part of the television show. Like the second season we never got, but compressed into a feature film.
It begins with a little voice-over narration telling us about this fictional world, centering on the war between the Alliance and the Independents. Then we see River as a child in school, but it’s a dream. She is back in the Alliance lab that messed with her brain. Simon is there, posing as a VIP on an inspection tour. He breaks her out of the facility.
I’m glad the movie starts with this scene, because although we’d heard about how Simon freed River in the TV series, we never got to see it. And this makes a terrific set-up for the rest of the movie.
And then the movie does something clever. The scene of Simon and River’s escape is paused in mid-action, and shown to be just a recording. It’s being viewed by the Operative (he’s so cool he doesn’t even need a real name) at the lab where the escape happened. The Operative wants River back because she may have learned the secrets of the Alliance leaders and that cannot be allowed. So the chase is on.
I mentioned in my blog about the last episode (Objects in Space) that I suspected the villain (Jubal Early) may have been a prototype for this Operative. Both are highly intelligent and extremely motivated to find River. Both are capable of doing monstrous things to get what they want and still feel entirely justified afterward.
Anyway, back to the movie. Serenity lands on a frontier world. We get a brief introduction to the crew. Alas, Shepherd Book and Inara are not onboard, so this obviously takes place after where the TV show left off.
However, Mal’s relationship with Simon has been backed up to the emotional space of when they first met. They argue because Mal wants to take River on this job, but Simon doesn’t want her involved in the crew’s criminality. Their discussion lays out the entire situation of the ship. They are broke and need to make money fast and crime is the only thing that pays.
So the crew goes to rob the local security force’s payroll. While the heist is going on, River senses that the Reavers are coming. Now, in the TV show, the Reavers were more of a remote threat, a space boogeyman. I think the crew only encountered them once directly and another time indirectly. But Joss Whedon is laying it on the line this time. The crew escapes the town on their “mule” (hover transport), but the Reavers give chase in a beat-up old ship. Wash picks them up in Serenity in the nick of time.
When they get back onboard, Simon punches Mal for putting his sister in danger. Then he announces that he and River are leaving at the next port. I’m not sure I like this part of the story. For one, Mal and Simon worked out a lot of their issues during the TV series, so this felt like a big step back. I understand it was probably done because not everyone who saw the movie would know the show’s history and relationships, and depicting Simon and Mal at each other’s throats is good drama. Still, it didn’t sit right with me.
This scene does end with one of the best speeches of the series: Jayne’s rant about Reavers and killing people:
Hell, I’ll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there’s a woman. Or if I’m getting paid. Mostly only when I’m getting paid. But these Reavers…
The ship lands on a nicer planet, and Simon and River get set to leave. Kaylee is angry at Mal for chasing them away. Mal meets their employers at a bar. While they talk, Simon and River show up. River watches an anime commercial on a monitor and has a flashback. She whispers, “Miranda,” and then goes berserk, attacking everyone in the bar.
Jayne tries to restrain her, but without much success. Mal goes for the locker where he stored his gun. Right before he and River start to exchange shots, Simon knocks River unconscious with a word.
The crew takes River (locked in a room) and Simon back to Serenity where they discuss what just happened. Simon doesn’t have the answers. So they go to Mr. Universe, who is a new character to this setting.
He apparently lives alone on a world inside an electromagnetic cloud which somehow boosts the signal of his transmissions all around the Verse. He sees everything that is broadcast and shares that info with everyone. So they show him the video feed of what River did, and he figures out the commercial contained a subliminal message that triggered her. The Alliance must have planted it in her head. And now Mal knows the Alliance is on his trail.
Serenity lands on a moon called Haven, where Shepherd Book now lives as leader of a small community. Mal has come for safe refuge and a little advice. Once again, Book reveals a surprising amount of knowledge about clandestine matters. Mal gets a call from Inara, asking for his help with some local trouble. Mal knows it’s a trap because she doesn’t pick a fight with him. He figures to spring it and find out who the Alliance sent after him.
They travel to Inara’s new home and Mal sneaks into her Companion temple. She is shocked that he actually came and wants him to leave, but it’s too late. The Operative appears, demanding River. Mal tries to fight him, but the Operative is damned good. Inara lights a flash bomb and she and Mal escape. Serenity makes a nifty escape from the Alliance cruiser parked off-world with a fake transponder and jets away.
The crew discusses what they’ve learned. Jayne is angry about all this trouble and it turns into an argument with Mal that gets very personal. Note: This is another example of a relationship rewind, in my opinion. After the events in the episode Ariel, I have to believe that Jayne learned his lesson about pushing Mal too far. He’s a rock-head, but he’s not that stupid.
River breaks out of her cell and gets to the bridge, where she looks up Miranda, which is a planet. She shows the crew. They remember there was some kind of terraforming accident in the news, and nothing’s been heard about it since. River doesn’t know why, but this place is important. The problem is that it’s deep in Reaver territory.
They head back to Haven, only to find it burned to the ground and everyone killed. Book is mortally wounded, but has enough strength left for a few words with Mal. The crew calls up all their other secret hideouts, only to find they’ve all been given the same treatment.
The Operative contacts Mal. He is a true believer who will not stop until he gets River back. This is a great conversation, because instead of the usual self-righteous stuff that most villains spew (I’m guilty of it myself), he realizes he is a monster, that he is unworthy to live in the perfect world he is helping his bosses create.
Mal concocts a new plan. He orders the crew to make Serenity look like a Reaver ship. When the crew balks, he tells them to do what he says or they can stay on Haven. I really, really love this part because here is when Ice Cold Mal emerges, the bad-ass ^$*#(@ who will never quit. No more Mr. Nice Captain.
With a new coat of paint and some incinerated skeletons strapped to her hull, Serenity passes through Reaver space, which is pretty much a vast ship graveyard. The movie does a decent job of imparting a spooky atmosphere here. They get past the floating hulks to Miranda, a planet with cities and towns and roads… but no people. Well, no living people. There are plenty of corpses, but no signs of violence or sickness. River starts freaking out, and Jayne delivers the stellar line, “She is starting to damage my calm.”
A beacon leads the crew to a crashed Alliance ship and there’s a recording inside. According to the rescue team, the terraformers added a chemical to the atmosphere in an attempt to make the citizens more docile, but it worked too well. The people stopped doing everything, even eating. But a small percentage had the opposite reaction. They became monsters—this is the origin of the Reavers, insane space barbarians who only live to rape, murder, and eat human flesh. After seeing the recording, River is better. Truly better. The horror that has been plaguing her for months has been lifted with this revelation.
Mal gets the crew together and lays out his thoughts on this matter. He is set on telling this story to the entire universe, spilling the government’s big secret about how they tried to pacify a planet and ended up killing everyone and spawning the Reavers. The crew agrees. They are going to Mr. Universe to broadcast the recording.
As Serenity takes off, Mal contacts Mr. Universe. But the Operative is already there. After Mr. Universe says everything is okay and signs off, the Operative kills him. Mal, always the sly one, smells a trap. As Serenity sails back through Reaver space, they fire on a Reaver ship and get the entire swarm chasing after them.
The Alliance fleet, with the Operative onboard, waits inside the electromagnetic cloud surrounding Mr. Universe’s planet. Serenity appears, and the Operative orders his armada to prepare to fire. Then the Reaver swarm arrives on Serenity’s tail, and all plans go out the window. It’s a wonderful movie moment as the Operative goes from supremely confident to crapping his pants as hundreds of Reaver ships descend. He escapes his dying flagship in an escape pod.
Serenity flies through the battle, taking damage as Wash does his best Han Solo impersonation. (“I am a leaf on the wind!”) But a Reaver ship hits them with an EMP weapon and Serenity loses all power. I loved how Jayne is the ship’s safety officer, making sure everyone gets buckled up. The ship makes a crash landing, but she survives.
Then we get to the point in the movie which makes my wife tear up every time. Wash has just enough time to breathe a sigh of relief that they landed in one piece before a huge wooden spear smashes through the windshield and transfixes him to the seat, killing him instantly.
The crew evacuates, including poor Zoe who just watched her husband die, into Mr. Universe’s massive city-like home where he apparently lives alone with his robot wife… Okay. Moving on. The crew picks a room to make their stand, holding off the Reavers while Mal goes to send the broadcast.
However, Mal finds Mr. Universe dead and his equipment smashed. Just when things look impossible, the love-bot plays a message from Mr. Universe, telling Mal about a second broadcast station down in the bowels of the city.
Meanwhile, Reavers attack the crew’s strong point. Kaylee and Simon share a tender moment where he expresses regret that they never had sex. To which she has the perfect response. (“The hell with this. I’m gonna live!”) Sadly, although that’s a great line and very funny, I’m still hurting too much over Wash to fully appreciate it.
Mal makes his way down to the basement, followed by the Operative (who snuck inside pretty easy, bypassing the crew’s last stand.) The Operative catches up to him outside the backup broadcast station, which is ridiculously difficult to get to via some chains and weird monkey bars.
The Operative shoots Mal in the back, and Mal shoots back. They fight while the crew battles the Reavers. The crew starts to take losses and fall back. When Simon is shot, River runs out and goes Jedi Knight on the Reavers.
It’s an interesting take on her character, as we’ve seen her powers grow over the course of the television show, and now she comes to her fruition. Some part of us has to ask, if she could do this all along, why did she let things get this bad in the first place? However, it’s a great scene as she dives out to defend her fallen brother.
Down below, Mal is having a harder time of it. He’s getting the snot beat out of him by the Operative. Mal is even stabbed through the stomach with a sword, but that still doesn’t stop him. Ice Cold Mal is a force of nature. Mal suckers the Operative in close by faking an injury, and then puts him down. But Mal spares the man who killed so many of his friends. He makes the Operative watch the recording as he sends it out to the Verse for all to see. A battalion of Alliance troops show up to take down the last Reavers and hold the crew at gunpoint, until the Operative tells them to stand down. It’s over.
The crew buries Shepherd Book, Mr. Universe, and Wash. Then they get to fixing up Serenity. Kaylee and Simon finally get it on. Is it odd that River watches them, or endearing? I’ll let you decide.
When the ship is spaceworthy, the Operative shows up to see them off. He says Parliament might still come after them for what they revealed. Mal doesn’t seem too concerned. Mal and Zoe share a moment. Then Inara reveals that she might stick around for a while, and that makes Mal happy.
We end with Mal taking the controls, with River sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He tells her the first rule of flying is love. It’s raining as they take off. River says the storm is getting worse, but Mal replies they’ll pass through it soon enough.
If I put on my Objective Movie Critic hat, do I think this is a “great” film, worthy of stacking up against the best movies in history? Maybe not. It’s campy in places. The messages are fairly simplistic. We get a lot of shorthand instead of in-depth character development.
However, I personally don’t see it that way. As I said at the beginning, I view Serenity as the second season of Firefly. So I don’t need to delve into every character, because I already know them so well. I don’t need tons of world-building info because I already know and love this fictional setting. I don’t need to know how Mal came to own the ship and collected this ragtag crew because (say it with me) I already know. Instead, I got exactly what I wanted—a new adventure with these beloved characters that expands on what I know about them and their universe.
Some of my favorite parts:
The dialogue. It’s quippy and smart without being smug. So many great lines, just like the show.
Ice Cold Mal. In the show we got glimpses of the soldier inside Mal, but it never truly emerged until the massacre at Haven. Mal told Inara earlier in the movie that she would know if he ever started fighting a war, and she found out. We all did. That kind of quietly-seething-but-I’m-never-going-to-stop courage always gets me.
River’s Jedi act. Because River was always at the heart of the Alliance problems but never got to truly take the center stage during the show, I really felt that her character needed this moment when she stops fighting herself and just lets go. And it was triggered with genuine emotion instead of faux heroics. She didn’t even need a big Movie Speech to do it. Just a simple, “You’ve been taking care of me, Simon. Now it’s my turn to take care of you.” Wow, what a powerful moment.
The Villain. There aren’t enough positive words in the English language to describe Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative. This was the role that the entire movie hung upon and he delivered in every way possible. He was driven with machine-like single-mindedness, but yet capable of delivering a threat with a smile. Even though I was rooting for him to lose, I never stopped respecting this character.
Even more, I loved how the Operative pushed Mal, a man we’ve come to love for his integrity and honor, his ability to laugh at himself, and (most importantly) his absolute loyalty to his friends. This movie put Mal and his crew through the grinder, but they emerged stronger on the other side.
I don’t know if they’ll ever make more episodes of Firefly. I rather doubt it. And I’m pretty sure there won’t be a sequel to Serenity. While that sucks, I greatly appreciate what we have.
Thank you all for following me on this journey. It’s been my pleasure.
Read our complete Firefly Retrospective series:
Part 1 — Pilot
Part 2 — “Train Job” and “Bushwhacked”
Part 3 — “Shindig” and “Safe”
Part 4 — “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Jaynestown”
Part 5 — “Out of Gas” and “Ariel”
Part 6 — “War Stories” and “Trash”
Part 7 — “The Message,” “Heart of Gold,” and “Objects in Space”
Part 8 — Serenity, the Movie
Jon Sprunk is the author of the fantasy epic Blood and Iron as well as the Shadow Saga trilogy (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master). He’s also a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. For more on his life and writing, check out www.jonsprunk.com.