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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List: #383 - Serenity

“Serenity” is what happens when you give free reigns to Joss Whedon. It is a movie that is cool as can be, a space western featuring a rag tag crew of pirates/mercenaries on the run from an evil empire hell-bent on killing one of their passengers. It features a charismatic lead, strong female characters, witty dialogue, sword fights, fist fights, gun fights, and of course space battles. The crew’s spaceship, Serenity, is of course a pile of junk. Don’t you love underdogs?

The movie is based on a TV show that is somewhat of an underdog itself. “Firefly,” premiered on Fox in 2002 and was cancelled after 11 episodes. That would normally have been the end for any show, but then all episodes were released on DVD. Then many people bought them, lots of people wondered why some idiot at Fox cancelled such a fun show, fan clubs were formed, and comic books continued the story. Eventually Joss Whedon thought there was enough support to get the band back together and make a movie.

I only saw previews for the show and never took the time to watch an episode. My brother on the other hand loved the show and was one of the many people to hate Fox for pulling the plug. When the movie came out in 2005 I was drawn in by all the buzz and headed for the first cinema in Quebec City that played the film in English. I had a great time, had some good laughs, and then also wondered why “Firefly” was cancelled. Eventually my brother bought the entire TV show and I believe I got him the movie as a Christmas present. You don’t need to have seen the TV show to enjoy the movie, but once you have seen one you will want the whole package.

The film, much like the TV show, follows the crew of the “Serenity” led by Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a charming rogue with a loose sense of morality. In a quick sequence we meet the rest of the crew as his ship may or may not crash land on a planet. There is Wash (Alan Tudyk) the kind of pilot you really want behind the wheel when in the middle of a battle involving hundreds of spaceship, Zoe (Gina Torres) the rational second-in-command and wife of Wash, Jayne (Adam Baldwin) the trigger-happy brute, and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) the pint-sized mechanic. These aren’t your old school honorable crewmembers from Star Trek. If there’s a job and it pays well, they’ll take it even if it means robbing someone at gunpoint.

Unfortunately for them, the Alliance that rules their galaxy has put a target on their head. Not for their cargo but for two of their passengers. Doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) rescued his sister River Tam (Summer Glau) from a government prison and sought refuge aboard the Serenity. On the surface River seems to be suffering from mental trauma as a result of torture and is not always there. But beneath lies a killing machine with the ability to read people’s mind. Before escaping from prison she read the mind of too many important people and now she knows too much.

To find her and kill her the Alliance sends a nameless warrior known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the sort of man who can rationalize killing hundreds of innocents for the greater good. He is ruthless, calculating, patient, and lives by an ancient code of honor. Part of the joy of the movie is seeing him clash with Reynolds’ brashness. When the Operative sets a trap by capturing Inara (Morena Baccarin), Reynolds’ love interest, he expects to they will negotiate man to man. He tells Reynolds’s he is unarmed as a sign of good faith. As a sign of intelligence, Reynolds’ shoots him on the spot. Of course The Operative never said anything about body armor.

This is the sort of humor Whedon excels at. Like half the planet I have seen his most recent cinematic outing, a little movie called “The Avengers.” I expected to see fights and explosions, which there are plenty, but I didn’t expect it to have some many funny one-liners. Take the action away and you have a comedy.

Another part of his appeal is his ability to write strong female characters. True, one of the characters in Serenity is in fact a prostitute, but she can definitely stand her own ground. Then there is Summer Glau, who has not one but two fights when she battles a dozen adversaries, first with her bare hands, and later with a pair of axes. No damsels in distress in this galaxy.

Sadly, “Serenity” did not make the fortune “The Avengers” made at the box-office, but once again the DVD sales proved the fans still had a lot of love. The chances of a sequel or bringing back the show are slim, but I would say the movie brings a satisfying sense of closure. An even greater sense of satisfaction: Fox mistreated a great show and years later Whedon went to work for Marvel Studios and directed one of the highest grossing films of all time. Don’t you love it when the underdog wins in the end?


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