Serenity: A Look Back

By Jonathan Bird

Serenity, writer/director Joss Whedon‘s exuberant space opera opens with one nod to the power of love and closes with another; the first concerns a brother’s affection for his sister, the second, a captain’s affection for his spaceship. (Intriguingly the latter is, if anything, more touching.) The two scenes form an apt pair of bookends because, despite it being a major hollywood blockbuster, Serenity is a product of the love of fans of “Firefly,” the cancelled TV series from which the film was granted its base, of the cast and most of all, of Whedon himself.

Following the successes of his earlier cult hits ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel’ in 2002 Whedon left the horror-comedy realm to launch “Firefly” a picaresque, Western-themed sci-fi series that followed the interplanetary wanderings and albeit light hearted, crimes of Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) a former soldier in an disastrous interplanetary rebellion and the crew of his ship, Serenity. (The movie is named for the vessel, which in turn was named after the location of a battle that Mal fought in – none of which could be remotely described as “serene.”) Created for FOX, “Firefly” was Whedon’s first big-network experience (“Buffy” and “Angel” aired on the smaller WB and UPN networks) and it wasn’t a happy one. In their infallible wisdom, FOX executives decided to air the series in a haphazard sequence; when it struggled to quickly find an audience, they pulled the plug after only eleven episodes.

But as fans Whedon’s previous TV shows such as ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel’ know, Whedon has a penchant for bringing things back from the dead (Pun intended). “Buffy” itself was raised from the ashes of the same named movie, for which Whedon had written the screenplay. Unhappy with the way his dark comedy had been botched during rewrites, he resurrected his popular heroine for the small screen. “Firefly” faced the opposite, and more difficult, challenge of persuading a studio to back a film based on a cancelled series. But while the show’s audience was small, it was committed. Naming themselves ‘browncoats’ – after the defeated rebel forces in ‘Firefly’ – they wrote letters and flooded sci-fi conventions and, when finally given the opportunity, added their wallets to the cause; when the DVD boxset of the entire mismatched season was released in late 2003 and vastly outsold the network’s expectations. That windfall and Whedon’s endless perseverance (he’d kept several of his ‘Firefly’ cast members employed with short stints as villains on “Buffy” and its spin off “Angel”), persuaded Universal to bite on a $40-million feature-film adaptation.

And thank goodness ‘Serenity’ superseded all expectations. In turn, both witty and harrowing, clever and weighty, it is closer in spirit to Star Wars than anything George Lucas had produced in a quarter century, prior to ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Like the spaceship for which it is named, Serenity is satisfyingly rough around the edges: In the film’s universe, dust and debris are omnipresent, guns still fire old-fashioned bullets and heroes are more apt to be wisecracking criminals than narrow minded holy men. (In fact, here it’s the main protagonist who’s the latter.) It’s a welcome change to the hermetic, CGI oppressiveness and almost offensive sanctimony that has characterized the last three Star Wars films. Even when Mal delivers his ‘Final Speech’, it concludes on a note as roguish as the man delivering it: ‘I aim to misbehave.’ These words are still whispered in hushed reverent tones in the dark corners of the Sci Fi chat rooms. As well they should be.

Let us know your thoughts on Serenity and the career of Joss Whedon in the comments and be sure to follow Jonathan on Twitter!

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