It’s a good thing this list wasn’t open to voting. If the internet has taught us anything (and God can only hope that it has), it’s that any time you give Browncoats the slightest opportunity, Serenity will win.
That’s how I first met Serenity. It topped an end-of-year list on Jonathan Ross’ Film 2005. I was amazed. A sci-fi film I’d barely even heard of, so objectively, definitely best of the year? In a year with Batman Begins?
Of course, that was before I knew anything about the world – the ‘verse – that Serenity inhabited. Both within and without, it’s a story of desperate loyalty, blind against-the-odds faith, and more than a little disappointment. The story of Serenity is that it grew out of the wreck of a dead TV show, fertilised by endless online petitioning. A single, final victory for the Browncoats.
But I didn’t know that, really, when I first watched the film. The story that interested me was just what’s in the film: the single, desperate victory of Malcolm Reynolds and crew. It’s about salvaging what’s left – the ideals from a long-lost war, what life gives you now, and whoever’s still actually alive – and making the best from it. Which is all rather fitting, looking back.
Serenity is proper sci-fi. It’s everything that immediately jumps to mind when the genre is mentioned: the swashbuckling adventures of the crew of a spaceship (Firefly class, aught-three model, designation ‘Serenity’). It scavenges from Star Wars, of course, but almost as heavily from The Matrix (in terms of plot shape, presentation and feel rather than world-building) but it’s a more plausible world than either: no aliens, no robots. (Well, almost no robots…)
Appropriately, it’s a world that feels vastly human. And Serenity has to reintroduce everything Firefly managed in its too-short 14 episodes – the sci-fi Western setting, the growth of China as a superpower and of Mandarin as a language - but it does this beautifully.
The first 15 minutes are a masterclass: it starts within a concertina of scenes-within-scenes, repeatedly pulling back to reveal ‘aha! no! that was just a dream! and the person dreaming it? it was all a video!’. It’s formalistic showiness for the sake of it, so obviously I love it dearly. But also it keeps things pacey, without too much creaky exposition (there’s one line - “and he threw away his promising career in medicine too!” – that creaks ever so slightly), and introduces the new threat. Who, fortunately for Serenity, is Chiwetel Ejiofor.
He’s the kind of man the words ‘screen presence’ were invented for, as he broods and does a bit of ever-so-slight nibbling on the scenery as The Operative. He’s a man of deep, terrifying conviction, cooing gently to a man he has impaled on a sword that, this is a good death, there is no shame in this. It’s all genuinely quite sinister and sets up a perfectly heavy, serious sci-fi film, especially when we then cut to a shot of the Serenity in space…
And then the Primary Buffer Panel falls off. The camera goes inside the Serenity, and we’re surrounded by life, personality, and full-on Joss Whedon dialogue. “Define ‘interesting’.”/“‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”. A single tracking shot, apparently one unbroken take, takes us through the innards of the ship and smoothly introduces each character. We’re on the boat.
From there, it’s a beautiful ride of a movie, equal parts big action adventure, touching drama and wry comedy. Just like anything Whedon, or like life. The central adventure is self-contained, but rooted in enough dangling threads from the series that it doesn’t feel plucked from nowhere.
…And there I go again, talking about the one thing I said I wouldn’t. I really do think the film is marginalised as the TV programme’s sickly brother. Does it bear marks of its difficult birth? If you’re looking for them, certainly. Is it, more or less, one big episode of Firefly? Yes. Its ambitions are appropriately bigger than any of the others, but it would probably fit right in as a season finale. The thing is – and that wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, Firefly being one of the best TV programmes we’re ever going to get – the thing is that if even that were the case, if it were just slotted in, then Serenity would be the best single episode it had to offer.