For months before the opening of sci-fi thriller Serenity, I've joined about 10 co-workers at least once a week at lunch to follow the trials and exploits, humor and pain of the film's characters. We've picked up a whole new lingo from them, saying things like "shiny" instead of "cool." We've gotten wrapped up in their romances and mysteries. And we've even had boisterous sing-alongs during their theme song.

The cast of the Serenity spaceship

The cast of the Serenity spaceship

Sure, it's odd to follow characters of a movie that wasn't even in the theaters yet. But it's probably even more unusual to follow characters of a show cancelled three years ago after less than half a season on the air. Firefly, an hour-long sci-fi Western about an outlaw starship begging and stealing its way through the fringes of space, only lasted 11 episodes before getting cancelled by Fox. Really, the show never had a chance. Badly marketed, inexplicably aired out of order, somewhat inaccessible to many TV viewers ("Wait, it's a western … in space?"), and put in the timeslot-of-death that is Friday primetime, Firefly was an easy kill. Heck, I've been a big fan of the show's mastermind Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) for years, and I didn't even watch all 11 episodes.

But then, an odd thing happened on Firefly's way to TV obscurity: The DVD set of all 14 produced episodes came out. Not even that big of a fan, I gave it a second chance: I watched the series from beginning to end (in the right order) more than once and was hooked. I apparently wasn't alone. Sales for the DVDs went through the roof. Word spread on the Internet. Soon, some rabid fans were even having Firefly lunches at work (and leading the subsequent sing-alongs).

The transport-for-hire ship lands on an alien planet

The transport-for-hire ship lands on an alien planet

So why the interest? Firefly was a cleverly funny and powerfully dramatic serial fueled by sharp dialogue, lovingly oddball characters, captivating stories, and slowly-unraveling mysteries. Set 500 years in the future, Firefly told the story of Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a Han Solo-esque rogue of a captain who leads a ragtag ensemble cast on his spaceship Serenity in whatever work they get—legal or not. He pilots his ship in a 'verse (Firefly talk for "universe") controlled by the Alliance, a totalitarian Big Brother government that Mal fought against in a massive war years before. His independents lost and now, he sticks to backwater planets trying to stay one step ahead of the Alliance. That became harder after he took in a mysterious doctor who had rescued his mentally deranged sister from some sort of Alliance facility and the feds wanted her back. Why? We don't know. Was she psychic or psycho? What did the Alliance do to her? Many mysteries were never answered and various character arcs were never completed. Like many shows unceremoniously cancelled by networks, Firefly never got its season finale. It just ended without any resolution.

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Now, Firefly finally has the triumphant finale fans longed for: the excitingly tense, often surprising and even more frequently comical Serenity. Fans will rejoice. There are moments of laughing out loud, of tearing up, of spine-tingles, and of outright shock. Whedon built a reputation for himself on Buffy and Angel of crafting poignant, dramatic, jaw-dropping season finales that usually shared three qualities:

  • Lots and lots of story to wrap up the show to a point where it could end cleanly if cancelled (Whedon never trusted networks).

  • A dark tone as characters hit rock bottom and have to climb out.

  • Often shocking twists and story developments that leave fans with their mouths wide-open.

Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) are ready for some action

Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) are ready for some action

The fast-paced and ambitious Serenity has all three.

The film, with only minor tone shifts from the show, is a perfect continuation of Firefly. The film doesn't have much of a Western feel and is more straight sci-fi—feeling more like Star Trek than the show did. And Serenity is often darker and scarier than many episodes (at times feeling like an Alien film) thanks mainly to the presence of Reavers, barbarian men who've become savages on the edges of space. But all in all, the plot is very similar to any given episode. After Dr. Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister, River (Summer Glau), help Mal and the crew in a bank robbery attempt, River acts oddly and Mal discovers the Alliance has sent a deadly unnamed operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to collect River. The chase leads the Serenity crew into their most desperate hour yet—and to the answers about why River is so important to the Alliance.

So, with Serenity serving so well as a season finale for Firefly, will viewers unfamiliar with the 'verse even get it? I believe so. The story is well explained and complete. The special effects are spot-on. The action is well done and the pace is fast moving and relentless. While pleasing fans, Serenity is also a solid sci-fi film that stands on its own. But still, non-fans may at times feel like they're viewing a season finale without having seen the rest of the season—not because they won't get the story but because they won't know the characters.

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This is comparable to how I've felt about Star Trek films—I get the movies and enjoy them, but I know that there are jokes and poignant moments that would mean more if I knew the characters as well as fans do. However, that's just the way it has to be because Whedon only has two hours to deal with nine characters. Some of them get pushed to the sidelines as one-dimensional caricatures and cameos. This means new viewers may not understand why we'd care so much about these people. And that caring is key when the film drops them into an Aliens-like meat grinder and asks you to care about what happens next.

When River (Summer Glau) begins behaving oddly, strange events develop

When River (Summer Glau) begins behaving oddly, strange events develop

As the crew of Serenity (the ship, not the movie) tries to figure out what is wrong with River and discover what the Alliance wants with her, the film tackles some poignant themes such as: What makes us human? Would a world without sin be any better? Can you ever do good by doing evil?

When it comes right down to it, this is a movie about a leader who has to make tough decisions—without really knowing if they are the right ones or not. Like Han Solo, Mal pretends to be heartless, but his heart gets in the way every time. He loves his ship and his crew, but he also knows what has to be done for the greater good. In these times, he sticks to his personal honor—the only moral code a man angry at God has. He believes he is doing the right thing, and the film seems to tell us that as long as you are true to that belief, all is well.

While God is mostly absent in all the film's talk of sin, leadership, evil, and belief, the story does have enough thematic weight to lead to good discussions. It also has enough "wow" moments to keep you thinking, smiling and getting jazzed up long after viewing. However, the one thing it doesn't have is the TV show's theme song. That means—you guessed it—no sing-alongs.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What does Mal's example in this film say about leadership? What core values seem to dictate the decisions Mal makes? How does Mal's leadership on his ship resemble a pastor's role in a church?

  2. What do you think the movie is saying about what makes us human? Do you agree? Why or why not?

  3. Mal seems to maintain that a "sinless world" is impossible because of what it would mean for our humanity. What do you think of that connection? Would a sinless world be a bad thing? Would it mean we would be less than ourselves? And what does this mean for heaven—a place of no sin?

  4. What do you think the movie is saying about belief? What role does belief have in the character arc of Mal? Of the unnamed operative? What do you make of Book's line, "I don't care what you believe. Just believe in it." Do you believe that?

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  1. Do you think the unnamed operative is evil? Why or why not? Can we do evil as long as our intentions are for eventual good?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Serenity is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action and some sexual references, but it should be treated as an R-rated film because of the level of disturbing and shocking violence. The barbarian Reavers, while not much worse than the Orcs from Lord of the Rings, do make the film at times brutal. Lots of people are killed—even by the good guys. The "sexual references" include explicit comments from a woman about her sexual frustration and one scene of a couple kissing and then falling to the floor off-camera.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/06/05

If you've never seen episodes of the short-lived TV show Firefly, don't fret. The reviews of Joss Whedon's Serenity prove that you didn't have to watch the TV show to love the movie.

Firefly fans finally got satisfaction after spending three years bemoaning the premature cancellation of their favorite show. Universal Pictures gave writer/director Whedon the resources to bring some closure to his exciting, breathlessly entertaining "space Western," and he turned it into a film that has fans cheering and critics raving … even those who went in skeptical.

These big screen newcomers, with a budget of $18 million, are earning better reviews than the blockbuster conclusion of the Star Wars saga that came out earlier this year. Sure, Serenity owes a great debt to George Lucas's inventions, as well as to Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek and to classic Westerns like Stagecoach. But it has wit and wisdom all its own.

Let's start with the reactions of two critics: a Firefly fan—Todd Hertz of Christianity Today Movies—and someone who's never seen the television series.

Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says Serenity is "excitingly tense, often surprising and even more frequently comical. … Fans will rejoice. There are moments of laughing out loud, of tearing up, of spine-tingles, and of outright shock." He also thinks the film will appeal to newbies: "The story is well explained and complete. The special effects are spot-on. The action is well done and the pace is fast moving and relentless. While pleasing fans, Serenity is also a solid sci-fi film that stands on its own. But still, non-fans may at times feel like they're viewing a season finale without having seen the rest of the season—not because they won't get the story but because they won't know the characters."

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Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily), who'd never seen Firefly, writes, "[A]fter experiencing Serenity … I certainly see what fans of this sci-fi world—often called Browncoats—are jazzed about … Serenity takes the characters—and actors—from the show and recycles them for a feature packed with not only solid special effects but absolutely adorable characters and witty writing. If you enter the theater not a Whedon fan, changes are great you won't leave that way."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves that the journey is "at once thrilling, rewarding, heartbreaking, and wistful. For non-fans, Serenity is a delirious excursion into a world whose setting, characters and relationships are richer and more elaborate than any one-shot movie is likely to be."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "What Serenity lacks in Star Wars-caliber special effects it makes up for in its wry sense of humor. (If Star Wars is the Wagner of space operas, this is Gilbert and Sullivan.) … Despite its campy feel, Whedon weaves serious ethical and political themes into the narrative in much the same way Gene Rodenberry did with Star Trek."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) notes, "The writing is smart and funny. The acting … is excellent. The action is efficiently paced with good special effects and stunt work. And the story is about more than just crossing the finish line before the credits roll. … Serenity's characters wrestle not just with issues of right and wrong, good and evil, but with issues of faith and belief as well."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) raves, "Let's hope there's more where this came from. Firefly's early demise was cruelly premature, and Whedon and his cast prove here that the magic of those early TV episodes was no fluke. Serenity is not a flawless film, but it may very well be the most enthralling, satisfying, funny, moving, and profound sci-fi adventure film in years. It's exceptional entertainment—both for the Browncoats and for those who have no clue what a Browncoat even is."

Stephen Tilson (World's movie blog) calls Serenity "the best big-screen space opera in years, with its engaging characters, crisp writing, and ever-ratcheting tension. Too bad its theology isn't better; the Christian character, Shepherd Book, tells Mal, the titular ship's commander, to 'believe' in something, and it doesn't matter what, as long as he believes. This is the sort of feather-brained foolishness we get when atheist writers grind their own post-modern philosophical axes on their token Christians."

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But Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) disagrees: "Serenity does not suggest that one belief is just as good another. It does, however, make a strong case for believing in something as the first step toward finding truth. And hope will sustain the journey." He adds, "But this film is not ultimately about faith. It's about love. The film begins there and ends there."

My own review of the film, plus interviews with Whedon and the cast, are posted at Looking Closer.

Most mainstream critics are celebrating the big screen debut of "the little television show that could."

from Film Forum, 10/06/05

Peter Suderman (Relevant) joins last week's parade of rave reviews from Christian critics. He writes, "Serenity works because it doesn't strive to be anything more than it is: a gussied up B-movie that pays tribute to both sci-fi and Western clichés. Unassuming and unpretentious, it bests blockbusters with three times its budget, all while keeping both its brains and its cool; in fact, you might just call it serene."

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references)
Directed By
Joss Whedon
Run Time
1 hour 59 minutes
Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Theatre Release
September 30, 2005 by Universal
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