Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed By: Joss Whedon
Why it made the list: I realize that placing Serenity on a best films of the decade list irrevocably brands me as a Whedonite. Which, guilty I suppose, but it’s not like I’m a card-carrying Browncoat or anything. I didn’t watch Firefly as it aired (which puts me on par with just about everyone), and didn’t even get around to watching it on DVD until the movie was about to come out. I certainly enjoyed Firefly (enough to rank it as an honourable mention in my TV Shows of the Decade list), but I’ve only watched it once. Unlike Serenity, which I’ve rewatched several times. So while I certainly came into the film with affection for the series and characters, my love for the series is more of a result of the movie than my love for the movie is a result of the series (if that makes sense).
Serenity is the space-faring, universe-creating adventure we were supposed to get from the Star Wars prequels that were supposed to dominate the decade after people ended the last decade waiting in line for them to arrive. Browncoats didn’t display the same level of devotion (or “insanity” if you prefer), but ended up getting a movie more worthy of their support. It’s a shame that such an imaginative, exciting, and original series didn’t get a chance to reach beyond its built-in cult audience and become a franchise, but like most fans, I’m just thrilled that it exists at all.
There’s debate about whether Serenity is a fan-only experience, or if tells its story well enough to reach the uninitiated. Generally, this debate is uselessly taken up by Firefly fans, who have no real way of knowing how it plays to others, but still feel the need to declare that it’s too insider. All I can say is that I went and saw it with a friend that hadn’t seen any of Firefly, and he came out loving it more than I did. So, yeah, I think it plays fine to genre fans tired of the same old tired CGI-fest blockbusters.
It reminds me of the sci-fi adventures of my youth in the way that it quickly created an exciting new world filled with exotic new characters that immediately captured my imagination in ways that only this genre can. To be fair, those movies of my youth probably sucked, but still, when I watch Serenity, I get a feeling of nostalgia for the days when The Last Starfighter was my favourite movie, and I begged my mom to take me to see it again, and then again once more. I can’t think of another sci-fi/space opera film this decade to even remotely come close to capturing that feeling. Every time I rewatch it, I marvel at how economically it introduces and sustains its world and characters, all from a modest $40 million dollar budget.
Spoiler Specifics: While the Serenity franchise is the most original space opera to come around in years, it still wears its influences on its sleeve. Nathan Fillion’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds is basically a Han Solo who will always shoot first (no way to digitally alter that), while his nemesis the Alliance is clearly a take on Star Trek’s Federation, albeit with less admirable origins (or, perhaps, we’re simply given a perspective on the Federation from the outside looking in). Sometimes to be fresh, you just have to make the old new again, which Whedon does here with his outer space meets the ol’ west concoction.
Significant scene: The most controversial scene in the film is easily the death of Wash. This is the moment where even some of the most loyal fans turn on the film and Joss Whedon. How DARE he kill off the loveable Wash in so callous a fashion! Sure, Whedon has done it time, and time, and time again, mercilessly eliminating characters from his beloved creations in shocking fashion, but I guess this time was the last straw?
Others who are more level-headed about the scene still use it as a negative example of Whedon overusing death as a shock mechanism, as though he has a checklist when producing fiction: strong female character – check, snarky banter – check, matter-of-factly killing off a fan favourite – check.
I include this moment as the significant scene for Serenity because all of these complainers are wrong. Wash’s death is shocking, yes, but unnecessary? Too much? Unforgivable? No. Killing Wash after he successfully guides Serenity to Mr. Universe’s complex in an almost impossible fashion makes the rest of the film work. With his death, we now realize that there are consequences in this world for our heroes. Moreover, given how shocking his death is, any emotional buffer the audience may have had believing that their heroes were going to pull off the impossible is ripped away for good. The instant Wash was killed, I truly felt that this was a doomed mission; that Whedon was just bastard enough to kill them all.
This isn’t a feeling you often get in movies of this nature. During the final battle with the Reavers, I flinched with every blow delivered, be it to Kaley, Simon, or River, believing that they were the next causalities on Whedon’s hit list. Some fans would argue that Whedon already achieved this with the earlier death of Shepherd Book, but they’d be wrong. Book’s death is exactly the sort of death you always see in this kind of movie, the wise mentor figure on the periphery whose expiration steels the resolve of our heroes. For those for whom the movie is their first exposure to these characters, Book’s death probably didn’t register much at all (maybe less than the little boy who was also killed offscreen). No, someone in the main crew had to die to achieve what Whedon was going for, the sense that this was a Wild Bunch style last stand. Given that Wash just had his big damn hero moment (and, frankly, was the most replaceable on the off chance there’d be other films after this), he was the best candidate to go. It was sad to see him go… which is the whole point, isn’t it?