Serenity offers perfect proof that Firefly deserved a better fate than premature TV cancellation. Joss Whedon's acclaimed sci-fi Western hybrid series was ideally suited (in Browncoats, of course) for a big-screen conversion.
This action-packed adventure allows Whedon to fill in the Firefly backstory, especially the history and mystery of the spaceship Serenity's volatile and traumatized stowaway, River Tam.
Her lethal skills as a programmed "weapon" makes her a coveted prize for the power-hungry planetary Alliance, represented here by an Operative who'll stop at nothing to retrieve River from Serenity's protective crew.
We still get all the quip-filled dialogue and ass-kicking action that we've come to expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Whedon goes a talented step further here, blessing his established ensemble cast with a more fully-developed dynamic of endearing relationships.
Serenity's cast is led with well-balanced depth and humor by Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal Reynolds, whose maverick spirit is matched by his devotion to crewmates Wash, Zoe, fun-loving fighter Jayne, engineer Kaylee, doctor Simon, and Mal's former flame Inara, who plays a pivotal role in Whedon's briskly-paced plot.
As many critics agreed, Serenity offered all the fun and breezy excitement that was missing from George Lucas's latter-day Star Wars epics, and Whedon leaves an opening for a continuing franchise that never feels cheap or commercially opportunistic.
With the mega-corporate mysteries of Blue Sun yet to be explored, it's a safe bet we haven't seen the last of the good ship Serenity. -- Jeff Shannon
The film is based on Firefly, a television series canceled by the Fox Broadcasting Company in December 2002, after 11 of its 14 produced episodes had aired. When attempts to have another network acquire the show failed, creator Joss Whedon attempted to sell it as a film.
Through a business connection, he was introduced to Mary Parent with Universal Studios, who immediately signed on after watching the episodes on DVD. By June 2003, actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin confirmed the deal on the official Firefly forum, as did Whedon in several interviews.
After Universal acquired the film rights from Fox, Whedon began writing the screenplay. His task was to explain the premise of a television series that few had seen without boring new viewers or longtime fans.
He based his story on original story ideas for Firefly's un-filmed second season. Whedon's original script was 190 pages, and attempted to address all major plot points introduced in the series.
After presenting the script to Universal under the title "The Kitchen Sink", Whedon was asked to cut down the script to a size film-able under his budget constraints. Universal planned to begin shooting in October 2003, but delays in finishing the script postponed the start of shooting to June 2004.
The opening sequence shifts perspectives several times, from a traditional narrative to that of a schoolroom which is later revealed to be River's disjointed memories. Whedon said in the DVD commentary that the approach works thematically as well, since it depicts River's fractured state of mind.
Once the narrative reaches Serenity herself, Whedon uses a long steadicam shot of several minutes to establish "safety", as well as (re-)introduce every character aboard ship and touch on their personalities and motivations.
Universal, while on board with the film, was not willing to spend the typical $100 million for a story set in space. Whedon convinced them he could do it for less money, and do it in 50 days, instead of the usual 80.
On March 3, 2004, the film was given the greenlight to enter production with a budget of under $40 million. Typically, production would save money by shooting outside of Los Angeles, but Whedon insisted on filming local. Principal photography began on June 3, 2004.
Whedon announced the film would be titled Serenity to differentiate it from the TV series. (Whedon also mentions in the Serenity DVD commentary that Fox still owned the rights to the name "Firefly".)
All nine principal cast members from the television series returned for the movie, although Glass and Tudyk could not commit to sequels, leading to the death of their characters in the script.
Stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, a student of Jeet Kune Do under Dan Inosanto, created a customized fighting style for Summer Glau to use in the film's fight scenes. It was a hybrid of Kung Fu, kickboxing and elements of ballet, all combined to create a "balletic" martial art.
One cost-cutting item that could not be reused from the television show was the original set of the interior of the spaceship Serenity, which had to be entirely rebuilt based on images of the Firefly DVD set.
The set for the failed colony, Miranda, was filmed on location at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California. On September 17, 2004, Whedon announced on the film's official website that shooting had been completed.
Comic book artist Bernie Wrightson, co-creator of Swamp Thing, contributed concept drawings for the Reavers. Other comic book artists who contributed to the production design include Joshua Middleton and Leinil Francis Yu (Visual Companion).
Serenity costumes are influenced by Wild West style: natural materials such as wool, cotton, and leather in drab earth tones predominate. Some clothing also reflects an east, south, and southeast Asian and Indian fusion of color and beauty as well as influences from the American Civil War, late 19th century as well as the 1930s depression era.
Mal's suspenders are influenced by a World War II design. The clothing of the Alliance organization within the series (in reality, reused uniforms from Starship Troopers) is monolithically monochromatic, similar to the uniforms of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars films.
Serenity appears to be influenced by Western genre set design, in particular, entertainment programs set in the West during the 1970s and 1980s such as Little House on the Prairie.
The cramped interior of the Serenity ship itself appears to be influenced by the "worn future" precedent set by the famous fictional Star Wars spaceship the Millennium Falcon but devolved even further.
In a similar vein to the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Serenity goes for an occasional underdone look, or "used future", as Star Wars creator George Lucas refers to it.
"Serenity" was clearly written by someone who grew up worshiping at the altar of Han Solo and the space marines in Aliens, but this genre picture is still a thrillingly original science fiction creation. The writing is as good as in the best "Star Trek" episodes, while offering a thoughtfully bleak vision of the future that brings to mind Blade Runner."—Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
This future envisioned in Serenity has two political and cultural centers: Anglo-American and Chinese. Characters all speak English and Mandarin, with the latter language reserved for the strongest curse words.
While these two are the dominant languages of the film, other languages are also spoken in the Firefly / Serenity universe, including Russian (spoken by Simon during the movie). The safeword phrase that Simon uses to shut River down, "Eta kuram na smekh", is a Russian expression.
Literally, it means, "That's for chickens to laugh at" – a Russian idiom for "That's ridiculous". The Japanese Katakana characters are also present around the universe, most obviously seen in the flowing script on River's desk screen at her school.
As the budget for the film was considerably smaller than for other films, practical special effects were used as much as possible: if a Computer-generated imagery (CGI) composite was required, as many tangible sets and props as possible were constructed to minimize the use of computer effects.
The most technically challenging scene was the mule skiff chase.] For budgetary reasons, a gimbal and CGI, much like those used in the pod race in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, were quickly ruled out, creating a challenge for the production team to find an alternative.
Instead, the crew fashioned a trailer with a cantilevered arm attached to the "hovercraft" and shot the scene while riding up Templin Highway north of Santa Clarita. Serenity visual effects supervisor Loni Peristere told the Los Angeles Times, "Traditionally this would have been, like, a 30-day shoot.
I think we did it in five." Zoic Studios, the company that produced the graphics for the series, had to perform a complete overhaul of their computer model of Serenity, as the television model would not stand up to the high-definition scrutiny of cinema screens (and high-definition video resolution).
The film's musical score was composed by David Newman, and performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony under Newman's direction. According to director Joss Whedon's sleeve notes for the album, Newman was recommended by Universal's music executives when he requested a musician capable of "everything".
Whedon's directions to Newman for the Serenity theme were that he wanted something homemade and mournful that would let viewers know that they were now "home" and evoke the idea of the pioneer, when everyone only had what they could carry. The official soundtrack was released on CD on September 27, 2005.
The acoustic guitar version of the "Ballad of Serenity" (from Firefly), which was used at the end of the film's credits, is absent from the soundtrack.
SERENITY becomes the name painted on the side of a spaceship, with the same in Chinese behind it. Simon and River refuge aboard the Firefly-class transport ship.
Space, orbiting the moon Lilac: We move away from the ship. The name is on the nose, under the bridge. It sticks out from the body of the ship like a craning neck. The body is bulbous, with propulsion engines on either side and a giant glowing back. There are two small shuttles tucked in over the 'wings' of the engines. It's not the sleekest ship in the 'verse, to be sure.
As it hits atmo, the propulsion engines take over and she starts to rock a bit, noise filling our ears. Camera comes around the front, at the windows and into the bridge, to see the Captain, Malcom 'Mal' Reynolds, standing and watching. At that moment, a small piece of the nose breaks off and goes flying past the window.
Bridge: The bridge is small - two pilot seats on either side, and a tangle of wires and machinery all about. Mal wears the knee-length brown coat and boots of an old Independent. Gun at his hip. He's not unlike the ship -- he's seen a bit of the world and it left him, emotionally at least, weathered. Right now, though, he's mostly startled. "Was that the primary buffer panel?"
He's addressing the pilot, Wash. Flight gear and a hawaiian shirt, toy dinosaurs populating his station -- no old soldier, but just as startled. He confirms Mal's suspicion. Another buck. On the speaker system, Mal announces to the crew the landing is going to be 'interesting.'
Foredeck Hall: The camera leads Mal down. On either side of the hall are ladders leading down to crew's personal quarters. The hulking mercenary Jayne is coming up out of his bunk as Mal passes. He carries a number of rifles and grenades. Jayne is disappointed when Mal tells him bring no grenades. First Mate Zoe enters from the lower level. Her mode of dress and military deference mark her as a war buddy of Mal's.
Dining Room: It's the communal space of the ship, homey and messy. There is food left lying on the table. Mal swipes a dumpling from a plate, pops it in his mouth as another jolt rocks him and sends most of the tableware clattering to the floor.
Hall/Engine Room: The hall leads to the rust-brown chaos that is the engine room. Working around the engine in a forest of wires, sparks and smoke is the sweetly pretty mechanic, Kaylee. She passes Mal with a slightly impatient smile as he stands in the doorway, raising his voice above the din complaining of the disrepair. She more or less ignores as she continues her work.
Steam and electricity shoot at him, backing him up. He turns to see Simon behind him. Simon is more seasoned than before, but still contrasts the Captain entirely in dress and manner. He is implacably proper. Also pissed. Simon expresses his anger over Mal's decision to take River with them on a robbery.
Mal heads down a side corridor that has steps leading down to the Passenger Dorm. Simon is right on his heels as we lead them down the stairs. The passenger dorm has a time-worn warmth that most of the ship shares. Except, of course, for the sterile blue of the Infirmary, into which the two men step.
Despite Simon's pleas that River is too young to join them on a dangerous mission, Mal insists because she is a Reader - see trouble before it's coming. Simon jabs an inoculation needle into Mal's arm.
Mal takes River along on a bank robbery against her brother's objections. They are attacked by another group of raiders: Reavers, animalistic humans who savagely eat their victims alive.
Jayne, "Mal! . . . Reavers! The girl's pitching a fit. They're here and they're coming soon!" Mal, who had the vault gaurd at gun point, instructs the guard to lock the others in the vault for their own safety. They escape, but Simon decides that he and River will leave Serenity at the next port.
Mal and crew go to meet fences Fanty and Mingo at a bar. They arrive at the docking station and a large crane, like a hand mechanoid, clamps onto the ship and positions it at a boarding ramp. The ship's ramp opens, the crew are ready to exit. Kaylee lectures Simon on the perils of this dangerous port.
A docking staff checks his instrumentation, it gives computer read outs of the ship. They enter the bar and meet with Fanty and Mingo, seedy looking identical twins. A TV commercial causes River to attack the patrons with superbly effective martial arts. Before she can shoot Mal, Simon arrives and shouts a "safe word" which causes her to fall asleep.
Mal carries River back to Serenity, but the incident is captured on camera. The crew contacts a reclusive hacker known as Mr. Universe who analyzes the commercial and discovers a subliminal message being broadcast across Alliance space designed to trigger River. He notes that River whispered "Miranda" before attacking.
Mal and crew go to Haven, a mining colony and home of Shepherd Book, a former passenger and friend. The ship dives down the deep shaft where the community resides. They are greeted warmly by the community. Mal, "Thanks for taking us in again, Shepherd." Shepherd warns him of the dangers of giving River safety from the Alliance.
While Mal looks to Book for advice, he jokes that his sermons make him sleepy, he's not looking for help from way up high. Shepherd, "When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I'm talking about God."
Mal receives a call from Inara, a former passenger. Suspecting a trap but fearing she is in danger, Mal goes to her and is confronted by the Operative. The Operative offers to let Mal go free if he turns River over.
Thanks to Inara's quick thinking, her incense is actually a flash bomb knocking out The Operative. She and Mal escape on the shuttle and rejoin Serenity. After another of River's outbursts, the crew discover that Miranda is a remote planet thought to have been rendered uninhabitable as the result of a terraforming accident.
Serenity returns to Haven, they discover that the outpost has been destroyed and the residents slaughtered. The Operative has ordered the deaths of all of Mal's contacts to deny him a safe haven and promises that he will continue to pursue them until he gets River.
The way to Miranda is blocked by a region swarming with Reavers. Mal orders the crew to disguise the Serenity as a Reaver ship, strapping the dead bodies on the ship and splashing it with red paint. The crew are apalled that Mal would consider using the dead bodies of their friends for his plan. Angry with the loss of his community friends, he gives the crew an ultimatum, help with his plan or leave the crew.
After sailing through a fleet of Reaver vessels, the crew discovers a habitable planet, but only corpses strew its cities. They discover a log recorded by an Alliance survey team explaining that the Alliance administered a chemical designed to suppress aggression in the residents, which worked too well, making them so passive they stopped working, stopped reproducing, and eventually simply lay down and allowed themselves to die. However, 0.1% of the population reacted by becoming hyper-aggressive and unstable, which explains the origin of the Reavers.
Mal contacts Mr. Universe to arrange to have the log broadcast to everyone in the solar system who can receive it, but the Operative is already there and has Mr. Universe lure them in. Mal knows Serenity is heading into a trap, so he opens fire on one of the Reaver ships. The Reavers pursue Serenity to Mr. Universe's planet, where they engage the waiting Alliance fleet.
The Operative's ship is destroyed, but he survives in an escape pod. Serenity is damaged by a pursuing Reaver ship, but manages to crash land. Pilot Wash is killed by the Reavers. Finding Mr. Universe dead and his equipment wrecked, Mal learns of a secret backup transmitter from a message recorded by the dying Mr. Universe.
The crew makes a stand against the Reavers to buy Mal the time to send the message. After a firefight, the crew retreat behind a set of blast doors, but the doors only partially close. Zoe and Kaylee are wounded. Simon discovers he has left his medical kit behind; as he rises to retrieve it, he is shot.
He apologizes to River for failing her. She replies that it is her turn to take care of him. She charges through the opening in the blast doors, triggers the closing mechanism and throws the medical kit through the opening before the Reavers drag her away.
Mal reaches the transmitter, but The Operative is close behind. In hand-to-hand combat, Mal manages to disable his opponent and bind him to a railing.
Mal forces The Operative to watch the recording. Mal returns to his crew. The blast doors open to reveal that River has dispatched all of the Reavers. The wall behind her explodes, and Alliance troops rush in. The Operative, finally realizing the flaws of the system he serves, orders his men to stand down.
After the crew erect memorials to their dead friends on Mr. Universe's moon, they patch up Serenity. Kaylee and Simon consummate their relationship. The disillusioned Operative tells Mal that the Alliance government has been weakened and that he will try his best to present his former foe in the best light, but cannot guarantee that others will not be sent after Mal and his crew.
Serenity lifts off with River as Mal's new copilot.