Serenity: Really Not That Great

by Tom Ingram

Firefly is one of the great failures of modern science fiction. Not because it’s bad–in the show’s half-season run, it never had a real bad episode. It’s a failure because something so good managed to do so poorly commercially. Most of this is undoubtedly Fox’s fault–the algorithm they used to determine the show’s schedule has to this day never been explained. It was relegated to the dread Friday slot, and inconsistently at that. Episodes were aired out of order, and sometimes not at all. Eventually the whole thing was simply canned. After a massive campaign by devout fans, a movie was greenlit: Serenity. As you might expect, it failed in theatres and since then there’s only been Firefly comics. In keeping with the Joss Whedon tradition, the comics have been largely horrible.

I’ve heard it said that Serenity was a great movie, maybe even the greatest sci-fi film ever. Orson Scott Card certainly thinks so, and an SFX magazine poll agrees. Total Sci-Fi Online is more hesitant, ranking it at #88. This is an assessment I can’t agree with. Serenity is certainly a fine way to spend an evening, but as a serious movie, it’s lacking.

Firefly was intended to run much longer than it did, and the few episodes that were produced set up a lot of plotlines. Too many, in fact, for Serenity to easily deal with. A few are simply shrugged off, and what’s left is still too much to tackle satisfactorily in a single movie. As such, it seems to flail around spastically until it gets to the big shooty ending, at which point the plot doesn’t really matter anymore.

Whedon is infamous for killing off beloved characters, to the point where he’s gone on record stating that he thrives on others’ misfortune. Since there was never really any time during Firefly‘s run to kill anybody important, he saves it all for Serenity. Without getting into details, suffice it to say that there are some very major character deaths in this movie, which are treated with flippant levity. Deep down, what we all want is a Firefly revival, but we can’t have that anymore. At this point, a revived Firefly wouldn’t be Firefly. Failing that, they should at least go out in a blaze of glory, but that doesn’t happen. One of the characters has his climactic final battle offscreen.

The most shocking thing about this movie is its change of tone from the show. The show was dark, but it always had a charming, lighthearted humour about it that’s not in evidence here, in no small part due to the prominence of the ultra-violent Reavers (they only featured heavily in one episode). One of the major themes of the show was moral greyness. The Alliance is meant to be a large bureaucratic organization with maximum rationalization power and all the corruption that goes with it. But at its heart, the Alliance of the TV show was well-meaning, civilized, and lawful. In Serenity they give up all pretenses of being anything more than Snidely Whiplash-style supervillains and start killing children left and right. Likewise Mal, instead of being the loveable rogue we all know, becomes a much darker antihero.

Maybe in isolation Serenity would have been better. Unladen by the baggage of pleasing Firefly fans, it could have been a much better movie. But Serenity stays with Mal Reynolds and his plucky crew, and it suffers for it. This is not to say Serenity is a bad movie. But it’s not the milestone of cinema that it’s heralded as.