Serenity is a 2005 science-fiction film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is set in the universe of the canceled Fox science fiction television series Firefly, taking place a few months after the events of the final episode. Like the television series that spawned it, Serenity is a science fiction Western, using elements of both genres. The film was released in the US on September 30, 2005.
Set 500 years in the future, Serenity is the story of the captain and crew of a transport and cargo ship. Their lives of petty crime are interrupted by a psychic passenger who carries a dangerous secret.
Joss Whedon, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity.
Jane Espenson, one of the writers of Buffy and Firefly, announced in June 2003 at a Buffy convention in the UK that Whedon was writing a script for a Firefly movie. Actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin confirmed this on the official Firefly forum, as did Whedon in several interviews. Universal Studios acquired the movie rights to Firefly.
On March 2, 2004, according to an article in Variety, the movie was officially greenlighted to enter production with a $40 million budget. Principal photography started on June 3, 2004. Joss Whedon said that the film would be released as Serenity, in order to differentiate it from the TV series. All nine principal cast members from the television series (Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Nathan Fillion, Ron Glass, Sean Maher, and Summer Glau) returned for the movie.
The entire Firefly set had to be rebuilt from scratch for the film, using frozen images from the Firefly DVD set. ZOIC, the CG-rendering company that produced the graphics for the series, also had to perform a complete overhaul of their computer model of Serenity, as its television model would not stand up to high-definition cinema screens (and future HD DVD resolution). The set for the failed colony, Miranda, was filmed on location at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California. (The building into which the Alliance ship is crashed is the DRHS Band and Orchestra's rehearsal room.)
On September 17, 2004 Joss Whedon announced on the movie's official site that shooting had been completed.
- "Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system - dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed - a process taking decades, to support human life, to be new earths. The Central Planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but the Alliance's victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort, and enlightenment of true civilization."
The resources of Earth have been depleted. Humanity has moved to another star system and terraformed many of the planets. All the planets are controlled by the supposedly peace-loving, but actually authoritarian, Alliance. A frontier justice still holds sway farther from the "core planets", where outlaws like the crew of Serenity can scrape out a living if they keep clear of Alliance forces and the Reavers, savage and cannibalistic humans who dwell beyond the outer planets and raid the Alliance worlds around the rim.
The film opens with Simon Tam (Sean Maher) in the process of breaking his sister River (Summer Glau) out of an Alliance facility where she is being experimented upon. After the pair escape into a ship, the adventure is revealed to be a recording being viewed by the Operative, an Alliance agent working on behalf of Parliament with unspecified (but clearly very great) authority and responsibility.
After a brief discussion between the Operative and one of the doctors in charge of the Alliance facility, the Operative accuses the doctor of allowing vital government information to fall into dangerous hands, alluding to River's psychic "gleaning" of Alliance officials who monitored her in person. The Operative quickly kills the doctor's bodyguards with an archaic sword. The doctor himself attempts to flee, but the Operative paralyzes him with a pressure-point blow to the side of his chest, and lets him fall on the upraised sword. He begins his search for the Tam siblings.
Sometime later, Serenity is on the way to another job; however, the ship is badly in need of repair, and the primary buffer panel comes loose from the bow of the ship in the heat of atmospheric re-entry. In order to earn her continued passage, River accompanies Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and Zoë (Gina Torres) on a mission to rob a bank in order steal the payroll of an outer planet security company financed by the Alliance, knowing the crime will likely never be reported. After a rough landing during which pieces of the ship fall off, the crew pulls off the robbery, narrowly avoiding capture by a Reaver raiding party when River is able to telepathically sense their approach. Mal has the people in the bank protect themselves by hiding in the vault, ordering them not to emerge as long as they have air. During the getaway, a man from the bank begs Mal to take him with them, but he refuses as there's no room on the Mule and the Reavers catch him... however Mal shoots him dead to save him from a terrible fate. After a tense chase between the crew's transport and a Reaver ship, Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship's pilot (and Zoë's husband) brings the ship to intercept the crew's surface vehicle at the last second, saving the crew from a grisly fate. As the crew gather their bearings, they find they've brought a single Reaver aboard which is quickly shot dead.
Simon, now the crew's doctor (and the obvious crush of mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite)), angrily reacts to the captain's willingness to put his younger sister in such danger. Captain Reynolds responds by suggesting they leave at the next planet they land on, Beaumonde (a planet they were on their way to in "Our Mrs. Reynolds"), where the crew plans to hand over the loot to their clients. Simon agrees. Later, as the Reaver body is dumped, Jayne wonders why they do what they do. Kaylee reminds him of the legend that Reavers were men who went insane when they got to the edge of the solar system and only saw darkness, but Jayne isn't buying it. Kaylee notes that it can get awfully lonely in space, and Mal has been growing so distant that he may end up driving them all away just like Simon and River... and Inara. Zoë discusses with Mal his decision to abandon the man to the Reavers, and tells him that if they'd dumped the loot there would have been room on the Mule. Mal responds that the ship is falling apart and they're heading towards dire straits since not many people want to do business with them, and if they fail this job they might never find another one. Zoë agrees with what Mal says, but reminds him they never abandoned anyone during the war, and Mal responds grimly that it might be the reason they lost.
The crew arrive at Beaumonde, and the Tams sadly disembark although it's clear that River doesn't want to leave but feels that their remaining isn't safe (although Simon thinks she's referring to the two of them, she actually means the crew). They rejoin the crew at a bar, the Maidenhead. While entering, Kaylee bemoans the fact that Simon never noticed her obvious signals and is angry at Mal for not doing more to make them feel welcome on the ship. Mal harshly tells her that they were always going to leave and maybe Simon didn't have any feelings for her, because nothing would stop him (Mal) telling someone he had feelings for how he felt... only for Kaylee to retort "Tell that to Inara" before storming away. Mal and Jayne then meet up with their clients, Fanty and Mingo Sanchez with their cut of the loot, but a disagreement arises with the brothers who want a larger share. After staring transfixed at an advertisement broadcast for Fruity Oaty Bars, River suddenly attacks the bar's patrons. Despite being a 90 pound (41 kg) girl, she manages to beat up everyone without so much as a scratch on herself, including incapacitating Jayne. Mal rushes to retrieve his gun from the holding area, and gets it just as River points another gun at him. River is then about to shoot the Captain when Simon arrives and shouts a phrase in Russian, causing her to fall asleep.
Simon explains to the captain that, during her captivity by the Alliance, she was trained and conditioned to become an assassin. The only thing (short of death) that can stop her once this conditioning has been triggered is the "safe word" he uttered. Despite knowledge of this new danger and his fury at not being told about the possibility of carrying a potential living weapon, the captain allows Simon and River to continue traveling on Serenity.
The crew contacts Mr. Universe, a reclusive techno-geek who dwells with his robotic wife on a planet surrounded by an opaque ion cloud. After watching the security camera footage of the bar on Beaumonde, Mr. Universe discovers that River's outburst was triggered by a subliminal message in a seemingly harmless cartoon advertisement that had been broadcast all over the Alliance during the previous weeks. He tells the crew that before her attack, River had whispered the name "Miranda." He also notes that the incident was not officially reported and the footage itself was harder to get a hold of than it should have been. What's more, it's been viewed by someone else with high Alliance clearance.
Fearing Alliance pursuit, the crew takes refuge in the Haven mining colony with Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a priest who once traveled with Serenity's crew. Book warns Mal that the Alliance agent pursuing River is likely to be an "Operative" and very dangerous. He then wonders why he took Simon and River back aboard, when he not only had the opportunity to leave them but every reason to. Book tells him that it's not in him to just abandon people, and that he needs to have some belief... not necessarily in God, but just to believe in something. Shortly thereafter, the captain receives a call from Inara (Morena Baccarin), another former passenger who now resides in a Companion training house. Their conversation is awkward but pleasant enough — with no arguing — leading Mal and Zoë to conclude that it's a trap, but they decide to visit Inara anyway, as she is clearly in some danger. Mal's fears are realized; Inara is being manipulated by the ruthless and nameless Alliance Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The Operative offers to let the captain go on his way if he turns River over to him, but thanks to Inara's quick thinking, she and the captain escape the Operative and return to Serenity, which takes off undetected.
Another of River's outbursts shows the crew the meaning of "Miranda". It is the name of an outer rim planet, which had once been inhabited but was thought to be wiped out in a terraforming accident. River had subconsciously learned something mysterious about the planet when she came in telepathic contact with a member of the Alliance Parliament during her training. Traveling to Miranda to learn more would require crossing Reaver territory, which the crew members agree would be suicide, so instead Serenity returns to Haven and Shepherd Book.
On arrival, the crew discovers that the outpost has been ravaged by Alliance forces, its inhabitants killed. Mal finds Book, who has shot down the attacking ship; mortally wounded, he dies in Mal's arms. Several other outposts that had harbored Serenity in the past have also been destroyed. Captain Reynolds receives a message from the Operative claiming responsibility, and promising more of the same until River is turned over.
Mal comes out and orders that Serenity be remodeled to look like a Reaver ship, which involves painting and mutilating the hull, making a dangerous modification to the engine to leak radiation, arming the weaponless cargo vessel with the settlers' cannon, and tying the bodies of the dead settlers to the prow. Everyone protests, but Mal furiously informs them that they can either do what he says or leave the ship now and is ready to shoot anyone who tries to stop him, seconds before he put a bullet into a surrendering Alliance soldier emerging from the wrecked ship. Serenity, now painted red and looking far more menacing, leaves for Miranda. Sneaking through a fleet of Reaver vessels, the ship finally reaches the other side without incident.
Upon reaching Miranda, the crew discovers a normal, terraformed planet with a completely habitable earth-like environment — but the sprawling cities that dot the planet's surface are empty. Inside the buildings and cars are badly decomposed corpses, without apparent cause of death. There are no signs of violence or disease. It is as if the people simply lay down and died.
The crew discover a log recorded by an Alliance search and rescue team after the disaster. According to the log, the Alliance administered the chemical substance G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate, or simply "Pax", to the populace. It was supposed to suppress aggression and thus render the planet free of violence. An unfortunate side effect was that the populace had stopped working, eating, or indeed caring about anything. They simply gave up on life and died in their newfound nonaggressive state. However, approximately a tenth of a percent of the population — some 30,000 persons — had the opposite reaction to the drug. Becoming extremely aggressive and mentally unstable, they mutilated their own bodies and became cannibalistic; a group of them raped, killed, and ate the researchers, one such attack even being recorded on video. The crew realizes that these settlers became the Reavers and thus, the Alliance was responsible for the creation of this menace. River throws up after the video has ended, however shedding the weight of the secret she's been carrying helps her mental state a lot.
Everyone is sickened by this revelation, but none more so than Mal. This was exactly the sort of thing that the Browncoats fought to prevent: the Alliance's belief that they can make people "better"; that everyone must conform to them, regardless of the cost or consequence, and trample on self-determination. For the first time in years, Mal is moved by something greater than himself; a belief, something he thought he'd lost in the Battle of Serenity Valley.
- "This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried 'til River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, 'cause there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people.
- Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all are come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. 'Cause as sure as I know anything I know this: they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave."
The plan is to reveal this secret to all the worlds by using the transmitter equipment belonging to Mr. Universe. They contact him and he invites the crew to use the transmitter, but unfortunately the Operative is already waiting at Mr. Universe's headquarters, along with an Alliance fleet. He runs his blade through Mr. Universe, and orders the equipment destroyed. Serenity slowly heads back through Reaver territory, however just when she's about to leave Mal uses the turret to opens fire upon a Reaver ship. This provokes all the Reavers present and they give chase. With the Alliance fleet in orbit of Mr. Universe's planet, the Operative waits to shoot Serenity out of the sky. When the ship emerges, he sneers that the ship isn't even changing course... only to watch as dozens of Reaver ships follow it. There is a massive battle between the Alliance fleet and the Reaver fleet, as Wash steers Serenity toward the planet with both the Alliance and the Reavers trying to destroy them as well as each other. During the attack, the Operative's ship is destroyed, but he flees the battle in an escape pod and follows the crew to the surface.
Serenity manages to make it through the firefight and heads into the atmosphere but is followed by a Reaver ship which fires an electro-magnetic pulse at them, disabling power and causing the ship to start a freefall from the sky. As the crew scramble to buckle themselves in, Wash is able to restore emergency power at the last minute to level their descent. However Serenity is moving with far too momentum and crashes to the ground, causing massive damage. After skidding along the landing strip, Serenity finally stops but has nearly been torn apart in the process (including having one of its engines torn off). As everyone begins to relax, a Reaver harpoon suddenly smashes through the window, impaling Wash, who dies instantly. Mal pulls Zoë (who, in a state of shock, is trying to wake him up) away from Wash's dead body, barely saving her from another harpoon fired by the Reavers into the cockpit. Fleeing the wrecked Serenity to continue their assumed mission of getting the word out about Miranda, the crew decides to set up a last stand in a small corridor to hold off the Reavers and give Mal the time he needs to make way to Mr. Universe and transmit the message. Kaylee suddenly realizes that Wash is missing, and Zoë (now focused solely on her job) simply responds emotionless that Wash isn't coming. There's no time to mourn, and the crew is forced to simply continue with their work.
Mal arrives to find Mr. Universe has been killed. However, before he died, he was able to leave a pre-recorded message with his robotic wife which informs Mal that there is a secondary transmitter in another area of the complex. Meanwhile, the crew is losing ground to the Reavers and is forced to retreat when Zoë and Kaylee are injured. The Operative arrives on the planet and runs into the robotic wife, who repeats the message, informing him where the secondary transmitter is. The crew try to close the blast door, but it does not close completely. This buys them some time, but when Simon, the doctor, is hit by a stray bullet, there is no one to tend to the injured. He tells them he needs his medical bag which he left on the other side of the door. River goes to her injured brother's side, and tells him that he's always taking care of her, and now it's her turn to take care of him. She then dives through the gap in the blast door, throws the medical kit back through and closes the door to protect the crew before being swarmed by Reavers.
Mal reaches the second transmitter and finds that it is inconveniently located on a platform surrounded by a large drop. He is about to attempt to reach the platform when the Operative shows up. They have a stand-off, which results in Mal being quicker on the draw and shooting the stun gun out of the Operative's hand. Mal then attempts to reach the transmitter, but the Operative follows him. A fight begins between the two men, with the Operative employing the same pressure point that killed the Alliance doctor at the opening of the film — however, in Mal's case, that particular nerve cluster fell victim to a piece of shrapnel during the war, and Mal had it moved.
Mal doesn't kill the Operative, and instead disables him with a similar move and leaves him trussed up to watch the recording from Miranda. Returning to the crew, he is informed that River was trapped on the other side of the blast door with the Reavers — presumably killed. The door opens a moment later to reveal River, standing with her head bowed around a roomful of dead Reavers. After a moment, Alliance troops blow in the wall behind her and enter, but instead of giving permission to shoot her, the Operative (having seen the video from Miranda) orders the squad to stand down.
After the crew buries the bodies of their friends Mr. Universe, Shepherd Book, and Wash on Haven, the crew patches up Serenity in a repair yard on the planet Persephone, arranged for by the Operative. Just as they are ready to leave, the Operative arrives to tell Mal that the Tams are no longer being actively hunted by the Alliance, and their regime has been weakened but warns they will not simply forgive the crew for getting the word out. Mal warns the Operative that he'll kill him if they ever encounter each other again, but the Operative (having abandoned the Alliance) promises him they won't.
In the payoff to a subplot from both the series and the film, Simon and Kaylee finally make love. Zoë tells Mal that "she's tore up plenty, but she'll fly true," ostensibly referring to the ship but also describing her own state. Mal then heads to the cockpit and meets with Inara and asks her if she's ready to disembark... and Inara admits, with a smile, that she doesn't know. Mal tells her that it's a good answer and takes his seat at the helm with his new co-pilot, River. He is surprised when she already shows aptitude for piloting but tells her that it's not knowledge or expertise that keeps a ship in the air or makes her a home.. it's love. With that the two take Serenity, now restored to her former glory, into the air and back out into space. The final shot shows the ship flying off triumphantly, until a random piece of metal flies from the back of the ship and hits the camera, prompting the movie's final line from Mal: "What was that?"
In addition to traditional advertising methods, Universal sought a few unique approaches to promoting the film. Hoping to generate buzz through early word-of-mouth, Universal launched an unprecedented 3-stage campaign to sneak-preview the movie in 35 US cities where the television series had earned high Nielsen Ratings. The first stage of screenings was held in 10 cities on May 5, 2005. The second stage, held on May 26, 2005, added an additional 20 cities and was also the source of controversy when individual theatres began selling tickets before the official announcement was released, leading some shows to be sold out before being announced. The third round of screenings, with an additional 5 cities, was held on June 23, 2005. The screenings proved a success, with all three stages selling out in less than 24 hours, the second-stage screening in DC sold out in a mere 22 minutes and the second screening in Phoenix sold out in 8.
Australian audiences were the first outside North America to get preview screenings. After an exclusive Sydney test screening, Melbourne held a public screening on July 21, 2005. This was followed by a film festival screening on the Gold Coast on July 22. Public preview screenings were held in Adelaide and Sydney on August 1, and Perth on August 4. Further screenings were held in Victoria, Tasmania, and Queensland in late August. A showing of the finished film billed as the "Gala Premiere" was held at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 22, followed by an interview with Whedon the next day, and preview screenings across the United Kingdom and Ireland on August 24, in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin. Several of the screenings in all the countries featured the attendance of Joss Whedon and the film's cast, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Whedon also attended two Q&A sessions after sold-out screenings of the finished film in Melbourne and Sydney on September 12 and 13.
Universal also utilized a viral marketing campaign, producing five short videos that were released on the internet between August 16 and September 5. These short films, known as the "R. Tam sessions," depicted excerpts of counselling sessions with the character River Tam while she was being held at a "learning facility" known only as "The Academy". The counsellor in these sessions is played by Joss Whedon himself. Taking place before the events of the film or the television series, the videos shed some light on the experiments and torture "The Academy" conducted on River. They "document" her change from a shy child prodigy to the mentally unstable character of the television series. One aspect of River's psyche often overlooked is that once the secret of Miranda came out, she no longer was unstable. Presumably, the visit of the Alliance officials happened during these sessions.
On October 5, 2005, Universal also made the first nine minutes of Serenity available online. A browser plugin allowed the viewer to see the opening of the film in full-screen broadcast quality (bandwidth permitting). The clip was removed a few weeks later.
- 2005-09-29 The Netherlands (browncoats.nl)
- 2005-09-30 Canada and the USA (serenitymovie )
- 2005-11-02 Belgium and France (IMDb)
- 2005-11-04 Sweden, and the UK (IMDb)
- 2005-11-10 Australia (IMDb)
- 2005-11-11 Finland (IMDb)
- 2005-11-17 Argentina (IMDb)
- 2005-11-24 Czech Republic (IMDb)
- 2005-11-24 Germany (IMDb)
- 2005-12-02 Norway (filmweb.no)
Critical and popular receptionEdit
Awards Serenity won film of the year awards from Film 2005 and FilmFocus. It also won IGN Film's Best Sci-Fi, Best Story and Best Trailer awards and was runner up for the Overall Best Movie (Batman Begins received first place). Won the 7th annual 'User Tomato Awards' for best Sci-Fi movie of 2005 at Rotten Tomatoes. It also won Nebula Award for Best Script for 2005. More recently Serenity won the 2006 viewers choice Spacey Award for favourite movie.
Serenity received mostly positive reviews from film critics, with a "fresh" rating of 81% from the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of film critics. Ebert & Roeper gave the film "Two Thumbs Up," and The San Francisco Chronicle called it a triumph, while The New York Times described it as a modest but superior science fiction film.
However, some reviewers felt the film was unable to overcome its television origins, and did not successfully accomplish the transition to the big screen. USA Today wrote that "the characters are generally uninteresting and one-dimensional, and the futuristic Western-style plot grows tedious" while Variety declared that the film "bounces around to sometimes memorable effect but rarely soars".
Despite critical acclaim and Internet buzz, Serenity performed modestly at best at the box office. Although several pundits predicted a #1 opening, the film opened at #2 in the United States, taking in $10.1 million its first weekend, spending two weeks in the top ten, and totalling a box office gross of $25.5 million. Movie industry analyst Brandon Gray described Serenity's box office performance as "like a below average genre picture".
Serenity's international box office results were mixed, with strong openings in the UK, Portugal and Russia, but poor results in Spain, Australia, France and Italy. Universal International Pictures cancelled the film's theatrical release in at least seven countries, planning to release it directly to DVD instead. The box office income outside the United States was $13.3 million, with a worldwide total of $38.8 million, slightly less than the film's $39 million budget, which doesn't include the promotion and advertising costs. The film's creators and supporters are hoping that strong DVD sales, similar to those of the Firefly television series, may lead to a sequel production. As of 2006, Joss Whedon himself has stated in at least one online interview that because of lackluster box-office performance, Serenity will not see a sequel. [source?]