aka Firefly the Movie. You can't stop the signal. Serenity is a movie based on the television show Firefly both of which are the pet project of Joss Whedon. Whedon is best known for such teen hits as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel both of which drove me nutty in high school. How does Buffy find the time to fix her wind defying, picture perfect hair and yet fight vampires at the same time? Perhaps the answer is as incomprehensible as how does a cancelled television show become a full feature?
For many fans there is no line between Serenity and Firefly. For those who don't know about the signal or why we should care about the existance of antihero cowboys in space when there are gay cowboys on earth, Serenity's appeal may be hard to understand.
For Whedon, the fans come first. In my review I will do the same and address the fans first. My dearest beloved Firefly Fans, you will want to smack me with a salmon carcass for what I am about to say.
I would like to profess to be a gamer, a fan of fantasy fiction and all sorts of other things that will neither help me get a date or a job. I am one of you. Yet I must say it.
I didn't like Serenity.
Serenity and Anime
Before this witch is purged with expired produce for her herasy please understand that I first saw Serenity in the theater only because my action movie loving stepfather paid for my ticket since he thought he saw something blowing up in trailer. Serenity begins unremarkably with Doctor Simon Tam rescuing his psychic sister River from a facility posing as a school for gifted children but really uses their amygdale as pin cushions. So what? As the stories on fanfiction.net tell me, it happens to everyone.
However, as Simon nostalgically muses "she always loved to dance" and wipes a drop of blood from his sister's forehead we cannot help but to realize that we’re not watching Monica and Ross in Friends anymore. Fuuma and Kotori (X/1999), Seita and Setsuko (Grave of the Fireflies), Setsuna and Sara (Angel Sanctuary), formerly, exploring the always innocent but often disturbing intimacy between a brother and sister has been the domain of those across the Pacific Ocean.
How can this be, I wonder? I'm getting warm and fuzzy feelings inside and I don't see subtitles or people being referred to as "Simon-ni" or "River-nee." Here on the screen I see a relationship playing out to a mainstream audience that isn't a rehash of When Harry Met Sally. Could it be that American cinema is finally beginning to integrate into our entertainment the very thing that has made Japanese cinema so successful?
Serenity and Gong Hai Fa Choi
But no, it's not just the Japanese that get their pockets picked. The Chinese have been frisked too. Apparently, as Serenity tells us, in the future there are three dominating languages – English, Mandarin, and English with a southern twang. The pronunciation of Chinese in Serenity is just a hair above the skin crawling job Jennifer Garner does in Alias. As a note of interest, although Simon is not given the Japanese title of Simon-ni, he does refer to River as "Mei-mei" (Chinese translation – "little sister") in Firefly.
Thankfully, in Serenity when River begins to spout in Chinese about dead people being as quiet as stones, she later repeats it in English. Thank goodness because I thought she was saying something about being unable to find a bathroom with a decent curling iron. At least in Serenity none of the crew members abuse the makeshift curse "pei gu" (actual translation – a cute Chinese word for "butt" used mostly for telling toddlers which end to stick in the potty, Whedon’s translation – sacrilegious unspeakable eastern word which makes the epithet asshole look tame).
Ten minutes into Serenity, I was happy to see that Simon and River's relationship had not been ignored for the sake of exploring cliched attraction and brimming sexual frustration as one would expect in two characters on the rims of puberty. Rather, their devotion speaks of family, not family as scenery for a dramatic love affair a la Romeo and Juliet but family as it means to siblings who never got along suddenly cherishing each other's presence when they hear dad has a terminal brain tumor.
Serenity as a Western
In Serenity, Dad has the mother of all brain tumors. The Alliance, the source of morality and knowledge in the universe, turns out not to be a benevolent paternal figure at all, but rather a heartless bureaucracy intent on keeping its secrets at all costs, even the murder of a innocent valuable psychic. The Alliance wants River dead and the crew of Serenity isn't sure why they want her alive.
The star of Serenity is Captain Malcolm Reynolds as played by Nathan Fillon. Fillon is perhaps best known for his other army role in Saving Private Ryan. Reynolds is a soldier who lost most of his brigade in the battle of Serenity Valley. Since cowboys and horses air of the story calls back to the Reconstruction era of the Civil War, I suppose the best way to relate Serenity for those who are unfamiliar with Firefly is that Mal was part of the side resembling the Confederacy. Now, that the war is over and the Confederacy (Anti Alliance side) has been beaten, in Firefly Mal searches for ways to get back at the Alliance by working as a smuggler.
In the movie, the stakes are raised higher as Mal is offered the choice to comply with the Alliance and hand over River (the easy path) or to figure out what it is River has that they want (the hard choice involving massive amounts of "abominations" and getting people killed.). I won't spoil it by telling you what choice Mal makes but it is the one that you would be more likely get out to the theater and shell out greens to see.
Serenity as Viewed by a Girl
As a girl, I must admit the allure of science fiction series set in space are a mystery to me. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Chronicles of Riddick, they are all about men in dingy mud colored outfits talking seriously about things only earth men, whose beds are as cold as space, would care about.
In Serenity, small waiftly, moody River, piqued my inner thirteen year old's attention and I was drawn in. The longing for both power and to be protected seems to be an aspect of women Whedon understands well. Yet, as much as River's fate kept me interested, I knew that it cannot be expected that she will be the star. After all, the golden rule of good mainstream fantasy and science fiction is that women are allowed to be all powerful and all knowing all the time. Except when it really matters.
I could say that despite its flaws, Serenity is a hell of a movie and be done with it. But that would be a lie. It is because of its flaws that Serenity will remain in our minds and our hearts. Serenity is exactly like its hero Malcolm Renoylds, imperfect yet warm, a good friend who knows exactly what you are thinking and offers you something ordinary. Sometimes, just as mechanic genius Kaylee longs only for a fresh strawberry in the Firefly pilot, for those that dream of advanced physics and the distant stars, it is the warmth of family that we want to wake up to.
So pass the signal go on. I'll be watching, will you?