The story of Serenity began as a Fall 2002 Fox TV show from Joss Whedon, the creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series. Cancelled before Christmas, Firefly went on to become a huge hit on DVD and earned an über-loyal following worthy of the Star Trek franchise and other fan-driven sci-fi mythologies. Finally, Universal looked at the numbers and thought maybe they could find some gold in a movie version.
Five-hundred years in the future (after the abrupt conclusion of the TV series), mankind has colonized a distant galaxy of planets. The culture of the day is a mash-up of Old West jargon and six-shooters, high-tech spaceships, and more subtle Chinese influences. In recent history, the Alliance (the government of the united inner planets) has put down an independence movement from the outer planets. Mal Reynolds, a veteran of that failed uprising, now captains a small cargo vessel called Serenity. With the sensibilities of outlaw cowboys, Mal and his close-knit crew follow their own sketchy honor code while stealing, running illegal goods and doing whatever necessary to pay the bills.
Longtime passengers on Serenity include a doctor named Simon and his teenage sister, River. Once held captive by the Alliance and programmed to be a killing machine, the psychologically unstable girl was rescued by her brother, smuggled onboard Serenity, and they’ve been dodging the Alliance ever since. Now the Alliance has hired a hit man, known only as The Operative, to track down and eliminate the pair. At the same time, something has triggered River to become more aggressive and unpredictable.
Mal and the crew must decide whether to risk everything to continue to protect Simon and River or ditch them in the name of sensible self-interest. The choice is made more difficult by the fact that helping the siblings will expose them to the Reavers, vicious marauders who descend on their victims, brutally raping and cannibalizing everyone they catch.
In spite of his stated loss of faith in God and human decency—and against his instincts for self-preservation—Mal repeatedly makes choices to risk his life (and that of his crew) not only to save others but, eventually, to also do something noble for all of humanity. The crew of Serenity shares an admirable brotherhood and obvious concern for each other that unites and strengthens them.
Simon is lauded both by friend and foe for the love he shows for his sister. (He sacrificed a successful medical career to rescue and protect her from the Alliance.)
As in all of writer/director Joss Whedon’s projects, issues of religion, faith and sin play a major role in the motivations and actions of many of the characters—but not always in the way you might want them to. The Operative, who ruthlessly kills in blind obedience to his Alliance handlers, calmly explains that his actions are motivated by belief in a world without sin. He recognizes himself as an evil man who cannot join that world. But his conviction that he is serving the noble purposes of the Alliance to build a utopian society gives him the strength to do anything required to fulfill his orders. Before killing, The Operative sometimes asks his targets if they know what their sin is. One is told his is pride. Another responds that he’s a fan of “all seven.”
Mal and crew hide out with Shepherd Book, an old friend (from the TV series). Shepherd is apparently a Christian minister. He understands that Mal has abandoned his religious beliefs after witnessing the horrors of war and experiencing the loss of loved ones, but he repeatedly urges Mal to believe in something ... anything. He, too, stresses that the conviction of faith is needed to give people the strength to do the hard things. Shepherd is quoted by another character as saying, “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.”
One character is seen praying before a large statue of Buddha. Another in a desperate situation prays, “Please, God, make me a stone.” Taunting an opponent, Mal gets in a jab about him going to meet his "sweet, fluffy lord."
River is known as a psychic. She can sense when pursuers are near, she can read people's minds and she can see into the future.
Although it’s not explained in the film, viewers of the TV series will know that the character of Inara, who shows some cleavage, is a “companion,” a kind of spiritual, upper class, much-respected prostitute. (On TV, she ran her business from the ship and was glimpsed in sexual situations.) Another female character uses Old Westy jargon to get in a quip about masturbation. She is seen undressing and making out with another character before sex. Yet another character curiously spies on them. A super high-techy friend of the crew is “married” to a female robot companion.
While held captive by the Alliance, River is seen with a probe inserted in her forehead. When triggered, she becomes an unlikely martial arts weapon, taking on a bar full of rough customers in one encounter and a roomful of brutal Reavers in another. River has flash visions of hundreds of decomposing corpses, images later seen by the group in greater detail.
The Reavers are said to rape, kill and eat their victims in blind, animal rage. The ones we see are self-mutilated, often bloody or burned-looking. (Think Land of the Dead zombies who are still alive and have their full mental capacities.) A man in their grasp is shot and killed as an act of mercy. We hear the recorded sounds of a woman being attacked by them. One character is skewered and killed by part of a Reaver ship.
The Operative kills easily, including a man he forces to fall on a sword. He’s also responsible for the deaths of large groups of people that include women and children. We see bloodied and/or burned bodies scattered about a village. Other violent—sometimes quite lengthy—scenes include vicious hand-to-hand combat, close-range shoot-outs, stabbings, the sounds of bones crunching and a fair amount of blood.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters curse in Chinese and blurt out invented "future" swear words. In addition, we hear a few uses of the s-word, “h---” and “a--,” along with other colorful crudities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In a bar, people are seen drinking and doing drugs. A character drinks from a small flask.
Other Negative Elements
The heroes of the movie are acknowledged thieves and criminals, and we see them pulling off a heist. In the heat of battle, Mal pushes an innocent bystander off their hovercraft, leaving him to the Reavers. We witness a character vomiting.
A viewer’s appreciation of Serenity might have a lot to do with how much Firefly he’s seen. For fans, it’s a bigger, better, deeper exploration of all the elements that made that show an eventual DVD hit. The writing is smart and funny. The acting, especially from Nathan Fillion as Mal and rising star Chiwetel Ejiofor as the scarily smooth Operative, is excellent. The action is efficiently paced with good special effects and stunt work. And the story is about more than just crossing the finish line before the credits roll.
It’s harder to know if non-fans will resonate with this Han Solo meets Star Trek morality action tale. Or whether they’ll even be drawn to wade through Joss Whedon’s dark, violent universe to find what the film has to offer.
And what, exactly, does it offer? Serenity's characters wrestle not just with issues of right and wrong, good and evil, but with issues of faith and belief as well. Everyone onboard Serenity has been forced to face the stark horrors of life, horrors echoing those currently unfolding in the real world. The Alliance responds by trying to create a utopian society, squashing resistance and manipulating citizens in the name of peace and harmony. Their efforts result only in added horrors.
Other characters respond to the reality of iniquity by abandoning faith completely, trying to live only for themselves and those they love. Whedon, then, exposes the limits of that philosophy as well. Instead, in the voice of a Christian minister, he urges us: “I don’t care what you believe in. Just believe it.” But that's not Whedon's final say-so. He's not oblivious to the fact that wrongly placed faith is just as much of a dead-end as no faith at all, and he take pains to show that the misplaced faith of The Operative is destructive.
Mr. Whedon doesn’t point us to a worthy object of sacrificial faith, and I could hardly expect him to declare that the only worthy object is the focus of my faith, Jesus. But in spite of the violent and often sexual nature of both the small-screen series and this film, his message is a welcome first step in an entertainment world that often portrays faith as either weakness or a dangerous fuel for violence. Here, he preaches loudly that rightly placed faith is essential for those seeking a meaningful life. Contrary to the Shepherd’s teaching, it clearly does matter what you believe.