Serenity is a perfect case study of what a film that is released ahead of its time looks like once its time catches up with it. Joss Whedon’s feature directorial debut - and by a commanding margin still his best piece of work in that sphere - did not fit easily into any category or tone exhibited in 2005 cinema, especially not among that year’s biggest financial successes - not as bleak and mythological as Batman Begins, not as breezy and inconsequential as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and a far distance from the uptight sterility of Revenge of the Sith. This is to say nothing of how ill-fitting it was in 2002, when a similar tone premiered on TV with Firefly.
Retrospective Movie Review: Serenity
Ten Years Later
By Ben Gruchow
September 29, 2015
The timing of our subject’s 10-year anniversary is providential: in a little over 80 days, the first Thursday-night preview screenings will begin for The Force Awakens, and to look at the gigantic backward shift in the aesthetic from the prequels (compositing to real-world, digital sets to practical ones, early-gen HD to 35mm and 65mm film) is to witness a $200 million production realizing what constitutes a visually and viscerally appealing horse opera in space, 10 years after a $39 million oddity.
Serenity fits more comfortably into the sci-fi/fantasy cinematic aesthetic of the mid-2010s, and it’s startling how close to the top of that heap it would land if it were first released today. It has a decisive handle on tone. It doesn’t just traverse a tightrope between evoking grim consequentiality and anything-goes levity; it does backflips across it. It demonstrates clearly the universal truth that the impression and energy that CGI conveys is far more important to suspension of disbelief than photorealism. It is a movie where every one of its 109 minutes is essential—and yes, I know that the actual runtime of Serenity is 119 minutes. I’ll get to that.
A big component of how a film rates to me is the degree of investment in the material and the level of confidence in the world that the story creates. It’s why a nutty B-movie like American Ultra warrants a positive assessment, and a nutty B-movie like Transporter Refueled does not. Sometimes a filmmaker can fake investment when it’s not really there, and Joss Whedon is not one of those people; you can absolutely tell when he’s checked out or burned out of a project.
Serenity finds Whedon at perhaps the most emotionally invested he’s ever been in a project, and it gets an added boost from the playground he’s in. Unlike the Avengers movies, which really belong to Kevin Feige, or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which backed itself into a thematic corner with the fifth season and spent the final two years after that awkwardly trying to establish a new concept and metaphor, this universe had an open canvas to play with. The freedom that this allocated is evident.
Watching the movie, we get the undeniable sense that each frame is about exactly what Whedon wanted that frame to be about, in exactly the way Whedon wanted it to be. It is a film that is good because the production is mechanically adept, and made unique by a stunning clarity of vision. That this is a rarity in any release barely needs to be acknowledged.
It would be delightful if the film, with its modest audience reception not helped by some truly misguided marketing choices (to watch either of the two main trailers that ran in 2005 is to witness what appears to be a SyFy Original somehow escaping to the multiplex, and the movie’s poster is an object lesson in how to create a busy visual space without communicating anything useful) ended up being influential to the next wave of genre cinema. This is something that is very subjective and difficult to support, and almost impossible to prove conclusively.
The movie’s reputation is outsized for its theatrical and home-media sales figures, though, and you can argue that - for example - a line can be drawn from what Serenity did to the archetype of the alpha-male lead (Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion in the role that unambiguously propelled him to any kind of name recognition). It did nothing more or less than deflate the layer of self-seriousness around the characterization. There will never be, I think, a reading of the line, “Do you want to run this [insert environment here]?” that fully succeeds as challenge again, owing to the explicitly weak follow-up, “Well…you can’t.”
The incidence of this kind of deflation and undercutting of the archetype saw a considerable increase over the following several years. What Robert Downey Jr. does with Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, for example, is really just an Earthbound present-day version of Malcolm Reynolds. Peter Berg’s Hancock, with its characterization of a traditional superhero compromised by alcoholism and cynicism, causing copious amounts of property damage with every heroic action taken, played for levity and yet mixed with an attempt at genuine crisis and danger, holds a much balder (though less successful) similarity to what Whedon did with the archetype years earlier.
The dramatic and thriller elements of Serenity are solid, although some moments in the early going are a little forced (a panicked whisper by the character of River in an early sequence is the only time in memory that I can recall Summer Glau whiffing on a moment dependent on her ability to sell it). The comedic elements and timing, though, are bulletproof or close to it.
You can find the clearest similarity with mixing levity and danger in what is arguably the biggest current franchise in theaters: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That series is starting to run a little flat by this point, but it’s also been victim to endlessly raising the stakes, and even the most novel formula is going to become repetitive when the same rhythm is taken too many times. The knowing and snarky nature of most of them (the Iron Man films, Guardians of the Galaxy, and - of course - the Avengers films stand out in this regard) is something that’s not beholden to the comic universe they come from, even the Ultimate universe.
Since Marvel is and always has played it fairly safe with pushing boundaries, you start to look for inspirations that they took the hint from. In looking for sources of that tone, there aren’t many among its contemporaries. Marvel itself isn’t a good source; its earlier ventures were mostly hard-edged and violent (Blade and its sequel, The Punisher) or possessed of a sense of humor that was deliberately blunt and loud (the first two Spider-Man films; both of these were largely products of their time and cultural temperament).
You can’t look to other superhero or comic-book movies, which ranged from bleak to humorous in a dull and insulting way. Straightforward action films didn’t possess this imperative, nor did comedies possess the equivalent chops for pyrotechnics. There’s very little to draw from for why Marvel went in the tonal direction that they did. Whedon’s film wasn’t seen by many people comparatively, but in looking back at it - what it did in 2005 vs. what the most successful popcorn sci-fi/fantasy films do in 2015 - it begins to look like it was seen by the right people.
This was not the first film to mix genres and play with character archetypes in this way, obviously. It wasn’t even the first film to do it with the same basic ingredients; pull back on the comedy and accentuate the action a bit, and 1999’s Galaxy Quest occupies a similar tonal register (and in a circumstance I’ve always found amusing, a very similar opener to the final act, right down to the lead-up and framing). Serenity was the first, I think, to strike precisely the right balance between comedy and drama in its depiction of an anachronistic world.
There is a moment at the climax of the film involving two adversaries facing off against each other, with both of them reaching for weapons. One extends a large and fearsome-looking sword; the other, panting from exertion, finally holds up…a screwdriver. This moment is pure slapstick - goofiness without a larger context. Yet there is real and earned pathos a minute or so later, when one of those characters utters a significant line about a world without sin, based on a story that has built its foundation at least partially on humor. The movie’s conflict holds weight on its own terms.
It still does this 10 years later, long after the initial anticipation from the fan community has subsided. It’s as notable for that weight as it is for the moments, peppered throughout the movie, that still mark it as Whedon’s most impressive technical achievement. Not a moment in the $250 million Age of Ultron carries the vast scope and vertigo evoked in this movie’s introductory shot of the titular ship as it enters a planet’s atmosphere, nor the elegance of a revelatory tracking shot through an opening blast door toward the movie’s end, nor an unusually good appropriation of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (this has no doubt been said many times before, but even in 2015 it’s pretty impressive what’s done here with the budget involved; you can see the seams and set dressing easily enough if you look for them, but the proceedings are so carefully orchestrated on the level of movement and focus that you’re really reaching by criticizing them).
Serenity still stands out, much more so than most bigger entries from an otherwise forgettable year - and even being an adaptation of a TV show, and bearing the rough spots typical of a movie that’s both of a new or refreshed tone and out of its time, it’s an original, bright, energetic piece of work. It’s as clear a worthy candidate for a 10-year retrospective as could be asked for.*
*With one big, honking asterisk. I mentioned earlier that every one of Serenity’s 109 minutes is essential. That’s selling the runtime a bit short, and it’s because the opening 10 minutes of the movie - basically everything before the title card, where we are introduced to the world, the principal conflict, the antagonist, and the germ of the movie’s theme - are by a considerable margin the low point of the entire thing; there’s nothing shown here that isn’t invoked or shown better later on. Those 10 minutes are functional, but anodyne and static. The aforementioned theme is bluntly delivered, and while there are lines of dialogue elsewhere that are more inherently purple, there are none that shrivel up and die onscreen in quite the way that we see here. Action is clumsily staged (the transition in blocking and perspective when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operative reveals exactly what he’s capable of was jarring in 2005, and it’s jarring now), the sets are mostly bland and claustrophobic. It’s a dour, cheap-looking way to begin the film, and it’s an endlessly pleasant surprise to witness the step up in every department once the film proper begins.