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Interestingly, a look at this movie begins with a 2002 television series called Firefly, a show set in the year 2517 about a crew of renegade adventurers who travel about on a spaceship called Serenity in a star system where only recently humans arrived. The show ran for just eleven episodes (aired in the wrong sequence) and was promptly cancelled, though is now considered one of the bigger blunders in TV programming. Gaining a huge cult following, many petitioned hard to revive it but all attempts failed, yet it lead to the production of this film, giving some closure of sorts to the beloved characters.
While it is highly recommended you watch the series before giving Serenity a run, it’s not entirely necessary, feeling a bit self-contained on its own, but either way, the show is one that can’t be missed. It’s funny, smart, well-acted, and good fun, but mostly it’s just so smartly written, it feels like nothing else before or since. Most of that translates to the film, though it packs a bit more action and movie-level violence into the story, however remaining great science fiction, full of spectacular moments. They just don’t make movies like this anymore.
Written and directed by Joss Whedon, Serenity follows Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), along with his first mate Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), her husband, pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), and mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) who are living under The Alliance, an authoritarian corporate supergovernment that rules the known universe. Mal and Zoe were losers in the uprising against The Alliance, fighting as ‘Browncoats’ in the Unification War, now running the stars as bootleggers and hired hand types in the outer regions, content in the wild-west like planets they’ve built a reputation on.
Meanwhile, a young woman named River Tam (Summer Glau) had been raised by The Alliance to be a psychic assassin, the intrusive brain surgeries and procedures leaving her extremely paranoid, somewhat delusional, and occasionally violent. Her older brother Simon (Sean Maher), a brilliant trauma surgeon, has broken into the research facility where River had been kept and rescued her, leaving The Alliance in hot pursuit with an agent known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) obsessed with recapturing her. Seriously obsessed.
Simon secures passage on Serenity and his services as a doctor are put to use while River’s abilities are also found to have advantages, much to Simon’s objections. Either way, they soon get mixed up Reavers, a massive fleet of highly aggressive creatures who were once humans, turned savage by an experimental chemical. This leads to an urgent mission that sees the crew risking their lives to alert others. And it’s here where we come to a great moment.
While Mal is tasked with a very special mission, the others take to making a kind of last stand against the attacking Reavers to distract them and give Mal more time. Pinched in the hallways and sealed tunnels of a complex facility, they are chased down by the relentless, mindless Reavers, hungry to ravage them to shreds.
Trapped in a small corridor, Frye is wounded and Simon has dropped his medical bag in the previous area, though he too is shot by a Reaver rifle as the door behind them doesn’t close completely. Mortally wounded, he collapses to the deck and a devastated River falls to his side, fearful and panicked. Simon realizes he’s on his last breathe and as Zoe and Jayne do their best to hold back the onslaught, he tells River, “I hate to leave.” It’s an emotional gut-punch.
It’s important to note that to this point, River has been a kind of burden, a fragile, mentally vulnerable girl with unstable powers, who has remained sheltered by Simon and protected by the others despite her strange behavior. Seen throughout in timid positions and as one of delicate composition, she does possess a stunning ability to unleash some surprising combat skills, seen earlier when a subliminal trigger incited her to violence. And so it is that as her friends remain in peril and her brother lies near death, she leans into him and says:
You take care of me Simon. You’ve always taken care of me.
What happens next I’ll leave for you to discover. Let’s look more closely at this pivotal moment instead. The key to why this works so well is the writing. Whedon has always had remarkable talent in crafting stories around his sharp dialogue and well-defined characters, from his years with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Angel (1999–2004) to his work co-writing Toy Story (1995) and The Avengers (2012). Here, he builds upon the established lore of the short-run television series, shading these layers in rich atmospheric tones that extends them well beyond their TV origins.
Simon is a brave man, already having faced great odds in trying to save his sister, but even among the hardened souls aboard Serenity, becomes a man of substance. His driven sense of protection in seeing his sister safe leads him to the corners of the most vile places in the universe, but he does everything he can to keep her out of Alliance hands. River is herself a dangerous treasure, a thing so delicate on appearance she seems breakable merely by touch, and yet is surrounded by an air of uncommon presence, one that mystifies and alerts those careful to look closely. Their relationship is built upon a trust that demands he will always take care of her, one that she has taken to with proclivity, her damaged psyche bending her to his protection even as she remains volatile.
So, when she sees that not only is he now unable to protect her, that he will also soon die, she finds an inner strength that lifts her to her feet. And we come to one of the best traits in action movie standards, the sacrifice. Notice how River shifts in personality, a composure and resounding confidence in her actions. It’s a metamorphosis from flower to sword and because of Whedon’s brilliant economy of words, the exchange is swift but greatly impactful. As the world around her slows down, cued by a single shot of Zoe and Jayne in super slo-motion firefight, we realize that River is tapping into the vast potential within that has yet to be truly unleashed. When she charges away, it’s exhilarating. River gets her turn.