In 2517, six months after the last episode of the Firefly series, the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity is still roaming the solar system colonized by distant Earth. On board are Captain Mal Reynolds (Jason Fillion) and his crew, including Zoe Washburn (Gina Torres), Mal’s fellow soldier in the Alliance/Independent War, and her husband Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk), the pilot. Also, in the crew are brilliant engineer Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) and mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin). There are passengers as well: Shepherd Darrial Book (Ron Glass), Registered Companion Inarra Serra (Morena Baccarin), who rents a shuttle so she can come and go for business, and the fugitive Tam Siblings—Doctor Simon (Sean Maher) and his seriously disturbed sister River (Summer Glau). Her psychic powers were enhanced by Alliance experimenters, who were training her to be an assassin until she was rescued by Simon.
Despite the Doctor’s objections, Mal takes River on a bank robbery. Her powers help save them from savage Reaver cannibals, but Simon decides that he and River will leave Serenity at the next port. However, River is affected by a subliminal message in a television commercial and attacks a number of bar patrons, and Mal brings the siblings back to the ship. The crew contacts a hacker called Mr. Universe (David Kromholtz, whom you might remember from the Numbers TV series), who discovers a message tailor-made to trigger River’s mental conditioning. She uttered the word Miranda before the incident. And someone else has viewed the footage.
Mal receives an invitation from Inara, but realizes it is a trap. Still, he investigates and finds it is a ruse to get him to turn over River. Miranda, he discovers, is a planet in a region of space swarming with Reavers. They pass by the planet Haven and find it devastated and Shepherd Book mortally wounded. The Operative seeking River (Chiwetel Ejiofor) promises to kill anyone who aids the Serenity crew.
Mal disguises Serenity as a Reaver ship with red paint like blood and human bodies draped over it, and they travel to Miranda, to find that all the colonists are dead. It seems a chemical to suppress aggression was released in the atmosphere and the populace basically gave up living, except for a few who became insanely aggressive. It was the Alliance who created the Reavers—the secret in River’s mind the Alliance is trying to control.
Mr. Universe agrees to broadcast the secret but is killed by the Operative. Knowing that an ambush awaits them, the Serenity crew provokes the Reaver fleet to chase them into the Alliance Armada. As the Reavers and the Alliance battle, Wash pilots a crash-land near the broadcast tower, but is killed. The crew makes a last stand against the Reavers as Mal struggles to broadcast the recording.
Simon is shot and River is dragged off by the Reavers. After a bitter fight, Mal defeats the Operative and forces him to watch as he broadcasts the devastating message to every planet. When he returns to the crew, he discovers that River has killed all the Reavers. She stands over their bodies with a bloody axe in each hand, like a well-known picture by Frank Frazetta. The Operative orders the Alliance troops to stand down, Serenity takes off with River as the new pilot.
After the Firefly TV series was cancelled with prejudice by Fox, Joss Whedon convinced Universal Studios to produce the movie, Whedon’s first. Universal executive Mary Parent was a fan and agreed though there was as yet no story. What also helped was the success of the Firefly DVD box, featuring the unaired episodes, which sold out in 24 hours. The story was based on the unsold second season of the series. Glass and Tudyk were killed off because they could not be in a planned sequel which never happened. Joss Whedon moved on to the Avengers.
It was filmed in 50 ten-hour days. Scenes on the planet Miranda were filmed at the very modern Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona. The score was by David Newman and the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra. Jason Fillion used to watch the movie just for the music. River’s theme was played on an antique piano, out of tune. The film was the first to conform to Digital Cinema Initiatives. Sneak previews publicized only by word-of-mouth sold out in 24 hours—one theater in five minutes. It got two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert and 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, who named it the 5th best TV adaptation of all time. It won a Hugo and a Nebula and a Prometheus Special Award. It was considered a box-office failure, opening second instead of first in theaters.
Miranda, of course, was named for the character in the Tempest. “O brave new world that has such people in’t.” A spaceship on the planet is number C57D, the number of the saucer in Forbidden Planet. In the cargo bay, some of the crates are labelled “Reusable container: do not destroy.” The joke is about the Firefly sets which were destroyed when the series was cancelled. They were rebuilt from plans which Nathan Fillion had filched for mementos. Summer Glau, a dancer whose career ended when she broke a toe, used her skills in the fight-scenes. It was her first film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nathan Fillion, and Sean Maher also performed many of their stunts. In one scene, four of Mal’s scars are visible—three from gunshots and one from a swordfight.
Mal’s favorite drink is Ng Ka Dy, a Chinese Brandy. Jayne’s mini gun is named Lux after LuxLucas (KerryPearson), an online fan who died of diabetes complications. The Trade Agent was voiced by Joss Whedon, the Computer by Morena Baccarin. Serenity’s cannon is a WW2 German 20mm Flak 387. The doctored Fruity Oat Bar commercial was inspired by the Mr. Sparkle commercial in the Simpsons. The opening credits appear ten minutes into the film, in a four-minute unbroken take through the ship. In the opening sequence appear the Emirates Towers in Dubai, the Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt, and the HSBC Building in Hong Kong. Mal’s files reveal his birthday as 9/20/2468. Uniforms from Kevin Costner’s film The Postman appear in the docking station scene.
The Operative was inspired by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, Tim Roth in Rob Roy, and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. The names Mingo and Fanty are from characters played by Richard Conte and Lee Van Cleef in the 1955 film-noir The Big Combo. One of the Reaver ships is “Betty” from Alien Resurrection, written by Joss Whedon. The stairway in the White City is a copy of the stairs in Robson Square, Victoria, BC, designed by Arthur Erickson. It took 20 takes to get Simon and Kaylee’s final make out scene. But the most difficult scene was Simon and River’s final conversation, after Simon is shot. He was such a good actor that Summer kept bursting into tears.
There is room, I suppose, for disappointment that the emphasis on action in the movie left so little time for the character interaction and dialog that we like so much in the series. Ironically, Fox had been urging Whedon to do just that, causing the bad blood between creator and studio that ended in cancellation. Still, it is a damned good action movie and Serenity topped off the series nicely, giving us more Reavers and plenty of River dance. But I would rather have had six more years of Firefly as originally planned. Firefly is constantly listed as one of the top three SF series, along with Star Trek and Babylon Five.