So, a few months after Firefly got cancelled, Joss Whedon announced he was writing a Firefly movie. This is that movie and, except for the comics that I haven’t really read, the RPG I haven’t gotten a group to play, and the online video game that apparently will never be finished, this is the end of the line for the series. This is the Return of the Jedi of the ‘Verse… assuming that decades later someone doesn’t start adding to the official canon in ways that people constantly fight over.
The movie starts with a summary of the premise of humanity leaving for another solar system to terraform, then fighting the Unification War. From the beginning, it has a notably propagandistic tone, which makes sense when it is revealed to be a teacher (Tamara “there are no small parts, just great actresses” Taylor) at an Alliance school. The Alliance teacher asks the class why the Independents didn’t want to be “civilized,” to which a young River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn) responds that people don’t like to be meddled with. The teacher then counters that they aren’t trying to tell the Independents “what” to think, just trying to teach them “how.” Then stabs River.
This flashback is then revealed to be a dream that River is having while being experimented on by the Alliance. A young man is watching, asking about her, revealing himself to be Simon. The doctor, Mathias (Michael Hitchcock) doing the experiment explains to Simon that River is not just a psychic now, but a weapon. Simon then knocks out the lab and pulls river from the machines, freeing her. They escape the facility, but this entire sequence is revealed to be a hologram. So, yes, this opening is a flashback lesson inside a dream inside a hologram.
Quick side note: Yes, this opening directly conflicts with the show, including the fact that Simon is told she’s psychic from the beginning and that Simon paid others to break River out. Whedon explained that he changed it so people who didn’t watch the show could still enjoy the movie.
The person watching it is an unnamed Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is tasked with retrieving the Tams. He’s taken over from the Hands of Blue from the series, due to A) their deaths in the Serenity comics and B) the fact that if you have the opportunity to put Chiwetel Ejiofor in a movie, you put Chiwetel Ejiofor in your f*cking movie. The Operative confronts Dr. Mathias about River’s treatment, pointing out that Mathias put key members of Parliament in the room with River, who not only CAN read minds but, within the series, CAN’T NOT read them until after Simon starts treating her. So, River now knows all the darkest secrets of the Alliance. The Operative attacks Mathias, paralyzing him, then letting him fall forward onto a sword, killing him.
On board Serenity, Wash is having issues with the ship falling apart, issues he describes as “oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die.” Mal walks through the ship, giving every character a brief re-introduction: Jayne’s got a lot of guns and grenades and is prepared to shoot people, Zoë is the loyal number 2 who’s married to Wash, Kaylee is the gearhead who keeps the ship flying far past when it should, Simon is the doctor who is pissed at Mal for taking River on a job, and River is a 17-year-old (telling us the time-jump from the series to now is about 9 months, not the years it took to film) psychic. Concise and effective, if a bit of wonky exposition aside from Jayne and Kaylee’s intros. Inara and Book are now gone.
Well, it turns out the “job” that the crew is running is a bank robbery. Inside, River identifies a man about to pull a gun using her powers. While Mal and Zoë are emptying the vault, several ships worth of Reavers descend upon the town. The crew quickly grabs the money and gets on the “mule,” their transport hovercraft. A man tries to jump on to save himself, begging for mercy, but Mal points out that the mule can’t carry five and pushes him off. He’s immediately grabbed by Reavers who start to, apparently, eat him, so Mal mercy-kills the man. They flee, pursued by a Reaver craft. Jayne gets harpooned through the leg, but Mal manages to shoot the rope, freeing him before he can be captured. They’re almost caught, but at the last second, they’re able to do a “barn swallow” by momentarily landing Serenity on the ground, picking up the mule, and flying off.
Inside, a surviving Reaver attacks the crew, but is quickly killed. Simon punches Mal for endangering River, saying that he’s going to get off the ship. Mal and Zoë point out that River is perfectly fine and saved their lives, but Simon still wants to go. River observes the dead Reaver saying “he didn’t lie down,” because River gets all the good foreshadowing. Jayne and Kaylee clean up while talking about the Reavers, then the state of the ship, which Kaylee says Mal is slowly going to drive them all off of, like he did Inara.
On the next port planet, Beaumonde, Simon and River prepare to leave the ship. Simon asks River if she wants to stay, but River says it isn’t safe. After Simon leaves, she reveals that she’s willing to leave because it isn’t safe for the crew. At the meeting site for Mal’s employer on the bank robbery, Kaylee is complaining about Simon leaving, including more than just a loss of romantic contact, resulting in one of the most awkward and hilarious lines in the movie:
Kaylee: Goin’ on a year now I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!
Mal: Oh, God! I can’t know that!
Jayne: I could stand to hear a little more.
Simon and River show up to collect River’s share of the payment for the job, but River sees a subliminal message in a commercial for Blue Sun products (addressed in this post) and begins to relentlessly attack everyone in the bar, including Mal and Jayne. Simon eventually recites a phrase in Russian (which, as far as I can find, literally translates to “That’s something chickens will laugh at that” or, idiomatically, “that’s ridiculous”), which causes River to pass out.
Back on the ship, Mal inquires about what happened and Simon explains that the Alliance had conditioned her to be a weapon. Mal is upset by Simon not disclosing this earlier but allows the Tams to remain. Wash suggests that they talk to Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) for information. Mr. Universe essentially tracks every security and video feed in the ‘Verse. He watches the footage of River’s attack and finds that there is an Alliance message carried in the advertisement that triggered her, along with River saying the word “Miranda.” It’s also revealed that someone else has viewed the footage before them.
Simon and River talk on the ship, with River’s madness causing her obvious pain. Simon asks about Miranda, but River can’t articulate it because it’s not her memory. She says to Simon that she’d rather he kill her than put her to sleep again. Simon tells her that he won’t put her to sleep and never to talk about killing her again. A short jump cut shows the Operative approaching Inara.
The crew flees to “Haven,” a mining colony where Book is acting as Shepherd. After Mal says that he couldn’t bring himself to abandon the Tams. Book tells Mal that the only thing that can get him through this is belief. Mal says that he doesn’t believe in God, but Book asks why Mal assumes he’s talking about God. Book tells him that the man the Alliance will send after “believes hard. Kills and never asks why.”
River has another dream about the class, watching everyone lie down around her. Mal is awakened by a call from Inara, who asks her to come help her with a local problem. Mal immediately realizes it’s a trap, because Inara is careful not to provoke him. At her Companion House, Mal finds Inara and the Operative. The Operative calmly talks to Mal about surrendering River. In an odd moment of inaccuracy, the Operative calls her an albatross. Recognizing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” correctly, Mal points out that the albatross was good luck until the Mariner killed it. On another level, the Mariner, who is forced to wear the albatross on his neck for his sin, is the only sailor to survive the story and is eventually freed from it after he finds his faith. So… overall, it’s not usually a bad sign for the guy who has the albatross, just everyone else. Either way, it’s not the best allegory for the Operative to use.
The Operative tries to reason with Mal, but also points out that he’s aware that Mal will try to find a way to justify fighting the Alliance. The Operative goes out of the way to say that he’s not going to get angry, that he’s there in good faith, and that he’s unarmed. To the last point, Mal responds “good” and shoots the Operative, who quickly puts Mal in a choke hold. Unarmed is not unarmored. Mal tries to fight the Operative, but is pretty easily outclassed, even with Inara’s help. Even worse, it’s obvious that the Operative is not even trying to kill them during the fight. However, Inara reveals that she booby-trapped the incense with a flashbang, allowing them to escape to the ship, which hides among a bunch of decoys to make an undetected getaway.
Back on the ship, Jayne challenges Mal’s decision to keep River on-board, but Mal stands firm on his decision. River has another vision, identifying Miranda as a planet on the Outer Rim. Jayne tries to capture River to deliver her to the Alliance and ensure the safety of the crew, but River easily knocks him out before knocking Simon out and taking over the bridge to look up the location of the planet.
It’s revealed that Miranda is listed as a non-terraformed rock, but there’s evidence to suggest that it was once populated. However, it’s surrounded by Reaver ships, so Mal opts to hide instead of investigate. They return to Haven, but find it in flames, filled with dead civilians, including all the children. Mal finds a mortally wounded Book, who destroyed the ship that killed the mining colony, who tells Mal that he doesn’t care what he believes, “just believe it.” He then passes on. Zoë realizes that this wasn’t just a random hit. It’s revealed that all of the crew’s allies have been murdered by the Alliance.
The Operative contacts Mal. The Operative admits that he’s evil, something that is more unnerving to Mal than if he denied it, but that the Operative believes in a better world that he is forming through his actions. He promises that more people will die, before accidentally giving Mal an idea. Mal has the crew outfit Serenity as a Reaver ship so that they can pass through Reaver space undetected and reach Miranda. Back on the ship, it’s obvious that Mal is at the end of his rope, emotionally and mentally. They manage to sneak through the lines and reach Miranda.
Miranda is revealed to be an advanced colony, containing dozens of large cities, but no people. Eventually, the crew starts to stumble on a bunch of skeletons which all appeared to have died peacefully. When they find a sealed room full of preserved corpses, they observe that none of these people were killed, they just laid down and passed away. Finding a beacon, they play a recording by a Dr. Caron (Sarah Paulson), who reveals that the Alliance tested a chemical, Pax, on the planet that was designed to remove the violent tendencies of the population. Instead, it caused the population to lose any desire to perform daily functions, leading them to just lay down and starve to death. However, in 0.1% of the population, the drug had the opposite effect, making people violent and sadistic. Thus came the Reavers.
Mal then delivers the speech that I’m going to just paste verbatim, because summarizing it just doesn’t do it justice:
This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, because there’s a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They’re gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people.
You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
Earlier in the movie, Inara had told Mal she’s seen many versions of him, with Mal saying she’d see another if there was ever a real war. This is that Malcolm Reynolds. He’s not just a badass, he’s a badass with the knowledge that there is something that he can do to help the ‘Verse. I said in “War Stories” that, at his core, Mal really wants to punch some bad people in the face. Well, this is him with the opportunity to do it to all the bad people who’ve made him suffer since long before Serenity Valley. This is a man finally finding a way to fight the system. This is Malcolm Reynolds when he finally believes in something, and may God help you if you’re in his way.
The entire crew, even Jayne, agrees to help. They plan to get to Mr. Universe and have him broadcast Caron’s recording across the ‘Verse. Universe seems to agree to help, but it’s revealed that the Operative is there and kills him. As Serenity approaches the Operative’s position, the movie switches to the Operative’s perspective as he watches the tiny Firefly pass through the ion storm. Thinking it’s just a suicide run, the Operative prepares to fire, but is quickly distracted by the dozens of massive Reaver ships following in the wake of Serenity. One of the hallmarks of the show was that Serenity didn’t have any on-board weapons, so they figured out other solutions. This is the best one they ever come up with.
Wash pilots the ship through the space battle, despite the ludicrous amount of explosions and damage happening nearby and the general chaos of the two fleets. As Kaylee keeps the engine running, Wash makes a series of runs that no other pilot would ever consider, destroying Reaver and Alliance alike through guile. It’s truly a crowning achievement when he finally manages to right the ship after an EMP blast, landing the ship on nothing but partial backup power and basically no thrust.
And nothing bad happens to him afterwards.
That’s the sentence I wish I could write but, unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen that way. It’s a signature of Joss Whedon that any happy couple is eventually going to be divided or killed. I don’t want to speculate as to why, but Buffy, Angel, and even, to an extent, Avengers: Age of Ultron have examples of this. So, right as Wash has just managed to prove that he’s a pilot of nearly preternatural skill, he is hit by a harpoon fired from a Reaver ship. He dies instantly. It’s an amazingly powerful moment, but I really hate having to see it again.
Zoë, the stoic, immediately loses control and starts begging for him to be okay, not realizing that he is obviously dead. Mal has to save her from a different harpoon, after which she regains her head, ever the professional. The crew disembarks to find Mr. Universe. Mal goes ahead while the others cover Mal, creating a choke point for the Reaver insurgence coming after them. Jayne talks about how they’re going to survive before Zoë asks him darkly if he really thinks any of them will make it. Jayne meekly responds “I might.”
Mal heads to Universe’s control room only to find it wrecked. However, Universe left his sex-doll/wife, Lenore (Nectar Rose), with instructions for Mal, telling him that there’s a secret transmitter still operating. Mal heads for it. Back at the chokepoint, Kaylee and Simon finally express their mutual desires. Kaylee, now knowing Simon wants to bone her, resolves to live. The Operative sneaks past the crew and finds Lenore repeating the message for Mal, allowing him to find the hidden transmitter.
The Reavers burst into the room and attack the crew as the Operative finds Mal. The crew hold their own as Mal attempts to make it to the remaining transmitter with the recording. He and the Operative end up brawling on a series of platforms suspended over a rotating fan, because that imagery is awesome and is re-used for a reason. When the Reavers start to overwhelm the crew, they fall back down to another hallway, but everyone is pretty badly injured… except, it seems, Jayne, who only got grazed and River, who was hiding. Zoë has been slashed, Kaylee’s stabbed, and Simon gets shot in the gut. Upon seeing her brother lying there, River says that Simon has always taken care of her, but now, it’s her turn. River runs through the remaining doorway, attacking the Reavers, before throwing Simon his medical bag and sealing the crew off in the hallway. The Reavers can’t get to the crew, but River is now trapped with a f*ck-ton of Reavers.
Mal and the Operative are still fighting, with the Operative having the upper hand until Mal allows himself to be stabbed by the Operative’s sword to catch him off-guard and get a few solid hits in. However, the Operative recovers and hits Mal with the nerve strike that he used on Mathias earlier. As the Operative moves to execute him, Mal moves at the last second, hitting the Operative in the throat, crushing his windpipe. He tells the Operative that the nerve cluster got hit by shrapnel during the War, and they had to move it. So, losing to the Alliance once is what allows him to win here. Mal then dislocates both of the Operatives shoulders and pins him against the railing. Declining to kill him, Mal instead shows him the truth about the Alliance that he blindly obeys and transmits the recording.
It cuts back to River, who is shown to be holding her own against dozens of Reavers. Mal rejoins the crew, informing them of their success. When he asks about River, the door opens, revealing River, apparently unharmed, standing in a room full of corpses. The Alliance troops enter, but the Operative, no longer loyal to the Alliance, tells them to stand down.
The crew buries Wash, Book, and Mr. Universe on Haven, before fixing the ship. Kaylee and Simon finally have sex. Mal confronts the Operative one last time, with the Operative telling him that they’ll likely be pursued again. Inara decides to stay on the ship and River takes over as Co-pilot of the ship with Mal at the helm. As they leave atmosphere, a piece breaks off, mirroring the first appearance of the ship in the movie. The last line is Mal, asking “What was that?”
Alright, so, I put a lot more commentary into the summary than usual, so I’ll keep this short.
I hate that Wash dies. I will always hate that Wash dies. Book died, wasn’t that enough, dammit? I also refuse any continuity in which Zoë was not pregnant at the time, allowing her to finally have the baby with Wash that she wanted. I don’t care if Gina Torres buys infomercial time where she denies it over and over again, Zoë gets to have a child she wants with the man she loves, end of story.
The Operative is one of the best villains in the series, being simultaneously simple enough to understand and complex enough to be interesting. Having the villain be someone who knows he’s the villain doesn’t often work out great, but when it does, holy cow does it pay off. Here, it pays big.
I admire that Whedon didn’t try to rely on being able to get more movies later. This is a true finale. Sure, adventures can happen after this, but almost all of our questions have been answered. We get the background of why the Alliance wanted River, what the Reavers are, and we see the “they will” at the end of our “will they/won’t they” couples. The only thing that doesn’t really get answered is Book’s past and a few small plot threads from other episodes. However, for the most part, we got everything we needed, and that’s more than most.
As far as messages go, the movie’s message is pretty strong. Not the message about standing up to tyranny or big government or evil, but the message of belief. It’s not enough to just live in defiance of something, you need to have something to believe in. It doesn’t need to be God or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but it does need to be something strong enough to be worth more than yourself. For Mal, it’s finally finding a way to prove to the ‘Verse what the Alliance has done. “But he already was trying to do that,” I hear you saying. Well, yes, when he fought in the war, Mal believed. But, as the opening scene to the Pilot shows, that belief died in Serenity Valley. Since then, he’s just been drifting, trying to keep flying. Remember, Book’s lines in “Jaynestown:”
It’s about believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith…. It fixes you.
Now, the show wasn’t shy on showing you the other side of this. In “Safe,” the religious zealots believe River is a witch, despite witches famously weighing the same as ducks. In this film, the Operative is empowered by his belief in the better world promised by the Alliance. So, faith can be good or bad, just like people can be good or bad, but it’s still important to have it, because you need belief to help get you off your ass to do something bigger than yourself. Like, for example, make the movie of a TV Show that’s famous for getting cancelled.
So, that was Serenity. It’s still a little dependent on the series to really appreciate it, but, honestly, it’s a well done film even without that. It just never quite has the same “feel” as most regular movies. For the most part it feels like a really high-budget episode of the show, but that’s still damned good. And I am still glad we got it, even if Wash dies.
I’m posting the final Firefly Fridays entry in a few hours, containing my ultimate ranking of episodes. It’ll probably be up by the time most of you read this.
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