The main problem with Serenity can be stated very simply, though its solution is far from obvious, and most of my suggestions towards improving the film will doubtless amount to no more than minor tinkering. Before I move on the main problem, however, I must declare my prejudices. There are a few things that are not at all Serenity’s fault that caused me dissatisfaction. These are equally features of Firefly, but were harder to overlook in the larger, more concentrated dose of a film.
(1) The first prejudice is entirely my bad, not Serenity’s. I do not like ‘Action’. When there is so much plot to get through, why waste time running around like headless chickens? I find action scenes tedious at the best of times, and while watching Serenity I found myself several times reaching for the free local paper and reading the Under-16 netball results and letter from Mrs. G_____ complaining that the council had not yet surfaced C____ road while waiting for an action scene to finish. I don’t think this stems from anything as noble as an aversion to violence. I think it is a preference for chance over determinism, stemming in large part from a quarter-century of role playing. An action scene can be interesting in an RPG, since there is a real connection between the mayhem and the final result: but in scripted violence, it is all predestined. I just want to get to the end and see what the result is. If it was possible to play the DVD again and get a different outcome, that would be alright. This is not really any criticism of Serenity, just a good reason to recuse myself from commenting on Action films. So everything else I have to say will address the ‘Non-Action’ elements of Serenity.
(2) The second prejudice is shared with the entire ‘Hard Science Fiction’ community. Serenity is not science fiction in any real sense of the word. Space has certain characteristics that make it an inherently interesting place to tell a story: the terror of the vast emptinesses, the phenomenal plenitude of stars and planets in their possible quadrillions, the deep Otherness of an Other that is utterly indifferent to us. In science fiction this amazing backdrop is preserved. Maybe we can whisk from star to star in the blinking of an eye, but some sense must remain of the terrible distance, the incredible audacity of doing such a thing. Cordwainer Smith has a dozen different ways of doing this in different stories. In Space Opera, the characteristic qualities of space that make it space are removed. We move from world to world as trivially as we move from town to town in our global village. Once space is made just like anywhere else, we need to introduce new terrors to create drama, terrors that are usually transparently and tediously terrestrial. This is what I call ‘The Shatterzone Effect’ after a mid-1990s RPG that did it particularly badly. [It also mentioned logarithms in the first paragraph of the rule book, a sure sign that a game is not destined for a second edition]. The Reavers are basically a crummy device of this kind. Take the Firefly’s approach to Miranda. Randomly running into a Reaver in space is about as likely as jumping into the ocean and landing on a giant aquatic serpent creature previously unknown to science. If you see one, it is because it is chasing you. Okay, so the Reavers are present in a belt of ships around Miranda, because they started there. We are told there were about 300,000 Reavers, once upon a time- if we make the conservative assumption that pretty much all of them are ranged around Miranda, that will give more than a thousand square kilometres of room for each Reaver in a sphere surrounding a typical Earth-size planet. We could say that, perhaps, you can only jump from world to world at specific nodes, and the Reaver ships are clustered around the Miranda node. But then, why doesn’t the alliance have all these nodes staked out, so that people like Mal can’t function? Maybe not all planets have these nodes, just some, and Miranda happens to be one? I could go on. But making up excuses for what is really only a crummy device to make cheap drama- like having the Enterprise crew fall out of their chairs- makes my brain hurt.
The tacky space-opera aspects of the Firefly ‘verse are of course present in the TV series, but were less noticeable.
There is a third thing that is again not really Serenity’s fault but is not simply a prejudice of mine, which leads naturally to the main problem. In a film, there is not room for the kind of luxurious, leisurely character development that was one of the great joys of Firefly (and also Buffy). In a movie I don’t think there is room enough to develop more than about three well-rounded characters (e.g., Han, Chewie, and R2 in Star Wars). If you try to do many more, none of them will work, and they will all end up as flimsy cutouts. Mal is a much more unlikeable bastard in the movie than in the series. Jayne is much less an unlikeable bastard. Kaylee is much less cute and endearing. Enara might as well not be there at all. There are too many characters cluttering the landscape, and they are flattened and lifeless. And this brings me to the glaring flaw in the film: It is not really a film. Serenity is a highly compressed second season of Firefly. It does not hold together well as a film and (on my limited observation) commands very little interest to people who watch it without having seen the series. That is why it is cluttered with undeveloped characters. I expected to see a resolution of the River storyline in the film, but I also expected that plot to be presented as a whole, a thing in itself. This was probably naïve of me, because the main audience was obviously going to be fans of the TV series. Essentially, the whole point of the film is to answer the questions left hanging about River at the end of the TV series.
Now I shall make my prescriptions for improvement, in the classic tradition of Film Forensics. As you probably know if you have bothered to read this far, the Alliance is after River not because she is a genius, or a super soldier, or even that she has weird psychic powers per se: they are after her because of what she has learned with her weird psychic powers. The film needs to set up the mystery properly, for the uninitiated, and then get to the point where it is solved without too many unnecessary discursions, because time is needed to resolve what the characters are going to do with this information.
(1) Stuff needs to be cut out. I would have excised Enara and the Shepherd, for a start. Mr Universe, certainly. Even worse than making travel between worlds trivial is to make communication between worlds as trivial as communication in the global village, and introduce preposterous anachronisms like Mr Universe. Firefly could not exist in a global village. Mr Universe could not exist anywhere else.
There are a number of little things that damage the consistency of the ‘verse. I am sure Jayne swore once in English, rather than Chinese- that should go. The sense of the culture of the Firefly ‘verse as a Chinese-American fusion is too muted in Serenity.
Kaylee should not say that she had heard of Miranda. Space Opera is large, it contains multitudes, and even if there is no terror in the dark spaces between the planets they should still be there in their thousands and tens of thousands.
(2) The missing pieces of the River-Simon storyline need to be fitted in. This would involve abandoning the attempt to provide one canonical text for the whole story. We do not need a shot-by-shot abridgement of the first episode, but a different version with fewer characters and sub-plots that can fit into the time available. If the fans demand a single canonical version, tough. Christianity has survived for millennia with four different overlapping and sometimes contradictory accounts of the life of its central figure. The point is to make a film that can stand up as a film.
(3) There should be a more plausible excuse for the name Miranda to come out. The whole scene where River goes berko and beats up the barful of people, and its explanation, makes very little sense. Begone! That is of course partly my prejudice against action speaking. We have a long way to go and a lot of plot to fit in. Something else can be put in to bring out the name Miranda, as soon as possible after the beginning of the story has been told. This is left as an exercise for the reader.
(4) They should be chased by a Reaver- just one- on their way to Miranda. This could be made as exciting as any number of exciting things by good writing. There is no need to show more than one.
(5) In Serenity as it stands, Wash is killed in a stupid and senseless way. That is okay, after a fashion: life is like that. A hero is someone who gets other people killed. But I have a different plan.
Why are all these Reavers in spaceships? Why are they happy to cooperate together in flying spaceships, and only give way to rape and pillage and cannibalism when they find non-Reavers? The answer might be that for some pseudo-scientific doubletalk reasons people who have spent a lot of time in space are more likely to become Reavers than to lay down and die, when exposed to the Pax agent. And for similar reasons, whatever happens to them, it doesn’t alter their sense of shipboard camaraderie, it just renders everyone else prey.
Okay, so maybe it’s a pretty hot summer’s day on Miranda. We might see Wash splashing some water on his face from a convenient fountain. Sometime later, we learn from the holographic captain that the planet has been exposed to the Pax agent. How do we know its not still there? In Serenity as it stands, the crew doesn’t seem to worry about this possibility. They should. Maybe the Pax agent is still there- in the water, say. Wash starts to get mood swings. He becomes a bit inarticulate. Maybe he gets some Ukrainian-style chloracne, But he still seems to be to same old Wash. Then they land on Convent School WorldTM and he goes on a sadistic rampage. Mal has to kill him- not indirectly, as in the old Serenity, but directly- just like he killed the guy when the Reavers disrupted the bank robbery at the beginning.
(6) The fanatical bounty hunter guy just gives up at the end? ‘No use crying over spilt milk, what’s done is ended, have a nice life?’ I don’t think so. Not going to happen. While Mal’s goal after the discovery of Miranda is to tell everyone about it and change the ‘verse for the better, this is a hero’s goal. Its primary result is to get a lot of other people killed. Politically, realisation of this goal is a victory for Neoconservatism. Hollywood should not stand for such a thing. Mal should be forced by events to abandon this goal for the more limited goal of getting out with his life to someplace far, far away where he won’t be chased any more. Maybe pursuing this goal should get other people killed. Maybe his single-mindedness in pursuing this goal could lead the crew to suspect that he, too, is turning into a Reaver. Maybe the crew’s passivity and lack of enthusiasm in pursuing this goal could lead Mal into thinking they are becoming apathetic Pax-affected drones. The whole idea of peace as a drug could be used as the basis for a subtle and topical allegory of the processes of mutual demonisation we see in the real world.
Of course, even escaping with their lives seems like a big ask for the Firefly. I envision the Firefly escaping from some big exploding thing that is nigh-impossible to escape from (they are the PC’s, after all), so all the chasy people think River is dead. Maybe she can reinforce this with her weird psychic powers. Anyway, off they go to BackofbeyondworldTM to wait for the sequel. Roll credits. Not a big win, but a hell of a lot more satisfying than the ending of the X-Files movie. Pretty much on a par with Star Wars, methinks.