Serenity – BLUE’S BEATS #20
Ten years ago, on September 30th, Joss Whedon‘s Serenity hit theaters. It was a modest success at the box office, but was well regarded amongst fans of Whedon’s short-lived, cult status television show, Firefly, which introduces Serenity’s crew and their adventures through space. In honor of Serenity‘s ten year anniversary, I revisit the film and its script, identifying the story’s main beats.
You can read a PDF of the screenplay, also written by Whedon, here.
Pursued by a deadly government assassin, a wanted girl and her brother find refuge with a band of misfit smugglers aboard the spaceship, Serenity. When the girl begins to demonstrate psychic abilities, a terrible government secret comes to light, causing the captain of the ship to make a difficult decision. Go underground and continue business as usual or unravel the mystery behind the deadly, cannibalistic Reavers.
Serenity has little character exposition and wastes no time setting up the plot, an advantage of having characters established in another medium, in this instance the TV series.
However, there is some brief voice over montage at work in the beginning, filling in new viewers on the already-established parameters of the film’s universe. Overpopulated and out of resources, humans looked to the stars to colonize new planets. The voice over comes from a teacher addressing a group of adolescent children. It is revealed that there was a civil war fought to unify the colonized planets. We are also first introduced to the Reavers, an almost mythical band of savage cannibals who roam the outer planets.
We are first introduced to River (Summer Glau), as a bright, questioning young girl, but the utopian classroom violently cuts to a cold, sterile medical lab, revealing an older River. A doctor and a man dressed in military garb are both present in the lab, where we learn that River is psychic, though mentally unstable. The man reveals himself to be River’s brother, Simon (Sean Maher), as he dares an escape to rescue his imprisoned sister.
“Stop.” – page 7
Simon’s and River’s escape was actually a recording being watched by a man known only as, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Pages 9 and 10, The Operative interrogates the doctor presiding over River, the man accountable for her escape. We learn that government officials met River during the experimentation, potentially exposing her to valuable government secrets. The Operative kills the doctor for his failures, and the search for the escaped fugitive begins.
“Where are you hiding, little girl?” – page 12
PLOT POINT ONE
We are now introduced to Serenity’s crew: the ship’s captain, Mal (Nathan Fillion), pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk), second in command, Zoe (Gina Torres), mercenary, Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). The crew is planning a heist, and Mal intends for River to tag along, much to the protestations of her brother, Simon. The plan goes south on page 26 when they are attacked by Reavers. The crew makes a break for it aboard a hovercraft. In the scuffle to escape, Mal sacrifices a local to save his crew. From this action, we get the impression that Mal is willing to sacrifice others to save himself. When they arrive safely back aboard Serenity, Simon attacks Mal, furious that River was placed in such a dangerous situation. He vows that he and his sister will be leaving the crew when they land next, page 33.
In a bar on some backwater planet, a strange, but seemingly harmless commercial triggers something within River. Whispering, “Miranda,” she goes into a violent rampage, attacking anyone and everyone present in the bar, page 45. River falls unconscious, and Mal and Jayne carry her back to the ship. Mal makes a choice to protect her, regardless of his own self-interest. At the midpoint, the plot shifts to discovering the secret of “Miranda.”
PLOT POINT TWO
Page 91, the crew lands on Miranda, a planet on the other side of Reaver Space. It isn’t long before they all begin to feel uneasy, sensing that something isn’t right in the abandoned colony. They find dead bodies, some of which appear to have died peacefully, as if they died in their sleep. Page 95, in an abandoned government ship, the crew witnesses a recording from a science officer, stating that the government had used a chemical compound to alter the people of the colony, minimizing rage and subsequently minimizing conflict. It was experimental and ultimately led to the deaths of thousands of people. Many laid down and slept until they died, but in a small percentage of the population, the chemical had the opposite effect and triggered rage, creating the Reavers.
CRISIS AND CLIMAX
Mal and crew devise a plan to broadcast the recording to the galaxy, making the government’s terrible secret known. They are pursued by both Reavers and The Operative. After several firefights, and a hand-to-hand bought between Mal and the Operative, Mal successfully broadcasts the message, page 118.
The crew escapes the Reavers and mourns their dead. River and Simon have now been accepted as true crew members aboard the Serenity. Mal encounters The Operative one last time, but they are no longer enemies. He tells Mal how the broadcast has caused an uprising in the government. The film ends with Serenity bursting into space with Mal at the helm and River at his side.