I am fine with the result of the recent SFX Magazine poll of 3000 science fiction fans, cited by the BBC, designating Serenity the best science fiction movie ever made. It goes without saying that Serenity’s ability to depict ordinary life in a future setting places it at a higher level than George Lucas’ higher budget Star Wars series, which must rely on such devices as “the Force” in order to draw us into his mythical imagined world.
However, on careful consideration, I thought it worth mentioning that the pilot episode for the Firefly television series, also entitled “Serenity,” is in fact superior to Serenity the movie, and thus, in my opinion, the best piece of dramatized science fiction so far created.
I wish only to comment briefly at this time on the distinction between the two eponymous works.
Serenity the pilot portrays numerous slices of life in the daily experiences of the crew of the space-faring vessel of the same name. There are hints at bigger issues and grander schemes operating in the background, but the pilot episode is mostly about what it might be like to live on a spaceship and to survive at the edges of the human galactic diaspora 500 years in the future.
Serenity the movie focuses on the grand conflict between the totalitarian “Alliance” and a few free people now scattered throughout our corner of the galaxy. There is relentless pursuit by a genocidal Alliance antagonist, with heavy and continuing casualties resulting from the ruthlessness of the Alliance, and an ultimate discovery of the Alliance’s deepest secret following a brutal battle with the dreaded and self-deforming Reavers in the former heart of human interplanetary civilization.
In the pilot episode, we witness a space salvage operation, double and triple-crossing transactions concerning the salvage from this operation, the taking on of the passengers who ultimately form the heart of Firefly’s cast, early hints as to the mysterious status of River Tam, an encounter with an Alliance undercover agent, a first encounter with the brutal Reavers, and powerful character development through illustration of the characters’ responses to relentlessly trying and testing circumstances. As we come to know the characters and to witness how they live through both small and major events, we develop a bond with each of them.
In Serenity the movie, there are continued hints at daily life, but the focus is more at the level of the grand conflict with the Alliance. It is an engaging dramatic device, but to my taste, the slices of life in the pilot are ultimately more satisfying than the grand and costly conflict portrayed in the movie.
I love both Serenity the movie and Serenity the pilot, don't get me wrong, but after some rewatching, I feel confident in suggesting that the pilot stands at a higher level of accomplishment than the movie, which, though more expensively produced, is considerably more plot and theme driven and far more loss-absorbed than the pilot
I have commented previously that the supreme accomplishment of Robert Heinlein’s science fiction writing (never yet satisfactorily transferred to the screen), is in Heinlein's ability to draw us into daily life in an imagined future.
Credit Joss Whedon for his work on both “Serenity” episodes and the Firefly series. Mr. Whedon is in my view the first to accomplish on film what Heinlein achieved in literature, and this is a noteworthy development.
NOTE ON RUMOURS OF SERENTIY II:
Mr. Whedon commented on August 3, 2007 that strong sales for the soon-to-be-released special edition DVD of Serenity could possibly spark a sequel to a very well-received movie. He does not indicate any communication on the matter with Universal Studios, but he argues that the original project is now in the black, and that a successful special edition launch would cement Serentiy the movie as a successful commercial venture. Under these conditions, Mr. Whedon felt that the studio could possibly rethink a sequel.
He also indicated that the special edition DVD includes truly new special features, including an all-new commentary, as well as an expanded "making of" featurette and the well-received River Tam sessions, produced for the internet in advance of the movie.
I will add that a sequel to the movie is more hopeful than a sequel to the television series, given Mr. Whedon's positive relationship with Universal Studios, versus his more difficult relationship with Fox Network, the producers of Firefly.