Since I’ve had a night to digest “Serenity,” and poke around online to see what others are saying, I’ve come to a few more thoughts about the movie. But since not everyone is interested, and some who are might not have seen it yet, I’m sticking them in the “extended” section.
One of the major points of the movie is that Whedon started off with an ensemble cast of nine, and not all of them survive the movie. But neither of the deaths are simple throwaways.
The first one is almost a cliche. It serve to prove that the movie is, indeed, “serious” and to give some serious emotional investment to the remaining characters. It also leaves a lot of questions about that character unanswered, but life is rarely tidy.
The second, though, is so perfectly in tune with what one should expect from Joss Whedon, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But it is to nearly everyone.
Whedon has said his secret is no great secret: give the audience what they need, not what they want. He refuses to cater to our wishes.
That second death literally comes out of nowhere. It’s right after a very, very tense, exciting, frightening sequence. All the characters (and the audience) are all breathing sighs of relief, laughing, rejoicing in their survival. One of them even starts a wisecrack.
But it’s never finished.
In that instant, everything changes. There’s no last-minute heroics, no grand sacrifice, no greater good being served by that character’s death. Right in mid-sentence, they’re gone — in a way that leaves no doubt that they’re dead, and in a way that’ll bring a brief instant of recognition to Buffy/Angel fans.
In the following battle, as nearly every single character is wounded, we find ourselves terrified that they, too, will die. There’s no “they have to survive” feeling, no “they’ll be fine” sense of comfort. They very well could die at any instant, and we know it. Joss has given us no promises, no warranty, no guarantees of any sort that any particular character (or, in fact, any of them at all) will survive. And that provides far more tension than in any other movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Three are shot, one poisoned, one slashed, and a fifth is shot, stabbed, beaten, and suffers all sorts of other injuries — and at any moment, they know they could die.
And so do we.
And for those who despair about those that did die, don’t worry. In the Whedonverse, death is not necessarily a career ender. In fact, in one case, it was a damned good career move — Mercedes McNab’s character was barely above an occasional background character up until Harmony Kendall was killed at the end of Buffy Season 3, but she came back in better and better roles — until she actually became a regular on Angel.