Despite a lack of box office success at the time of its initial release, SERENITY has gone on to be a consistently strong seller on the DVD market. Much like the DVD of FIREFLY, it never topped the Best Seller lists (except at Amazon.com and other on line sellers), but like the series box set it has continued to sell to both old and new fans, gradually building an audience. I'm aware that some people feel that the film is not intelligible without having seen the series first. I saw the series several times before seeing the film in the theater, so I am unable to address this. I will say that my sister and one of her sons saw the film on DVD and loved it. They then got the FIREFLY set and became big fans of the series as well. My point is that not everyone finds the film hard to follow if they haven't seen the series, but I do believe that the film is best viewed as a wrap up of FIREFLY.
In a way, Joss Whedon has broken a promise. This is a good thing. At the time of the initial DVD release he stated that there would not be a later DVD release. This was in response to complaints that Universal (a studio I have warm feelings for because their logo comes up every time I pop my BATTLESTAR GALACTICA DVDs into my player) is fairly notorious for double-dipping, i.e., releasing a DVD and then a few months later releasing an expanded version of the DVD, perhaps to release an even more expanded or "director's cut" version a few months after that. Many studios engage in this practice, but Universal seems to be the worst of the bunch. But this release comes largely as the result of fan requests. There actually was a two-disc version of SERENITY released in Australia (which I took the effort to track down on eBay, though I can only watch it on my computer using AnyDVD to get past the regional coding) with a different set of extra features available on this new release. I'm delighted that SERENITY is finally getting the 2-disc treatment in the US as well. Fans of the TV show never got all the FIREFLY that we wanted so each additional exposure to Mal and his crew is like water to someone dying of thirst.
FIREFLY/SERENITY will, I believe, be viewed as critical, along with BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, in redefining film and TV Sci-fi. The two shows (and I do think of SERENITY as the final act of FIREFLY) established a new aesthetic for Sci-fi by bringing a new sense of realism along with a rejection of what could be called Magic Science for plot resolution. By Magic Science I am thinking of all those situations in a host of movies and TV episodes (STARGATE SG-1 specialized in this) where a very imaginative physics is utilized to get the heroes out of a dangerous situation. Our heroes might be caught in a time warp that can only be overcome by reversing the polarity of the warp drive engines, or, uh, something. Neither FIREFLY nor BSG engage in such shenanigans. Their solutions to problems always seem very much like the kind of solutions that we would utilize. In other words, both shows eschew scientific gimmicks. The two also refuse to employ that old stock in trade, the alien. There simply are no aliens on either FIREFLY or BSG. The Reavers are very much a human creation, as are the Cylons. Furthermore, both strive for more realistic visuals. Although SERENITY employs more traditional film techniques (thanks to highly regarded cinematographer Jack Green), both these series largely used hand held cameras (especially BSG, which uses exclusively high def video). FIREFLY pioneered the technique, later employed magnificently by BSG, of employing "zoom" in CGI shots. In both shows one will see a spaceship and then the "camera" (which doesn't exist) zooms in, going briefly out of focus while the visual field is adjusted, for a closer look. Not surprisingly, the special effects outfit that originated this for FIREFLY, Zoic, later provided special effects for BSG. (In fact, they couldn't resist putting Serenity into the BSG Miniseries. If you watch the first scene in Caprica City, where the camera first looks up through a skylight and then lowers down into what turns out to be the office of Laura Roslin's doctor, Serenity can be seen as the only ship going from right to left.) And both shows introduced retro elements to provide a unique look. FIREFLY is influenced by a 19th century Old West look in clothing and weaponry, along with a number of Oriental elements, while BSG often uses design from the forties and fifties (e.g., the phones on the show were taken from a WW II submarine). In the past, new Sci-fi TV series set in space basically had to define themselves against the aesthetic of the Star Trek shows. In the future, they are going to define themselves against the recreation of Sci-fi brought about by FIREFLY and BSG.
FIREFLY and SERENITY, as well as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL, can in many ways be viewed as a product of Third Wave feminism. (Anyone doubting the centrality of feminism in everything that Whedon does--and if you doubt it you simply haven't been paying attention--should go to Youtube.com and search "joss whedon equality now speech" and listen to the speech he gave following an award they gave him.) While TV Sci-fi has long been a means for representing nontraditional roles for women, Whedon has been instrumental in taking this to the next level. Buffy Summers was created specifically to be a feminist cultural icon and there is no question that Whedon succeeded. She might not fit the ideal criteria set forward by Second Wave feminism (or, rather, the caricature of the Second Wave feminism--contrary to the stereotype, most of the major Second Wave feminists wore make up and bras, liked men while hating patriarchy, and were heterosexual), but by Third Wave practice (which is generally viewed as more pro-sex, less PC, more experimental, brasher, and less concerned with victimization than with self-assertion) she is perfect. Whedon loves empowered women. While comics have long had female super heroes, until the nineties there were shockingly few genuine female heroes on TV or in movies. We never thought twice about Batman or Superman or Rambo, but we had to wait a long time to see a strong female hero like Ellen Ripley in film and even longer for Dana Scully, Xena, and Buffy on TV. Why were only men allowed to be fantasy heroes? Some seem to find Buffy objectionable without noting that there never has been a super soldier like Rambo. Following Buffy (who seems to have been the influence on future heroic women, rather than Xena) came a host of empowered women. So it is no surprise that in SERENITY we find that Mal Reynolds's second in command is the tough-as-nails and stoic Zoe, who is just as hardened and combat ready as any of the men. Despite decades of films showing women collapsing at the death of men close to them, we aren't surprised when Zoe postpones mourning the death of her husband. There will be time to cry later, right now there is fighting to be done. And River Tam is one of Whedon's most compelling heroines. River's fight is not just against external monsters, but also against the attempt that has been made to turn her into a monster. A genius and child prodigy, River had been programmed and engineered to becoming an assassin, but was freed by her brother Simon. At the heart of SERENITY is the question whether River will become the killing machine they intended her to be or will she become a person. As Mal asks her, "Are you just a weapon?"
One of the things I love about Joss Whedon is how he continually defies our expectations. He does this marvelously with The Operator, played magnificently by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Working for the powers that be, he sees himself as a good man doing difficult but good things. SERENITY is about the monsters that society creates by the elevation of corporate interests above human interests (yeah, it is a Marxist theme, but any close watcher of BUFFY will recall the famous shot from the end of "Ann," the Season Three premiere, where after Buffy liberates workers from a demon factory, where the workers are literally worked to death, she stands with a hammer and a sickle in her hands). The Operator learns that he has unwittingly helps support powers that have created monsters, whether River or the Reavers. His redemption at the end is classic Whedon.
I don't know what the long-term future of SERENITY will be. It does not completely stand on its own like BLADE RUNNER or THE MATRIX. It will forever be tied to FIREFLY. But I believe that this should be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Knowing the series lends this film a depth lacking in other series. For instance, knowing that Jayne isn't the trustworthiest soul helps understand some of his actions in the film (not to mention knowing he has a remarkably large collection of T-shirts). Or Kaylee's ongoing attraction to Simon and his odd reluctance to open up to her. Or the long, complicated relationship between Mal and Inara (the greatest tragedy of the film is that their relationship, which was incredibly important for the series, received short shrift--Whedon has promised that if there is a sequel to the film, which at present looks unlikely, that this will be rectified). Or what Shepherd Book's background is. All of which is to say that FIREFLY/SERENITY is unique and wonderful. Along with BSG, this series and film completely renewed my interest in TV Sci-fi.