First Impressions is a series in which I break down and review what I consider to be one of the most important parts of any film: the opening. The opening of Serenity is certainly a great example of effective film intros!
When I say opening, I’m not specifically talking about a musical title sequence (think 007: James Bond or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) though I may cover that type of opening in the future.
The opening scene of any film should demonstrate to the audience several key factors about that film: most commonly the main character(s) and the problems they’re experiencing within their lives.
As well as this, a film’s opening should present a reasonably accurate sense of the tone of the overall film; if it’s a horror movie, the opening should be creepy enough to clue us in; if it’s an action movie there will most likely be some flashy but not overly dangerous incident to resolve.
Some films may have more features to present, such as the historical setting or location (be it in London, New York, or even Mars) and some films will need to spend extra time clarifying their world, which is usually the practise of Science Fiction and Fantasy films.
Certain films are excellent at introducing audiences to the many different aspects of their characters and world with little effort, while others may struggle to even address the right tone of their film.
Pay close attention the opening of a film and see what the filmmakers are trying to tell you about their work. In some cases, very important details may be hidden in plain sight during the first few minutes of a film. Other times, the filmmakers want to surprise you completely and will hold off on certain points of information until the right moment.
In this case, I want to discuss the opening scene of the film Serenity; the excellent cinematic follow-up to the cult space-western TV series Firefly! Now, if you have seen this film before, you may recall several different opening scenes and yes, you could say that there are actually three distinct introductions. The particular scene I would like to discuss in detail however, is the last of these; a three-minute-long tour of the titular ship, Serenity, and its many charming crew members. The three introductory scenes all blend together quite seamlessly however, as one style flows naturally into the next.
Serenity opens with a voice-over introducing us to the conditions of the world; a solar system controlled by a unifying ‘Alliance’ that recently waged war with the underdog ‘Independents’. The speaker is then presented to us and we see a classroom with a younger main character in this flashback, we are then abruptly brought into the near-present and, after another short sequence to establish the villain, we land in the present day aboard the iconic spaceship ‘Serenity’.
This marks the beginning of the film’s true opening, where familiar characters from the TV series appear as we remember them and the film’s events can begin to flow sequentially.
The following scene is in fact one of the best openings I have seen in any film; it effectively and efficiently introduces us to almost every major character, their distinct personalities and their relationships with one another. As well as it’s narrative accomplishments, this scene is also a technical feat as the entire 3-minute sequence is one unbroken shot and has no edits or cuts between conversations and locations.
The Camera and Set:
The ‘Single Take’ or “Oner” is a widely-celebrated technique among fans of film study, but even bad films use this technique and the use of a “Oner” should not be particularly worth celebrating of its own accord. In this film however, the single take is effective not only for introducing us clearly to each character in turn but also for giving the audience a seamless tour of the entire ship.
During this opening scene, the camera smoothly follows Mal through the ship as he seeks out each member of the crew. The camera moves from compartment to compartment through the ship; as Mal walks from the bridge down to the kitchen, past the engine room and into the medical bay and finally arriving in the cargo hold. This effectively makes the ship ‘Serenity’ feel more like a real, lived-in space. The audience can see for themselves how the whole set fits together and can finally explore the crew’s humble home. When establishing your characters, seeing them in their day-to-day activities, as well as where they eat lunch and rest, can solidify the characters as real people in the minds of the audience.
The scene begins with Mal, the ship’s captain, at the bridge of the ship where he stands impatiently over the ship’s spirited pilot, ‘Wash’. As the ship is experiencing some severe turbulence during re-entry, Mal makes his way through the ship to inform the crew of their potentially deadly descent. Engaging with each character briefly, we gain a strong understanding of their personalities and relationships with such natural dialogue and not a hint of exposition (unnecessary dialogue).
To facilitate having to introduce each character to potential new viewers (while also bringing each character into the spotlight), the screenwriters developed this dangerous re-entry in order to move Mal through the entire ship with purpose and haste.
This is a more natural excuse (considering the dangers of space travel) than have him lazily take a stroll of his own familiar ship for some other reason. Apart from introducing some tension early into the film, we see characters dealing with the daily stresses of space travel and reacting to potential death in their own way. Some are anxious, some are sarcastic and some (former soldiers Mal and Zoe) are quite collected!
One of the most fondly remembered aspects of the original Firefly is its script. The charming, snappy and unpretentious dialogue between characters was one of the main charms of the show and naturally it continues in Serenity.
The creative set-up of this scene is one that allows for a fluid single take, a full tour of the ship, some potential danger and fast, emotional dialogue between the crew. Each character’s introduction gives us a clue as to who they are and how they deal with stress. For instance,
Wash: “…this landing is gonna get pretty interesting.”
Mal: “Define interesting!”
Wash (calmly): “‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”
Smoothly introducing some of the crew’s relationships, we meet Zoe, Mal’s fellow war veteran, where they say:
Mal: “Zoe, is Wash gonna straighten this boat out before we get flattened?”
Zoe: “Like a downy feather, sir. Nobody flies like my mister!”
Simple exchanges like this are used effectively and not just as flavour-text (dialogue used primarily to convey tone and atmosphere), introducing simple concepts for the audience to keep in their minds.
These are simple examples but it shows that the screenwriters knew what useful titbits to plant in hasty conversations like this. This frees up later conversations from having to reference pre-existing knowledge. The series and indeed the film contains a lot of this style of writing, which suits the fast-talking, hard working nature of this world’s characters.
Serenity opens swiftly, introduces what it needs to without mystifying new viewers or boring the old ones. It has many different elements to establish; an inter-planetary society, over 9 unique characters, an established history of events from the TV series and only 2 hours to conclude it all.
To hear more about this great film, go and visit School of Movies for their excellent review!
As far as openings go, Serenity is both dramatic and witty while effectively setting up the beloved characters for one last show. Whenever you have a handful of colourful characters to establish, Serenity is a good place to learn.