About those Deaths: After the very first round of preview screenings, die-hard fans of the series set out to organize a worldwide boycott and protest campaign if Joss didn't change it so that Wash lives. Nobody especially wanted the Shepherd to die, but most reasonably sane people agreed that it was a perfectly reasonable end to his story arc. But the idea that Joss would make a widow out of Zoe didn't sit well with a lot of people. A lot of them also made the point that killing off both Shepherd Book and "Wash" Washburne strips the ship of both of the only two people on it who have a conscience. I don't agree with that point, especially in light of the current state of the Inara storyline. But at the heart of the objection seems to be the feeling that it was pointless. Having had more time to think about it than many of you, I don't think so.
One of the things that several reviewers have speculated about, and I wish I'd thought of it first, is that it seems an awful lot like Joss Whedon knew, on some level, that he wasn't going to get his second and third Firefly movies. And on the off chance that was going to happen, he had to squeeze into this episode all of the character subplot endings that he couldn't bear to leave hanging. If that's so, then it makes sense on a certain level to kill off Wash; it was certainly foreshadowed over and over again. By very early in the series, it was increasingly obvious that Wash was a man torn. He absolutely would not leave Zoe. And Zoe absolutely would not leave Mal. And he knew, knew, knew that Mal was going to get them all killed. If they were going to be what he originally hired onto, a smuggling crew, he was their man, but they hadn't been that since the end of the pilot episodes. Now they were outlaws and gunmen, and Wash was, to put it bluntly, way too much of a physical coward to survive that life, and he knew it. So for Wash's constant worry that Mal was going to get him killed to turn out to be true, but for it to happen in such a way that first he got to make an incredible hero out of himself by doing the impossible under combat conditions, was the perfect end to his storyline.
Some people were complaining that killing off the Shepherd meant that we were never going to find out what, exactly, the Shepherd had been before he took up holy orders. I thought so too, until I saw a review that, once again, made me embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it first. He did tell us. Remember the warning he gave Mal about what a Parliamentary Operative was and how they operate? Mal says something to the effect of, "And someday you have to tell me how you know so much about such things." And the Shepherd says, and his tone says more than I thought about at the time, says harshly and unkindly, "No I don't." At the time, I took that as him being literal minded and just as a reminder to Mal that he wasn't on Mal's crew any more, he doesn't have to take Mal's orders. At least two other reviewers have read that line, and I think they're right, as meaning, "No, you moron, because I just did." And in hindsight, having him be a retired Operative actually makes more sense than any of the other hypotheses I've heard rattling around, including my own.
About the Difference Between the Two Movies: Night and freaking day, and not just because of tighter editing, improved SFX, and a finished musical soundtrack. Some of those scenes were so thoroughly recut that it's obvious to me that he didn't even use the same "takes" that I saw the first time. One of them is storyline significant: I'm pretty sure that Inara's answer at the end, where she hints that she hasn't made up her mind whether to go back to the Order or stay with Mal, wasn't in the preview screening I saw. Another important one is that they used an entirely different set of takes for most of River's fight choreography in both of her big fight scenes, and cut them a lot smarter, and I think even digitally enhanced the big one against the Reapers to give it a darker, spookier lighting scheme that really helped. But the biggest change almost single handedly saved the movie, in my opinion.
In the original cut that I saw, they land on Mr. Universe's moon, survive the crash, and there's a long moment of celebration that they all made it down in one piece ... and only then does that huge metal spear crash through Wash's chest. The obvious intent was to get everybody in the audience to relax and think that the danger was over for now, and then hit them with a jack in the box. That gag is so freaking old that had they left it that way, audiences would have not only felt cheated, they would have felt cheated by an amateur. In the final version they cut that whole gap out, so that Wash dies in the same combat sequence as the landing, which makes a lot more dramatic sense and is a lot less of a "cheat."
A Weird Thought About the Reavers: The obvious interpretation is that on some small percentage of the population, the Pax gas causes a paradoxical reaction; instead of erasing all violent impulses (and all impulses altogether), it amplifies all violent impulses, and all depraved impulses as well. And that's a perfectly ordinary science fiction interpretation. Me, I wonder if there's an alternative explanation that might be more interesting, and I wonder if Joss Whedon intended it? What if the Pax does work on the Reavers? What if what makes you a Reaver is not that the gas screws you up, but that you realize just barely in time that the gas is screwing you up? What if the only way to not lie down and die is to amp yourself up to such a feverish pitch of anger, hatred, viciousness, and self-loathing that it cuts through the fog of the Pax and makes it possible for you to actually stay alive?
Did You See Joss's Obnoxious Visual Pun? The vehicle ID number on the crashed Research and Rescue vehicle was C-57D. Which also happens to be the serial number of the Starcruiser in the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. And where did they find Research and Rescue unit C-57D? On Miranda, a forbidden planet.
My Biggest Remaining Complaint about the Movie: It would have been a lot better movie without those last five or ten minutes.
Go back to the original Star Wars. Only after the Death Star blows up, remove the award ceremony. Now add scenes in which someone explains to Luke that this isn't the end of the Empire, that the Starfleet and the Clone Army are still powerful and loyal, so they have to go back into hiding at once. Now cut in the first several minutes of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back showing them on Hoth, and Vader ordering the launch of the probe droids to track them down, and the Rebels peering out into the snow wondering if the Empire has found them yet. Rather ends the movie on a down note, if you do it that way, doesn't it?
If he is ever going to get his sequel, he could have included the scenes of the Operative's men rebuilding Serenity, and Mal's exchange with the Operative about how the Alliance is weakened but not gone, in that movie. If he isn't going to get his sequel, was there any reason to bring us back down after moment of triumph, after the Operative orders his troops to stand down, any reason at all why the movie has to end up back where it started? I think that more audiences would have gone out of the theater a lot more pumped up than they were, and a lot more excited about recommending it to random strangers, if they had left the theater feeling better about Mal's victory.