If you haven't seen the show, please do. It's nice. But this recap doesn't assume that you have -- and in that, we're being a touch nicer than the movie. And meaner, considering the best characters get routinely shit on. If you have seen the show...I hope I've done justice. You deserve it.
The Universal logo globe becomes Earth-That-Was as we hear the prologue once again. This time, though, it's from the Alliance side. See if you can decode the propaganda: "Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many." We see ships bound out from what is left of Earth-That-Was. "We found a new solar system: Dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed, a process taking decades to support human life. To be new Earths. The central planets formed the Alliance." We see these new Earths, all different, all interesting. One looks a lot like Naboo. "Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened, and refused Alliance control." One looks a lot like Tatooine. "The war was devastating. But the Alliance's victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe." We pull back to reveal a screen, diagrammed with a visual representation. "And now, everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization." The teacher speaking is Tamara Taylor, a wonderful Toronto actor who is maybe best known here for her role as Michael's ex on Lost, and she's speaking to kids in various kinds of dress, Asian dresses and Mormon shirt-and-tie, kneeling at desks with styluses in an open tent. Outside them is a beautiful garden.
This is smart because it's always been easier to explain the show in terms of a physical spectrum: toward the center, the Alliance, absolute control. Spinning out into the prairie, absolute chaos. Chaos, control. You like? And at the extremity, in the black, the Reavers: just as bad as the Alliance, but in a completely different way. (If you fall on the Farscape side of the argument: compare the cold, rational energy of the Sebaceans with the brainless inner fire of the Scarrans.) And this is the point of the show, and the film: petty criminals or not, the men and women of Serenity, of all the worlds outside the Core Planets, are people, not extremes, not symbols, and they have to live somewhere on that spectrum, which means they're fucked either way.