Review: Serenity

I was never a big fan of Joss Whedon. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s campy fun especially Paul Reubens with the longest death scene ever. Buffy on TV never really caught my attention even though I did enjoy the writing of the few episodes I did see. Which brings me to Firefly, a show I had no desire watching because it was horses and spaceships and those two rarely mix well.

Fast-forward a few years and I’m web surfing science fiction message boards. As I read, I keep running into post after post blabbing on about “Browncoats” and how great Firefly was and that it was a shame that Fox cancelled it and they screwed it from the beginning by not running it in order, yada, yada, yada. So on what was truly a whim brought on by internet message boards, I bought the Firefly DVDs. I’m glad I did.

It borrowed liberally from a variety of sources (Star Wars, Alien and Blake’s 7 most obviously), but combined it all into a neat little package that was just off-beat enough it couldn’t find an audience right away, which was a shame. I could tell right away that Fox didn’t believe in/understand the show by screwing it and not running the episodes in chronological order. Consequently, Firefly was never given a fair shake.

To many, Serenity in 2005 is just as much of an experience as seeing Star Trek the Motion Picture in 1979. Trekkies lived and breathed the original series for so long that seeing Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest on the big screen was probably close to orgasmic.

Fans of Star Trek waited a decade to see their heroes. Fans of Firefly didn’t have to wait nearly as long because the DVD sales of the 13 episodes were ammo enough. Consequently, I think what we get on screen is more an extension of the television show than a fully realized movie. The anticipation for STTMP was palatable (and inevitable after 1977s Star Wars). Star Trek the original series had a cult following that was enormous. It had time to build and grow into a behemoth. Whedon only dreams he had that same lightning in the bottle as Roddenberry.

However, through determination, talent and enormous imagination, Whedon turned his flop of a TV show into a movie (kind of like turning his flop of a movie into a cult hit on television). Serenity synergistically combines the smart mouth of Buffy, the dust of Deadwood and all the fun bits of Star Wars and makes a unique product that unfortunately straddles between the small and big screen.

The plot of the movie is basic space opera 101: five hundred years from now, Earth is overpopulated, forcing people to discover, terraform and inhabit new planets. After a civil war in which the all-powerful Alliance has defeated the rebels, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former rebel soldier now scrapes a living through petty robberies and transport.

The crew consists of his second-in-command, the strong, beautiful Zoe (Gina Torres); her husband, the sarcastic pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk) Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the down-home, no-nonsense, somewhat naive mechanic; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a muscular mercenary fighter.

They have agreed to provide a safe haven for River Tam (Summer Glau), a willowy, teenage psychic who’s been turned into a human weapon by the Alliance; and her older brother, Simon (Sean Maher), a young doctor who has smuggled her away from the scientists who were manipulating her.

On their tail is The Operative (the soft-spoken, sophisticatedly menacing Chiwetel Ojiofor) who works for the Alliance and is trying to steal River back.

But as we uncover quickly, River becomes even more dangerous — and even more sought-after — when she psychically leads the crew to the faraway planet of Miranda, where secrets lie that could destroy the Alliance.

Since I watched the Firefly 13 episode box set, I had a clear idea of who the characters were, the setting, much of the background information and what was going on in the movie. I made my girlfriend watch the pilot episode of Firefly just to give her a primer on the movie and she greatly appreciated it. It is my belief that the movie doesn’t work nearly as well without some foreknowledge of Firefly.

Whedon’s script does give ample background on the main crew on the ship, but two other main characters from the TV show (Ron Glass as Shepherd Book and Morena Baccarin as Inara) are short-changed and the Firefly-challenged movie audience is left wondering who they are other than acquaintances. Character development really seems lacking here especially if you had never seen Firefly. Point of fact, nobody knows exactly what Inara’s profession is simply by watching the movie. But to be fair, it is an action-adventure story.

As for the venerable dialogue of Joss Whedon, it sings. I like it when characters talk in quips. Witty repartee is fun. It’s why I like Kevin Smith films. It’s the best part of Casablanca (even better than the romance). It was why Chandler was my favorite character on Friends. It’s what I like about early seasons of West Wing when Sorkin was writing.

By way of comparison, if Whedon had at least one pass at trying to punch up the dialogue of any of the Star Wars prequels, we’d have much better Star Wars films. Remember Whedon was Oscar-nominated for co-scripting Toy Story; one of the most ingenious movies ever made.

Smart people saying smart things is completely unrealistic and a joy to my ear. I don’t care that it rings false in the believability department. It’s a space show, for goodness sake. Other people don’t like quip writing. I say, to each their own. In any case, there are a ton of wisecrack exchanges in this movie. I laughed at every one.

Some random thoughts:

Opening – The first shot of the ship was breathtaking. The camera zooms out and shows the ship in space, then whips around to reveal a planet just as Serenity starts to enter atmosphere, the camera then travels up the side of the ship and around and we see Mal and Wash on the bridge. The contrast of soundless space with the sounds of Serenity entering the planet’s atmosphere was really well done. Then we follow that by what must be a four-minute steadycam shot of Mal traveling through the entire ship uninterrupted. I would have loved to be on set the day they shot that scene all in one take.

Mr. Universe – The name sucks. What is this, professional wresting? Are we going to see the governor of California? A simple, real name would have sufficed. When Wash said “we need to talk to Mr. Universe,” I groaned internally.

The Operative – The Operative was a great villain. He’s made all the creepier by his realization that he is in fact evil, and wouldn’t belong in the society he’s trying to protect. I didn’t quite like the fact that he simply gave up at the end, but maybe we’ll see him again. Actually, I thought for a second he might want to join up with the crew of Serenity.

Reavers – I wasn’t sure we were going to see the Reavers. I thought the movie would focus on the Alliance trying to get River. The scares they invoked really jumped the audience – especially the one in River’s dream. The revelation at the end of who created the Reavers seemed a tad obvious, but interesting.

River – The Kill Bill/Buffy style of fighting was fun and seeing River kick the entire Reavers ass was impressive. The master shot of her defeating the Reavers and then the wall breaking down to reveal the Operative’s troops was pretty cool.

Humor and Music – The humor worked a lot better than I was expecting. Most of the lines were quite funny and the audience laughed out loud in all the right places. The music here was also quite good. There was enough bluegrass and acoustic guitar to give a country feel to the movie, which blended well with the stylistic dialogue. I liked the theme, especially. My girlfriend loved the music.

Best Bit of Dialogue – Mal: Zoe, you have the ship. If I’m not back in one hour… bring the ship down and rescue me! Zoe: What? and risk my ship?

Death – I won’t spoil who dies. One was essential to the plot in moving Mal to be more militaristic. The other was simply a “holy crap” moment designed to remind the audience that anybody can bite the bullet here (Well, except for the captain, of course). Since the actors have signed on for sequels, expect to see flashbacks to these characters and Whedon has been known to resurrect dead characters.

Overall, this movie felt like a big budget episode, which is regrettable. There is a television-like quality to the movie, although it was nice to see the series make the transition to the big screen while remaining true to the “feel” of the series.

A day later as I was thinking about it, the two hour movie could easily have been turned into thirteen episodes of a second season. There are more than enough concepts and off-screen events that could have really made a second season quite enjoyable. In fact, watching Serenity made me long for this concept to be turned into a television show — something that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, you might not see it at first, but Serenity also has a message crammed in there alongside the gunfights and the space ships — Be careful how much of your personal freedom you give up, or you may soon have no choices at all