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Non-Review Review: Serenity

“Love,” someone suggests at a key moment in Joss Whedon’s big screen sequel to his cult television show Firefly, is what keeps a ship afloat, “Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” In a way, it’s hard not to feel that he could just as easily be talking about this particular movie adaptation. Serenity is a movie which by all rights shouldn’t exist. Based on a television show unfairly cancelled by a network which couldn’t bring itself to offer it a fighting chance, it seems odd to see the series transitioned to the big screen in search of closure. The movie is itself an act of love – an act early in the film confused (understandably) with madness – love for the show, for its concepts and for those who gave it the benefit of the doubt that its own producers couldn’t.

Thank god there's a master at the helm...

The movie’s strength is its weakness. I imagine this is one of those catch-22 situations. Director, writer and major nerd deity Joss Whedon has given himself two hours to tie up as many of the loose ends from his thirteen episode run as humanly possible. The movie flies by – you’re liable to end up with whiplash as it seems to literally cross the universe. Somehow Whedon offsets this with nice little character moments, but it’s understandably difficult to do all this and establish character for movie-goers who haven’t been watching the show. In defense of the film, those watching with me were able to grasp enough from the plot to enjoy it, but still were more than a little confused and missed a significant number of emotional beats. There are some key moments here which hinge on emotional attachments and motivations developed over the show – the movie simply doesn’t have enough space to set up these attachments within the film enough to allow the pay-off to work of itself. I’m thinking in particular of one sequence near the end of the film I shall not discuss here, but the emotion punch was somewhat weakened for those of us who hadn’t watched the original show.

Then again, television-to-film transitions are tough, and I mean it as a sincere compliment that Serenity is easily the best such adaptation I have ever seen. Whedon realises that the film cannot simply indulge and satisfy those familiar with the characters and situations – he works very hard to offer something for everyone. The action sequences are fantastic and engaging (and packed with just the right amount of humour). The characters themselves are generally given enough work to seem more than two-dimensional to regular movie-goers. And Whedon is able to play just enough with audience expectations to use cinematic shorthand to avoid relying on overly cumbersome exposition. “You are fooling yourself, Captain,” the Operative, a bone-chillingly efficient villian, suggests at one point, “Nothing here is what it seems. You are not the plucky hero, the Alliance is not an evil empire, and this is not the grand arena.” All that commentary is true, but these are the storytelling devices that Whedon cleverly bring the audience in-step with him. And it works. There are depths underneath, but Whedon deftly uses cinematic tropes as manner of letting him just skip to the fun parts of the story.

I’ve read on-line arguments that Serenity offers perhaps the highest quality pulp science fiction since The Empire Strikes Back. Being honest, I’m not convinced. It is perhaps more reasonable to compare the movie to the original Star Wars film, A New Hope. In both cases, the film can stand on its own as what it is – a rich, exciting and energetic space opera. Whereas The Empire Strikes Back has the luxury of space – the groundwork has been laid behind it and the conclusion lies ahead – Whedon’s work here is curtailed by harsh reality. Despite optimism and hope for an enduring franchise, the movie is constructed in the notion that this will be, for many people, their first encounter with the universe and that it could just as easily be the last crescendo of the saga. It’s not fair to blame Whedon or the film for that cold and unfair fact, but it is a factor which hampers the film and casts a long and dark shadow over it.

But enough of dark depressing darkness. What about the fun? There’s lots of fun. Serenity is a great film. Whedon is a great writer – whose strengths are dialogue and character, so we get plenty of both. There’s plenty of witty one-liners (“Doctor, I’m takin’ your sister under my protection here. If anything happens to her, anything at all, I swear to you, I will get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears.”), but also some really nice character character moments. For example, Mal – engaged in a five minute conversation with the Operative – waits until he’s politely assured by the Operative that “I’m not armed” to shoot down his opponent.

The cast is – as with just about any Whedon production – very carefully selected and wonderfully talented. They all know what they are doing and are all brilliantly charming in their roles. Sharing two hours amongst nine regular cast members and a tenth new one (the villain of the piece) isn’t exactly easy, but it’s handled smoothly by all involved. Deserving particular credit are Nathan Fillon as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a man who is really trying not to be a hero (but, luckily for the audience, keeps failing), and the ever wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor, who manages to seem equally menacing as the villainous Operative, whether wielding a sword or a cup of tea with his charming and sophisticated British accent belying his truly sinister nature.

Whedon proves himself a more-than-capable director here. There are some wonderful shots, such as a spiraling camera on an eerily calm world of the opening tour through Serenity via tracking shot. He’s also handy with the movie’s action sequences. One can’t help but get the sense the budget was a little tight here (at least based on effects work), but these thankfully don’t really draw the audience out of the film.

Serenity’s a great little film. I’m reluctant to call it a masterpiece, even factoring in that it works ever-so-slightly better as a coda for the show than as a movie in its own right. I can imagine new audience members having difficulty accepting all the wonderful character-related drama in one sitting, rather than simply settling in and watching the movie built on what came before. Still, it’s a fittingly superb end to a wonderful little series.

8 Responses

  1. I havent seen one second of Firefly (isnt that a Kevin Costner film? no, thats Dragonfly) and yet i enjoyed every second of Serenity. a really fun film. reminded me of Ice Pirates – a movie i loved when i was little – look it up Daz

  2. A bit of a lack luster feeling for the film but all I can say is FINALLY!!!

  3. I loved Firefly and was glad to see Serenity didn’t disappoint.

    However

    SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Why did they have to kill Wash?

    • I think that Whedon wanted to prove that anyone could die, but yep – I loved Wash. And right after her frickin’ awesome moment piloting. It’s odd that I’m not half as shuck up over Book’s death though.

  4. I was taken in by this film and was so impressed by the originality of it all that I dove head first into the TV series. There are so many ingredients working together to make this a successful film, but beyond the very adept use of science fiction, I think it’s the hybrid TV & film style that it uses that makes it so appealing. Still deciding whether to buy the movie again on bluray now… or the TV series for that matter.

    It hadn’t occured to me until I read your take on the whole thing, but I suppose you could look at Ejiofor’s agent (one of his many classic characters – try matching the agent up against Lola in Kink Boots!) as the embodiment of the dispassionate TV execs that cancelled his show in the first place. A chance for the crew to defiantly stare down the architects of their demise.

    • Yep. “This is a good death” indeed (because we’ll still have the merchandising rights and can replace you with mindless drivel that viewers will just lap up, helping us build our “better world”). Good spot.

      I will say the HD on the movie is great. There is some trouble with effects shots, but the set work is incredible – the colours and everything. I watched the series on BluRay and thought it was a solid transfer, but not picture perfect.

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