03 October 2005

Serenity Is A Leaf On The Wind. But Will It Soar???

Hey guys, it's Donnie...I will be the first to admit that I have a tendency to get really excited about certain movies well before they ever hit a theater. Whether it’s a particular writer or director, the cast that’s been assembled, or maybe just a really promising trailer, on more than one occasion I’ve wanted to like a movie so badly that when I finally get to see it, I sort of overlook or ignore the movie’s various problems and convince myself that it was a better flick than it really was. Then I stew over it for a few days, maybe watch it again on DVD a few months later, and once all that pre-release excitement has passed, I realize the folly of my ways.

Well, trust that I’m speaking with a clear head when I tell you that Serenity is pretty damn good, although it somewhat depends upon your point of view walking into the theater.

Fortunately for me, I was coming from the right point of view.

We’ll start with a little background information. As I’m sure many of you already know, Serenity is a feature film based the short-lived Fox sci-fi western show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon, the mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Firefly was one of the most poorly treated shows in recent television history. It was given a terrible time-slot, little-to-no publicity, and of the 14 episodes made, only about ten were shown out of order. Fortunately for us, Whedon convinced the good folks at Universal to snatch up the rights and pony up the dough to bring Serenity to the big-screen.

To say that this is somewhat of a high-stakes movie would be more than an understatement. Getting the movie off the ground was a tremendous feat in and of itself, especially since it’s the big screen directorial debut of creator Joss Whedon. If Serenity didn’t come out smelling like roses, then chances are that we would never hear from captain Mal Reynolds and friends ever again, much to the anger and chagrin of legions of rabid Firefly fans, the self-dubbed “Browncoats” who, believe it or not, tend to be even more vocal and aggressive then the worst Trekkies on the planet.

So what about the film itself? Well, it’s big. And when I say big, I mean frickin’ HUGE. The first ten minutes or so contain the mandatory exposition, all the set-up information that is required for those who are walking in blind. However, Whedon handles the exposition deftly, in such a manner as to quickly and clearly explain everything the audience needs to know in such a way as to keep even the most vociferous Browncoat interested and entertained. We are introduced to The Operative, a ruthless assassin for the evil Alliance played with a quiet intensity by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The Operative sort of guides us through much of the exposition, and then we meet up with our heroes, the crew of Serenity. (Serenity is the name of their Firefly class spaceship, just to clear up any titular confusion.) From here, the movie really takes off. The cast has great chemistry together and they’ve really come to inhabit the unique world that Whedon has created. They relish in Whedon’s snappy, clever and stylized dialogue, and they carry the gut-wrenching dramatic moments just as confidently as the gut-busting humorous moments.

Quite a bit has happened to the crew of Serenity since we last saw them. Two of the members of the crew, Book and Inara, have left the ship. The remaining crew is weary, work has been scarce, and the ship is literally falling apart. The fascist government, the Alliance, is more desperate than ever to capture the brilliant, deadly and emotionally unstable young psychic River Tam, still hiding out onboard Serenity with her brother Simon. The Operative begins to tighten the proverbial noose around the crew of Serenity as they try to uncover an Alliance secret buried deep beneath River’s psychosis, a secret which will have grave consequences for all involved.

It’s somewhat difficult to explain this movie in words, because watching it is somewhat of a visceral experience. It’s a rollercoaster ride, an exhilarating, old-school adventure story of the highest caliber. You can’t help but want to stowaway in the cargo hold, grab a gun, and take on the Alliance yourself. And most every scene is uber-high stakes, an absolute struggle for life and death. Whedon’s direction is fast paced and fun and his dialogue is just as sharp as ever. The difficulty lies in the transition from television to film. The considerably larger budget allowed Whedon to really flesh out the landscape, so the action scenes, the special effects, the lighting, set pieces…all the production values in general are cranked up to 11. It was wonderful to see these things fully realized, as it was always what was lacking from the series. The story itself is packed really tightly into its running time. Serenity continues the story arc that was planned for the original series, although it probably would have been better served being drawn out over two or three seasons of television than being crammed into a two hour movie. But at the same time, there’s so much happening that it keeps both the characters and the audience totally engaged in both the action and the emotion, so I can’t totally criticize Whedon for that.

Unfortunately, most of the characters and their relationships are somewhat short changed. Everyone sort of gets a moment to shine here and there, but there are really just too many main characters to give each the screen time and attention they deserve. If you’re familiar with the show, then it’s easy to connect the dots and draw upon your previous knowledge of the characters, but it almost seems as if Whedon was so intent on furthering the mythology of the universe that the individual characters sort of fall by the wayside, and they become mere pawns in the greater chess game, which is unfortunate because the characters were always far more engaging than the mythology itself. Certain characters, most notably Jayne, Wash, and most of the women really get the short end of the stick here, as we get mere glimpses of the great work they did on the small screen. The romance between Mal and Inara is barely suggested and nothing really comes of it, and we get very few moments of Wash and Zoë as husband and wife, which really undermines some of the later moments of the film. Whedon introduces a potentially awesome character in Mr. Universe and casts the fantastic David Krumholtz, but then totally squanders him, giving him essentially two and half scenes where he does little more than act as a plot device.

From the standpoint of a moderately devoted Firefly fan, I had a LOT of fun at this movie, but it was far from perfect despite my pre-release excitement. If I was totally unfamiliar with Firefly, I’d probably have a lot more problems with it, but even then it’s hard to deny just how much fun this movie is. Looking at the recent crop of sci-fi movies, which essentially consists of overly dark, emotionally hollow, one-note CGI extravaganzas, Serenity is an absolute breath of fresh air. It achieves the sort of tone that Sahara and Fantastic Four were striving for, but where they missed the mark (Fantastic Four was practically in another time zone from the mark) Serenity succeeds with gusto. Unfortunately, the opening weekend box office numbers were somewhat disappointing. A lackluster $10.1m, second to Flightplan at $15m, does not bode well for future Serenity adventures, which is a shame. With a wider audience more familiar with this exciting new universe, Whedon could really dig in and give us a great sequel that more fully utilized all the strengths of the original show.


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