A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 119 mins.
Capt. "Mal" Reynolds: Nathan Fillion / Zoe Warren: Gina Torres
/ Hoban "Wash" Washburn: Alan Tudyk / Jayne: Adam Baldwin
/ Kaylee: Jewel Staite / Simon: Sean Maher / River: Summer Glau
/ Shepherd Book: Ron Glass / The Operative: Chiwetel Ejiofor
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the now cancelled TV series – FIREFLY – got a heinously raw deal by the Fox network executives.
For those that are not too wise about this show, it was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, the sort of New Age wonderkid of the fantasy world to the obsessive-compulsive fanboys that seem to live at comic conventions. His other credits also include television's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL, neither that I can brag of seeing in any small or large samplings. So, when word got out that there was a feature length version of his FIREFLY was being produced, his failed TV series seem to garner cult status among fans. Nevertheless, I was initially lukewarm to all of this.
Yet, I also learned from a friend that the series was so short in duration and broadcast life that only 11 of the fully made 14 episodes were aired. Feeling that if I was to uphold my modest level of pride in being a critic that will see just about anything, I felt the need to enlighten myself on all things FIREFLY before seeing its feature length film sequel. Seeing that the hotly released DVD set included all of the 2002 series’ episodes, I felt that viewing them all would not be a laborious task.
Well, I spent one lonely Monday evening digesting all of the 14 episodes and approximately 10 hours later I was a bit surprised by the finished product, despite its flaws. Whedon’s show is a space opera, through and through, and is yet another amalgamation of Western iconic archetypes with space age themes and visuals. All in all, its safe to assume that if copying is the sincerest form of flattery, than Whedon is a master appropriator. He obviously made FIREFLY with a certain level of self-righteousness, not perhaps consciously recognizing (or acknowledging) that guys by the names of George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry were doing space operas while he was still in grade school playing with action figures. Needless to say, FIREFLY’S main weakness was its highly derivative nature, at least on a superficial level.
Beyond its artifice and its clunky willingness to not be too terribly original, there was an awful lot to admire in the show. For starters, Whedon is not so much concerned with aesthetic visuals and eye candy the same way Lucas is. Contrastingly, he seems more interested with character and interplay, which makes his personas more attune to Roddenberry’s STAR TREK. Moreover, Whedon’s true gift with the series was with character dynamics, chemistry, and some wonderfully wicked and droll dialogue. He invests in his personalities and gives them weight and allows them to shine more by what they say and not so much by what they are shown doing. When one chief character tells another - in one episode - that he names his rather large gun “Vera”, there is just a level of sardonic wit, charm, and giddy liveliness that you just don't seem to find in many other space fantasies. Yes, FIREFLY, outside of its obvious deficiencies, was a widely enjoyable ride with a surprising amount of sass, spirit, and old-fashioned gumption.
This, of course, makes it all the more shameful when I discovered how the Fox Network handled the show. Deciding not to air the pilot episode and instead having an inferior episode take its place for the premiere, this show seemed doomed for a crash landing right after take off. Considering the level of professional clout that a man like Whedon had on network TV, the whole FIREFLY ordeal seems so volatile in its erroneousness. Good TV, especially in our day and age where it clearly is not a dime a dozen, deserves much better.
Enter SERENITY, Whedon’s $40 million dollar feature film that filled the pervasive gap that was left in every FIREFLY fan’s hearts for the last 3 years. I still find it odd that a studio, in this case Universal, would give the greenlight to a film that was based on an incredibly unproven TV show that lasted barely half a season and was largely made up of a relative who’s who of B-list talent. Yes, popular TV shows have been made into feature films. The most obvious and popular example is STAR TREK. On the other hand, Roddenberry’s series at least had a somewhat respectable life of three years and nearly 80 episodes and had a growing fan base that was far larger than FIREFLY’s. In essence, the fact that the studio took a largely defunct TV series and invested money and time into a feature length adaptation can now been seen as an enormous gamble of sorts.
This all inevitably begs the question: Is SERENITY a good film for the virginal FIREFLY filmgoer or will it only polarize viewers who are not “browncoats” (the internet defined fan name that is the equivalent to “trekkie”)? I guess that after viewing SERENITY the short answer is yes and no.
On its own, SERENITY, like the TV show that inspired it, is made up of a lot of spare parts from other better sci-fi films, but it still has the necessary exuberant energy and verbal wit that makes it generally an enjoyable two hours. The main cast of the old show all return, as does their penchant for getting into a hell of a lot of trouble and morbidly lashing out at one another with verbal quips as if they are in short supply when they look poised for certain disaster. SERENITY may have a plot that is a bit too convoluted for its own good and action sequences in space that have been done a million times before, but Whedon’s eccentric, genre shuffling touches are all here and in welcome abundance. You get the accessible and likeable characters, the daring action, and the intelligent and sharp dialogue.
SERENITY begins with a brief recap in terms of establishing the universe and mythos of the original show. We are 500 years in the future where mankind has left earth (for reasons kind of vaguely hinted at) and have traveled into other solar systems where they have effectively terraformed planets and moons to inhabit (much like the highly convenient worlds of the STAR TREK universe, this terraforming process makes it okay for people to land on alien worlds and breath properly, but I digress).
There are the classic good guys and and guys in this space opera. We have the dastardly Alliance that won a war that saw them become the seat of Galactic power. They, like most all-powerful dictatorships, only want what’s best for the universe and for everyone to be happy (Whedon gets a lot of modern satirical jabs on the current world political and sociological stage with his villains). The Alliance, which is clearly evil, kind of represents a missed opportunity in SERENITY to create a real villainous and ominous presence for the protagonists. They are a bit weakly defined and, much like the TV series, the Alliance is sort of undeveloped as evil presence and more or less come across like a poor-man’s Empire from STAR WARS. The Alliance could also benefit from a more memorable and iconic villain, yet their main head honcho, played with quiet, yet contemptible rage by Chiwetel Ejiofor, does not seem to mind dispensing with his adversaries that disagree with him, ala-Darth Vader. He's no Dark Lord of the Sith, but he seems to suffice.
Anyway, the Alliance is after something the heroes have. It seems that a ragtag group of rebels that despises the Empire…er…I mean…Alliance…has a stowaway that greatly interests them. In a flashback early in the film we see how a psychic named River (Summer Glau, in a very good performance) is rescued from Alliance brainwashers by her older brother, Dr. Simon (Sean Maher). Those familiar with the TV series know that the brother and sister make their way to the space vessel – Serenity – where they hope to evade capture. Why? Well, it seems that since young River can read minds, she knows all of the dirty little Alliance secrets. Also, she is a trained killer that can take out multiple adversaries without breaking a sweat, which makes her even more of a wanted prey.
The crew of the Serenity are a colorful bag of personalities. The captain – Malcolm Reynolds (in a real star making turn as a classic, heroic Han Solo-esque rogue by Nathan Fillion) is a war veteran that has a big grudge with the Alliance and is a bit of a hard case. The rest of his crew consists of his number two, Zoe (Gina Torres); Zoe’s husband and resourceful pilot (the always amusing Alan Tudyk); Kaylee (Jewel Staite) the ship’s tomboy engineer and repair lady; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), an irrepressibly tough as nails, yet somewhat dimwitted muscle of the ship.
It grows increasingly apparent that River’s presence on board the Serenity seems like a threat, and her evolving instability worries Captain Mal. Yet, it soon comes to pass that Mal sees a real danger in the Alliance, which will stop at nothing to get the girl. There is also the flesh-eating cannibals known as Reavers that prove to be the ultimate party crashers, who in brief glimpses all look like rejected characters from a Rob Zombie horror flick. Needless to say, intergalactic hell soon breaks lose.
Again, nothing in SERENITY is particularly groundbreaking or fresh in the annals of trendsetting space opera. The film does have a series of flashy and energetic visual effects sequences (an early one involving an escape from the Reavers, and yet another later on in space, the latter which despite the fact that it does not have the polish and epic scope of a similar scene in REVENGE OF THE SITH, it nevertheless is exciting). Much like Lucas’s STAR WARS sextet, the universe of SERENITY is a used one, where ships seem cobbled together of old, rusty parts and have a lived in and worn look. The film’s overall conflict also echoes the original STAR WARS trilogy (band of desperate rebels versus an evil empire). Unlike STAR WARS or STAR TREK, characters in SERENITY fire rounds of bullets instead of laser blasts (no one has seemed to master a better firing weapon in 500 years, I guess) and the ships in space tend to be silent, an ode to Kubrick's 2001 in small ways.
However, the vitality of SERENITY, as stated earlier, is not its somewhat stale and plagiaristic elements from other greater space opuses. Whedon’s film is a wonderfully realized one mainly in terms of character interaction, good performers, and in its strongly realized and remarkably funny dialogue. Capitalizing highly on western motifs, Whedon’s characters are almost wooden in their dialects, much like a 19TH Century Frontiersman (example: Malcolm – “Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all comin' to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you, than I have before. Sure as I know anything, I know this. I aim to misbehave.”). Another puzzling, yet oddly amusing aspect, is that characters often curse in Chinese, perhaps signaling a larger interstellar melding of different cultures. Strange? Yes. Oddly appealing and funny? Again, yes.
Whedon also gets a substantial amount of mileage out of the well-developed conflict that is generated between various characters. Considering other modern action films as a relative comparative tool, the personas of SERENITY are amazingly well drawn out. Some are tender and kind. Some are antisocial to the extreme. Some are both capable of nobility and backstabbing theatrics. This, of course, creates that effective dynamic that makes SERENITY stand itself apart from even STAR WARS. This film has fun and a level of playfulness with its dialogue that, at times, almost works as a satire of the genre itself. One example I especially liked occurs when Malcolm tells the crew, “While I'm gone, Zoe is in command. Now, if I'm not back in an hour, I want you to take this ship, take off... and you come and you rescue me!” There is also another real zinger where Walsh - when forced to pilot the ship under near death circumstances - finds his inner calm while flying and softly tells himself in a mantra-like voice, “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.”
SERENITY will obviously not have the same level of emotional resonance for lay film fans as it does for FIREFLY fans (not to give anything away, but the paths of a few characters will leave some “browncoats” in the audience a bit shocked and saddened). Yet, SERENITY is still largely a self-contained and pleasant escapist adventure film that works despite its imitative conventions and storyline. Yes, it lacks the daring social commentary and sharp allegories of the old STAR TREK universe, and is far removed from achieving the level of enormous originality and distinctiveness that was ushered on to the silver screen with the first shot of the massive Star Destroyer in Lucas’s original STAR WARS nearly 30 years ago. It's hard to recapture lightening in a bottle twice, folks.
SERENITY isn't the next STAR WARS or STAR TREK (pleeaasse!) and it does not really aim to be. Rather, it smoothes off its rough edges with some brawny appeal, a vigorous spirit, great star chemistry, and an abundance of daft and well-seasoned humor. In these ways, SERENITY ultimately works. If you want thought-provoking sci-fi - see STAR TREK. If you want an epic audio-visual nirvana that exists to be looked and appreciated as a visceral experience - see STAR WARS. If you want to see a rough and rugged captain dressed in drag kneel before a stature and sarcastically say, “Dear Buddha, I would like a pony and a plastic rocket” - then SERENITY is a solid choice.