Monday, May 16, 2011

Serenity Review

"Wait...Buffy and Angel? Aren't shows?"
Serenity has a difficult line to straddle. It must be accessible to those not steeped in Firefly's universe (not a small percentage of the population given the low ratings and subsequent cancellation of the show) while not retreading so much ground as to be redundant to the faithful (for whom, it must be noted, the movie was almost exclusively created). In short, it must be a movie for everyone and a last ditch, Hail Mary of an attempt to stir up enough interest to get the show back on the airwaves. Does it succeed? In all ways but one.

The show, after all, was never resuscitated.

But the movie is good. Scratch that, the movie is great. It doesn't just manage to straddle the aforementioned line, it stands astride its twin target audiences with aplomb. With one foot in the newcomer camp and one foot with the veterans, Serenity caters to both with confidence and grace. Unsurprisingly, it's closest small-screen relative is the pilot episode of the same name. Joss Whedon wrote and directed both and his fingerprints are all over Serenity (the movie...not Serenity, the pilot episode).

Hmmm...things could get tricky here. For the sake of simplicity, this review will refer to the film as Serenity and the pilot episode as The Pilot.

The opening scenes of Serenity might be some of the smoothest introductory scenes in a science fiction movie to date. Science fiction requires a lot of throat-clearing and explanation to help us understand the alien futures and bizarre realities. The yellow crawl of Star Wars text or the logs of various Star Trek captains are but two prominent examples. However, these conventions seem clumsy compared to Serenity's silk-smooth introduction. In mere moments Whedon takes us from a macro-level historical summation to a micro-level understanding of the challenges facing our protagonists.

The history of Earth transforms into a school classroom featuring a young girl which transforms into the nightmare of that young girl all grown up which transforms into said girl being tortured by the government in an attempt to weaponize her which transforms into her rescue by her brother which transforms into a holographic security feed being reviewed by a government agent attempting to track down this girl.

In one uninterrupted sequence of set changes, the viewer is taken from the broadest strokes outlining this reality to the MacGuffin and its principle characters. From this opening salvo, Whedon's confidence and capability in catering to his two target audiences is immediately clear. The Firefly-novice is brought up to speed immediately and the Browncoat veteran is treated to a glimpse into how Simon rescued his sister.

Imagine being one of those who petitioned the movie into existence, watching this on the opening night, surrounded in the dark by the legion of fans who, like you, actually did something with their passion. How triumphant would you feel, watching this sequence, being swept up off your feet with the speed of it, the familiar characters, the budget that finally can give this reality the polish it deserves? And when the opening sequence ends and the movie's title zooms out to reveal the ship itself, how exhilarating the sound of your cheers? What a moment of glory that must have been, to give me the ghostly residual chills just imagining it 6 years after the fact.

Having established the driver for the film's plot, the ensuing scene is similarly breathtaking in its ability to cater to both the veteran fans and the newcomers alike. In a single steady-cam conducted shot, we dance through the ship for several minutes, meeting each character in turn. There's Mal and Wash on the bridge as a piece of the ship breaks off, there's Jayne and Zoe below, preparing for their next job, then through the ship, piece by piece. (Which is pretty amazing actually. Was the set actually interconnected to such a degree that single steadycam shots were feasible on the TV show?) Simon appears and the uninitiated are able to pin the pre-credits scene to these new characters. And then we're in the hold with River as they're getting on some hover car, preparing to go rob a bank.

So quickly does Serenity tour us through these sets, these characters, these scenes, that both newcomer and veteran alike are put on the same page. We may know these characters but we're just as breathless as the newcomer. Where's Book? Where's Inara? What heist are they attempting? What's happened since Objects in Space? This crew doesn't doesn't take time off from its whirlwind pace to explain more than is needed to either demographic and, in leveling the playing field, Serenity makes it clear that this is a stand-alone movie, worthy of success in its own right.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Morena Baccarin.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Serenity's story is essentially a chase focused on the government agent (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and River. It seems River was exposed to some high-level government secrets while being tortured and the Alliance has sent their best man to clean up the mess. Chiwetel Ejiofor steals almost every scene he's in with his disconcertingly pleasant, amoral hitman. "I am a monster," he smilingly confides in Mal while zealously working toward silencing River. And Serenity doesn't pull its punches in exposing us to these atrocities.

While River might be the plot's driver, the foundational heart of the story revolves around belief. The criminally under-used Shepard Book (who has gotten a lot less fuzzy since Objects in Space) begs Mal to believe. Not necessarily in God or religion, but just to believe in something. It seems Mal's post-Browncoat nihilism is getting worse, throwing his leadership into question and standing in sharp contrast to the Agent's blind dedication. While sacrificing some of Nathan Fillion's bankable charisma, Serenity's commitment to presenting Mal as a more nuanced, less likable character is admirable. This is not to imply that Mal doesn't have his fair share of classic moments, but there is more meat on the bones of this character who barely ranged a tic from the rugged altruist during Firefly's 14-episode run.

The finally-nuanced Mal.
Credit to Fillion who manages to overcome his natural charm to find these depths in Mal. One scene in particular stands out as Mal threatens to shoot anyone who questions his leadership. While Mal has put his foot down before in Firefly's run, this is the first time it isn't sexy. He seems finally frayed, pushed to the end of his tether. And cast in this light, his crew seems fully vulnerable. They are children who have flocked to this leader of a man and, faced with his unraveling, have little choice but to stick it through to the end. For the first time in this world, we feel scared for these characters. The threat is real. This is the movie. There will be real sacrifice. Someone will die.

One ripped Baldwin.
Credit must also be given to Adam Baldwin and Joss Whedon who, together, have resisted the temptation to keep Jayne as the perpetual comic relief. While there are moments of the familiar levity at his expense, Jayne is given multiple opportunities to question Mal's leadership and these moments are genuinely stirring. Adam Baldwin does a great job given his brief screen-time and, it must be said, got even more jacked for this role. In Serenity, Jayne is finally the daft, dangerous hit man we've been told he is, instead of the bumbling idiot so often relied upon for slapstick gags in Firefly.

Indeed, pretty much all of the best promises of Firefly are delivered upon in Serenity. River's backstory is fully explained, the mystery of the Reavers is finally understood, and Kaylee and Simon, at long last, have sexy times. (Preceding their consumation is perhaps the most needed moment of comedic relief in any movie, ever. With all odds stacked against them and two principle characters already dead, Simon finally admits his greatest regret was not sleeping with Kaylee. To which Kaylee responds, "Screw this! I'm living!" After holding my breath through horror after horror, this explosion of laughter nearly knocked the wind out of me.)

But this is only a movie and sacrifices had to be made in the interests of a tightly focused, two-hour story. The greatest, most glaring hole is the relationship between Mal and Inara. She joins the party late and for most of her screen time is left doing little aside from looking increasingly shocked and wearing skimpy clothes. The shots of her firing some sort of crossbow at the climax while wearing next to nothing is the only point in Serenity where a tinge of Firefly-level camp wafted through the proceedings. Inara's character was at her best when reprimanding Mal and it's a shame she wasn't more fully featured in Serenity, particularly given Mal's above-mentioned tattered leadership.

Of course, a cursory glance at the deleted scenes suggests Whedon had far more intended for Inara than what made it into the final version. More's the pity.

Speaking of camp though, what wonders a budget does to this universe. Nothing feels phony in Serenity, at least from an aesthetic point of view. The dust-ball planets  (long the source of criticism here at BofHam) feel wholly alien, the space scenes true to their sci-fi roots (although an epic space battle at the movie's end for some reason includes sound effects), and the action scenes genuinely exciting. River's dismantling of a bar being a particularly pulse-pounding example of the level of polish brought to bear on this film.

In the end, Serenity is the realization of what Firefly could have been and often came close to achieving. It is an exhilarating, human ride through an alien universe bursting at the seams with love from its creator, Whedon, and the cast and crew who made it come alive. Serenity ends, thankfully, not with a cliffhanger but with a blown kiss goodbye. And, for all the passionate fans who made the movie happen, I'm glad it ends this way. Not that I don't trust Josh et al. to keep the dream alive were the audience there to justify it, but the show's beauty and humanity is compounded in its brevity.

It is a leaf on the wind; watch it soar.


All that being said, that it was a good show, that it was a good movie, that it was, overall, just good stuff, then...why? Really really why didn't it work? Why didn't it catch on? Let's go through the hypotheses one by one:

1) FOX EXECUTIVES: The most popular excuse for the show's cancellation was that Fox executives changed the order of the episodes, pushing The Train Job into first place and thus robbing the carefully constructed introduction to this universe that Whedon initially intended.

ANALYSIS: While The Pilot was a great first episode for this universe, The Train Job was no slouch itself and perhaps better paced for the demographic Fox imagined would be the early adopters. Furthermore, Firefly episodes were mostly self-contained stories, notwithstanding some recurring secondary characters, making continuity problems few and far between. Finally, the inability of the movie to generate sufficient box office returns to justify either a relaunch of the show or a second movie suggests that broader appreciation can't be pinned on this well-worn scapegoat.


2) MARKETING: American trailers for Serenity and TV spots for Firefly focused heavily on Whedon's role and his previous success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While Whedon's work is broadly appreciated by his fans, thematically there isn't that much  in common between Firefly and Buffy (Whedon's highest-rated TV program to date). Fans of Buffy will not necessarily make the jump to Firefly based on Whedon's name alone and science fiction fans unfamiliar with Whedon wouldn't see the Buffy connection as a lure. Marketing pushes should have focused more on the intrinsic appeal of the show itself and less on the name-brand recognition of its creator.

ANALYSIS: This theory holds more water than the first because it can explain both the failure of the show to garner larger numbers as well as the movie's box office performance. Among the faithful, Whedon is a superstar, but the faithful don't have the purchasing power to drive the business of making TV shows or movies. The totally uninitiated wouldn't know what the content of a TV-show titled Firefly would be from the name alone and connecting the program to Whedon "The Creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer" would create more confusion, rather than less. Interest and confusion are two wholly different emotions despite sharing a sense of mystery. The lay-viewer, when faced with confusion, will simply not tune in. However, reducing the failure of broader interest to the title or the advertisements seems a little simplistic doesn't it? Shouldn't word of mouth compensate, in the end, for these shortcomings?


3) ZEITGEIST: Maybe, just maybe, the current culture doesn't have much appetite for space westerns. Maybe the vaguely steam-punk aesthetic of the show feels stale to John McEveryman. Maybe stiff jawed altruists and rag-tag rebels cannot be heroes in a post-9/11 world.

ANALYSIS: This theory feels the most valid, but depressingly so. (Alienation from your fellow-man is never a fun feeling.) Firefly and Serenity are products of a 90's mind and culture. The incredible affluence of a pre-collapse West brought with it a romanticization of nomads, hard-knock lives, and rebels. The incredible advances in technology gave birth to a steam-punk sensibility in which magic and technology had become so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. Firefly was a relevant cultural lens for that time and place. But economic hardship destroyed the appeal of gritty existences. 9/11 eroded our ability to lionize rebels. And the burst of the dot-com bubble ended our mystification of technology. Firefly's world came a few years too late to be culturally relevant on a broad scale. In spite of its human characters and soulful plots, Firefly's trappings limited its mass appeal. In the end, it is an anachronistic anomaly. A peculiar outlier in a decade defined by hardship, where Battlestar Galactica's perpetually threatened survivors say more to us about our lives than Firefly's irreverent, motley crew.


In the end, we just have to accept that something so great could go so totally unnoticed. But as we comb over the remains here at BofHam, that haunting chill of imagination creeps back in. Imagine being a Browncoat at a premier in 2005. Imagine the cheers and the alcohol and the excitement as the theater goes black. Imagine being Alan Tudyk or Summer Glau sitting up at the front, hearing the passion echo around you. Real, genuine cheers, not the forced support of most movie premiers. And then growing excitement as the unspoken concern that it wouldn't be good was washed away in the opening sequence. More cheers with each new character introduction on the ship. Then the roller-coaster ride through the movie, everyone loving it, each new round of applause bringing smiles to Whedon's face. Then the climax, the tragedy, the real fear that they weren't going to survive this. No more cheering now. Every eye glued to the screen. "Screw this! I'm living!" An explosion of laughter. Fillion's hands actually shaking as he eats his popcorn up front, as enthralled as everyone else despite having seen it all before, having acted it all out. Then the bittersweet ending, the sadness, the happiness, the laughter, the tears. Everyone standing for the final credits, refusing to sit down. And that creeping sense of excitement. Of "Holy shit...that was better than I was even expecting. There's no way people aren't going to love this. Aren't going to flock to it in droves. We'll be rich, we'll have our show back. We'll have it all."

Tragically, it didn't come to pass but it must have been an exhilarating ride regardless.


  1. Let me add a note: the music for the film was superb. Listen again as the credits roll at the end.