Sunday, May 24, 2009


It's perhaps somewhat appropriate that I wrap up my 7-month Whedon binge with the film that got me into the man in the first place. I never saw Serenity in the theaters; I even remember regarding the commercials as promoting some sort of Star Wars knockoff -- it didn't help that it came out the same year that George Lucas finished destroying his own legacy. No, I didn't watch it until it hit DVD, and a friend brought a copy to some sleepover in late '05. I had know idea who or what a Firefly was, I didn't know that Joss Whedon was the fella that made that Buffy the Vampire Slayer I made such a point of ignoring; I just sat down and watched the thing.

What I got was one of the most original, hilarious, and heartbreaking science fiction films I'd seen in years. The entire two hours was chock full of action, wit and those little moments that make everything so much better -- be it a conversation or even just a fleeting change of body language. Even though Serenity picks up where the show left off, it made me care enough about these character that I was moved when tragedy befell them. Which it did. A lot.

Serenity opens with a flashback, depicting Simon Tam's rescue of his sister, River, from whatever indoctrination center is experimenting on her. The scene ends to reveal it was all a hologram playback, viewed by a mysterious Alliance assassin known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He kills the men in charge for allowing such a prized possession to escape, and sets about hunting down the modified psychic.

So, he seeks out Malcolm Reynolds' beloved rust bucket, run by the same kooky crew, minus a few hands who have settled elsewhere in the interim between the show's events and this narrative. He even takes River on a job, now aware of her ability to read minds, over her brother's loud protests. It is on this heist that we see our first Reavers on-screen -- either here or the T.V. show -- terrifying creatures who rape and eat anyone they capture alive. They give Mal and co. a thrilling chase, yet we still get some choice lines in the middle of the harrowing ordeal.

For the rest of the movie, Mal must contend with Reavers, The Operative, and even River, whom we discover can be triggered into becoming an incredible fighter with the right subliminal code. For a film based on such a sprawling series, Serenity wastes no time getting down to the nitty-gritty, moving from witty, interactive early scenes into some nice political satire in short order. Inara and Shepherd Book reemerge as The Operative chases down any lead to lure Mal out of hiding, though sadly their parts were cut down in editing. As The Operative attempts to... extract information from those unlucky enough to cross paths with him, we seem him come to stand for the Alliance he blindly follows: he says he believes he is helping to create "a world without sin," yet he is perfectly willing to cast aside his humanity to achieve it.

As Mal leads the ship into the depths of Reaver space to discover just what secret The Operative is trying to bury with River, the assassin's mission comes to match a terrible piece of the Alliance's past that serves as an intriguing attack on Big Brother-esque governments, examining the idea that an attempt to create utopia through force and bloodshed with never succeed. Whedon has to pack an entire season's -- and maybe even more; in the commentary, Joss mentions that the discovery of the Reaver planet about 2/3 into the film marked the end of the planned second season -- worth of theme and exposition into a film, yet he never lets his directorial debut feel like a retread of the show.

Whedon, of course, has directed a number of episodes of each of his series, and in those episodes he displayed an ability to get the very best out of his actors and to balance humor and bleak drama better than almost any "real" director you'd care to mention. Even if does, as he put it, "amp" it up for the big screen, he never loses track of his characters, to the point that, in some ways, this is as good an introduction to the series as the series works to establish the film. Under his direction, Fillion and the rest look like they've always been movie stars, even though Ejiofor is the only one who regularly appears in major features. He even pulls off his low budget, imbuing the frankly iffy special effects with such energy that you're too exhilarated to care. Then again, the giant space battle near the end is a true sight to behold, with so many ships piled into the screen you'd swear someone was magnificently overcompensating. Really, every single frame burns with the excitement of a man who knows that, by all accounts, he shouldn't be making this movie, and that's what makes Serenity such a perenially-rewarding journey.

The only real flaws of the movie are that, by nature of running length and an attempt for universal appeal, the Western element is somewhat lost, and we just can't spend the kind of time with these characters that T.V. allows. But Whedon turns the project into a deftly-constructed space opera, just about the most entertaining since the original Star Wars films. For all its political and social undertones, the movie is about faith: not in God, but in humanity. As dark as Whedon's scripts can be, he has a fundamental understanding of human emotions and interaction, and that sensibility makes Serenity a joy every bit as much as the action sequences. The only science fiction film this decade that I think can best it is the superb Children of Men (also starring Chiewetel Ejiofor).

After I saw this for the first time, I went out and grabbed Firefly a few months later and was blown away. I didn't get around to Buffy and Angel for years -- owing to my general avoidance of horror -- but I watched this crew tool around the 'Verse so many times I more than made up for it. When I finally got around to Joss' other work, I couldn't believe what I'd denied myself. Now, as his latest series gets off to a rocky yet ultimately rewarding start, I can't help but regard Serenity even more fondly than when it first rocked my world. Without it, I might never have come to discover the man who has since become far and away my favorite writer in entertainment. So if that colors my perspective, makes me subjective, even fanboyish, I don't care; Serenity surpasses every possible expectation you can place on the spinoff feature film of a canceled T.V. series, and I'm living proof that it's as capable of winning over new fans as any one of his excellent programs.


  1. Masterful. The first half hour on its own is an education in the art of film-making. I was one of the 7 people that caught Serenity when it played in the cinema. Like you, I had never heard of Firefly. And like you again, it blew me away regardless. Watching Whedon's DVD commentary was the thing that made me fall hopelessly in love with him, and made me revisit that Buffy show I used to like when I was 14.

    There is a Serenity vs. Star Trek, Whedon vs. Abrams debate to be had. I, like all right-minded people, choose the former every time.

  2. I must say, Star Trek offers up the first challenge I've seen to Serenity's status as "best sci-fi film of the decade that is not Children of Men." But as much as I loved Star Trek, Abrams direction didn't do anyone any favors, and he tried so hard to make things exhilarating that he actually took away a bit from the natural exhilaration of the story and the excellent cast who outshone his terrible direction. The lens flares and the endless closeups (don't see the film in IMAX; it actually brought down the experience of my first two viewings) bugged me so much more than the many plot holes, because they took me out of the wonder of it all.

    I don't care if Serenity was a box office failure (I still don't see how they expected a hit -- if the 2 million+ who bought Firefly all went to see it, it'd still only make about 20 million, which was about its domestic gross), Joss should have gotten a lot more credit and a lot more work as a director. Not only does he get joy, wit and drama naturally from his actors, he fills every frame with excitement. I was a bit bummed actually when I found out he wasn't directing Cabin in the Woods, but hopefully Joss will be on hand to guide Goddard (I mentioned my general dislike of horror in the review, but I can't wait to see this).