October 3, 2005

Serenity2 Stars

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Many regard Joss Whedon, writer and director of Serenity, as a god among nerds. He’s the creative force behind such popular genre series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel but also the short-lived Fox show Firefly which aired for about a dozen episodes back in 2002. Following the successful DVD sales from the Firefly box set Whedon was given the green light to resurrect his failed TV show resulting in the feature film Serenity. It’s a credit to Whedon’s popularity that even on a mildly crowded Saturday matinee so many of what seemed to be the show’s fans received the movie enthusiastically. Whedon’s film may be a valentine to the Firefly aficionados, but for someone who saw about a half of an episode when it aired three years ago, the film made me feel pretty out of my element.

Serenity follows the adventures of a band of outlaws on a cargo spaceship of the same name in a future about five centuries from our present time. Earth has been abandoned and humanity has terra-formed planets in another part of the galaxy. Ruling these planets is the omnipresent and evil Alliance, but worlds on the outer fringe exist in a form a lawlessness equivalent to America’s storied old west. As a result, much of Serenity has a frontier aesthetic as evidenced by the look of clothes, weapons, and how people talk. The film’s main character Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is derived from the many John Wayne westerns where he played a romanticized ex-Confederate soldier looking for redemption. Apparently Mal and his “brown coats” were on the losing side of a civil war against the alliance which left him embittered and with a questionable morality. Whedon gives the anti-hero Mal a “shoot now and ask question later” swagger epitomized so well by Han Solo before George Lucas changed it to make Greedo fire first. The crew features lots of other colorfully eccentric people but honestly not one of them really leaves an indelible impression.

Aboard Serenity is River (Summer Glau), a psychic girl of about 20 years, who has been experimented-on/brain-washed by the Alliance to be skilled in martial arts and have incredible capacity for recall. The Alliance believes she has information harmful to the government’s existence so they send an unnamed operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track her and the ship down. Mal realizes River’s importance too and film becomes a race to find out of what she knows in order to eventually broadcast it to the universe. Along the way we get to visit a set of planets that feature a range of diverse locations from dusty old-west style towns to outposts sporting a Chinese landscape. Visually the film is stunning by its incorporation of both actual sets and CGI that stand up pretty well to the latest Star Wars films. Whedon populates the screen with interesting sights and shows a true attention to detail in his attempt to create a dirty, grimy future.

Yet in the film’s attempt to appeal to fans, it left me completely in the dark. So many characters populate the movie that it’s hard to truly have a sense for their personalities or why they’re important to the story. When old characters come back to the crew or longtime ones die, the emotional significance becomes lost on me.

Even information like the Alliance being a merger of the Chinese and US governments never gets explained. My guess is that the TV show would fill in a lot of the back story but it shouldn’t be required to do homework before seeing a fun adventure film.

Firefly’s fans will obviously get more of kick out of movie than I and from the laughs and cheers in the audience it seems that Whedon accomplished his goal. But maybe I’m being too hard (being a Star Trek fan it’s certain anyone who watches one of those movies doesn’t feel about them as I do). It takes a true devotee to get past the ridiculous dialogue and hammy acting to see what great what fun a space-opera can be.

Archived article by Oliver Bundy
Sun Staff Writer