Serenity (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/29/05 19:07:17

"Good as a season finale, shaky as a stand-alone movie."
3 stars (Just Average)

Some of you have been anxiously awaiting a little sci-fi adventure titled “Serenity.” Most of you have not.

The film, for those of you in the “not” crowd, is adapted from the (very) short-lived TV series “Firefly,” which gained just enough of a rabid cult following to convince the folks at Universal to give a spin-off film a go, even though the series only ran for a few short weeks a couple of years back. They key to the series’ successful following - and the main reason, I’m guessing, Universal agreed to the deal - is that both the series and movie come from writer/director Joss Whedon, the guy who previously created the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series and its spin-off, “Angel.” Both series earned a devoted fan base that’s eager to follow Whedon anywhere he now goes, and Universal, seeing this (and seeing the decent sales for the “Firefly” DVD set), realized that if nothing else, this film will have a dedicated, if small, built-in audience. They’ll spend enough to cover the movie’s smallish budget, and whatever rest trickles in from curious non-fans will be a nice bonus.

I will admit, I am not a Whedon fan - but my wife is. A rabid one, in fact. So I’ve been able to vicariously follow this whole “Firefly” behind-the-scenes drama from a fan’s-eye point of view for a while now while also retaining my non-fan outsider status. Which is how I entered “Serenity,” with a decent knowledge of the film’s backstory yet without a single clue as to what this movie would be. I opted for a little experiment: I purposely avoided watching any of the episodes of the show beforehand, just to see if the film could possibly hold up to the general public, the folks who would have no clue as to what was going on. Could the movie stand alone (thus making it enjoyable for all), or would Whedon pull an “X-Files” and make this a fan-centric work that would ultimately put off any newcomers?

It turns out Whedon was smart enough to build his movie in such a way that the opening act plays as a nicely crafted introduction to the “Firefly” universe, clearly explained for those unfamiliar with the show, yet not so bogged down in exposition that die hard fans would become bored. In fact, there’s nothing here that plays prevents it from working as a stand-alone picture. Until the last half hour, that is - but I’ll get to that later.

The conceit of “Firefly” was that it’s a “sci-fi western” of sorts. In the future, humanity has spread out to a new solar system that consists of the inner planets, regulated by the strict Alliance government, and the outer planets, a place full of lawbreakers, swindlers, and bad seeds. You know, the Wild West of space. Following a nasty civil war in which the Alliance took over control of the outer planets, former outer planet soldier Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) now pilots the Serenity, a freight vessel whose crew is by-the-book in its ragtagness; they make do through robbery, piracy, and general lawlessness, although, being the heroes, of course, they always end up saving the day, etc., etc. For you anime fans, think of it as “Cowboy Bebop,” but with more cowboy than less bebop.

With its broad mix of humor, action, and quirky sci-fi inventions, “Firefly” was, essentially, a series built to be cancelled. Its fans cry that it was too smart for regular TV, but I argue that such a premise is simply too oddball to catch on with the public at large; this is a show designed for a cult audience in mind, and to hell with everyone else. I’m surprised it even made it on the air outside of the Sci-Fi Channel.

Anyway. Movies seem to allow for greater leeway in the Big Premise department than television, so “Serenity” has a better chance of catching on than “Firefly” ever had. Its bold, brassy approach works well on the big, wide screen, with enough clever action and sharp wit to make it highly entertaining popcorn.

The plot. Aboard the ship is a young psychic (Summer Glau) who, it turns out, has some connections to dark Alliance secrets; she’s dangerous cargo, apparently in possession of secrets so high level that the government’s sent their best assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take her down (and, lest we have no workable action sequences, the crew that’s with her).

Consider for a moment the casting of Ejiofor (best known for his stunning performance in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things”), as well as the appearance of David Krumholtz, who plays a kind of futuristic airwaves hacker named “Mr. Universe.” Add these people on top of the cast returning from the TV show - all of them noteworthy, especially the highly charismatic Fillion; the great Alan Tudyk as the wisecracking pilot; and Adam “No Relation” Baldwin as Mal’s hardass mercenary buddy - and you’ve got a film that actually values talent over name recognition. This is a film that practically demands a major star in order to make it sellable, and yet Whedon understood that sellable is one thing, watchable is something else. He’s given us a film populated with character actors, not a star among them (the most recognizable face is Ron Glass of “Barney Miller” fame), and we’re all the better for it. There’s not a mediocre performance in the bunch (this considering Whedon’s penchant for the occasional cornball bit of writing and, as I’ll discuss in a minute, the film’s problematic lack of character structure); it’s the cast that ultimately sells it for us, handling the serious and goofy moments both with equal aplomb.

The cast is to credit, but let’s not forget that as an action film, “Serenity” flies. Whedon shows a knack for action direction, with editor Lisa Lassek and cinematographer Jack N. Green adding a sharp, distinct look to the project. This movie has a lively rhythm to it, and the action, comedy, and mystery blend together in a way that just draws you in to this exciting world.

Until, that is, the final act, in which everything falls utterly and hopelessly apart. Blame for this lands squarely with Whedon’s screenplay, which starts off beautifully, yet by the last half hour, starts shooting off in all the wrong directions. The problem lies in Whedon’s decision to abandon the “this movie’s for everybody” policy that had made the rest of the film so dazzling and instead revert to a lamer, “season finale” feel.

You see, despite his ability to open the storyline up in such a way that it’s accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the TV series, Whedon ignores any self-contained character development. Newcomers don’t get much sense of the people populating the story; Tudyk, outside of a few scenes, becomes an extra in his own movie. Whedon’s looking at this movie in the scope of the series, and as such, things happen here that don’t feel earned in the shorter sense of just the movie.

And a whole lot of big things happen to a whole number of characters, so to avoid spoilers, I’ll simply lump all of these events into one thing I’ll call “X.” Death, romance, surprise character revelation - they’re all “X.” Here, any time “X” happens, it’s done merely for cheap dramatic effect, just to get the hardcore fan to scream “ohmigod, ‘X’ just happened, and that changes everything for me and my understanding of the series!! Now I must post about this on my blog!!” Whedon has a royal jones for cheap dramatic effect - his work on “Buffy” consisted of him constantly killing off major characters just to nudge the viewer. That sort of thing can work in the scope of a television series, as time can be spent building up to the major change, and then time can be spent dealing with its aftermath.

In a two hour movie, however, there’s not much time for “X” overkill. Here, one “X” would’ve been plenty. The movie takes a few moments to build up to and deal with the “X,” and it fits in the natural flow of the film’s plot.

But then, by the last act, Whedon decides that newcomers be damned, fans of the show need more payoff than merely one “X.” And so we get tons of them, as though he’s determined to have something huge happen to every player, whether or not it fits within the confines of the movie. Worse, this line of thinking creates a rush job effect: one “X” happens so quickly in the middle of the movie’s climax that there’s no time for the audience to absorb it properly. Nor the movie itself, it turns out, as the film eventually suffers from a schizophrenic nature that finds heavy, serious, tear-worthy moments intercut with action that’s tinged with smartass one-liners.

What Whedon really needed here was a writing partner, someone able to step up and tell him that as soon as the space zombies appear for a “Living Dead” standoff (don’t ask), that’s one idea too many. Here’s a finale that doesn’t quite fit with what came before; in his desire to cram in as many ideas as possible, Whedon shoves too many of them in our faces at the same time. And while they’re good scenes (the space zombie standoff does, for all its stupidity, have its nifty moments), they’re scenes that belong in another movie.

That being said, the rest of the movie is smart enough and thrilling enough to earn a recommendation. Fans of the show will undoubtedly go berserk over every frame of this beast, while you non-fans will find an enjoyable sci-fi diversion. “Serenity” is, until the last half hour, a pretty darn fun slice of genre goodness, a ripping adventure with a first rate cast and a nifty script. Even in that dreaded final act, in which the story veers off in all the wrong directions, the entertainment level is still up there, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

So don’t be afraid if you’ve never even heard of the show. It works, for the most part, for everybody. It may be flawed, but hey, it also thrills.

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