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Serenity (2005)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/01/07 21:33:28

"Misses what was appealing about the show."
3 stars (Just Average)

Where's the twang? In 'Serenity,' a feature-length continuation of the prematurely cancelled TV series 'Firefly,' there's no hint of the show's mournful country theme song ("You can't take the sky from me"). That song struck many home viewers as iffy at first, but it grew on them, much like the show itself, a self-conscious shotgun marriage of westerns and science fiction.

Firefly made explicit what was barely concealed in many so-called sci-fi shows and movies -- that they were really just oaters with spaceships -- and created an unstable but gradually charming world, in which men in cowboy hats bartered stolen goods for cattle, and then stowed the cattle aboard their spacecraft. As if afraid to alienate sci-fi-geek newcomers who wouldn't like the show's Reese's Cup approach to entertainment -- hey, you got your Louis L'Amour in my Gene Roddenberry! -- Serenity all but drops the western aspect. And that isn't all that's missing.

For what it is -- viewed as filmmaking in and of itself -- Serenity is tense and smoothly put together. I speak not as a Firefly die-hard ("Browncoats," true believers are called) who wept when the show was jettisoned after only eleven aired episodes in 2002, but as a recent convert who spent the past week or so curling up with the complete series on DVD. I enjoyed the show very much, mainly because of the characters: gruff, bluntly practical Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion); his trusted war buddy Zoe (Gina Torres) and her goofball pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk); kindly mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); elegant "companion" (i.e., call girl) Inara (Morena Baccarin); idiotic but violently useful Jayne (Adam Baldwin); more-than-meets-the-eye preacher Shepherd Book (Ron Glass); and brother-sister team Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor, and River (Summer Glau), a genius whose head has been tinkered with by the universal government, the Alliance.

The movie introduces these characters to the newcomer in a flash, with telling dialogue and situations that are supposed to define them. But here we run into the difference between a TV show, even one truncated to fourteen hours, and a movie limited to two hours: There's no time for character nuance or development. Serenity is like the particularly hectic two-hour premiere episode of the Season 2 that Firefly never had. As such, fans of the show may go along for the ride and enjoy this jumped-up TV episode. The action is certainly stepped up, as if the movie were afraid of boring the newcomers. Everything is plot, plot, plot -- in this case, the crew trying to keep River out of the clutches of an assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) while avoiding the violently insane Reapers, the show's equivalent of Klingons or Borgs. But the best episodes of Firefly -- like the hilarious "Jaynestown" or the poignant "The Message" -- didn't really advance the show's narrative. They just paused to show us something we didn't know about the characters, often changing the way we felt about them.

Not much changes here, other than River's being revealed as a master of martial arts and the loss of two characters. One of them has barely five minutes of screen time here, and whatever secrets about his past that the show had been hinting at go to his grave with him. Joss Whedon, who created the show and wrote/directed the film, seems to want to bypass Star Trek: The Motion Picture and go directly to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He forgets, though, that there were a lot more Trekkies than there are Browncoats, and that even non-Trekkies at least knew of Kirk and Spock and the rest. Serenity reeks of insecurity that borders on desperation: Please see my movie so I can do more of them, please, please, I'll take out the corny western stuff and give you lots of action and take out most of the humor and the boring character stuff too.

In brief, Serenity feels like a capitulation to the dumb mass audience. The show had an oddball mix of East and West (cowboys and Chinese culture) that the movie scarcely touches on. And does it mean anything that this movie's cold-blooded assassin (like the cold-blooded bounty hunter on the show's final episode, incidentally) is a black man? Maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor was the best actor for the job, but it comes off as yet another white-nerd touch in which the villain is dark of skin as well as soul. It doesn't smell right in a time when the world was horrified by post-Katrina accounts of rape, murder, and general animalistic black behavior in the Superdome which all turned out to be lies.

Did the Browncoats falling over themselves to get everyone to see 'Serenity' think about things like that? I was thinking about it because 'Serenity' didn't offer me much else to think about.

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