Ain’t Misbehavin’: #23, Serenity
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz, Michael Hitchcock
My rating: Class F (4/7, relatively hot yellow-white star). Not being a huge fan of Joss Whedon (though not particularly opposed to him, either) and never having watched the series Firefly, I was surprised at how much—at least at first glance—I liked this movie. Unfortunately, its flaws, which mostly revolve around the dialogue and some significant plot issues, show up after a little thought, though for the most part the ride is sufficiently fast and furious that it may take a little while for you to realize what’s wrong with the movie.
So Joss Whedon is really hot right now, what with the success of The Avengers movie (already the third highest grossing film of all time) and all that. And he’s had a degree of commercial success on television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel come to mind), where he’s also developed legions of rabid fans. Serenity is, however, based on the television series Firefly (2002), which was something of a disappointment to the Fox television network—Fox cancelled the show after airing only eleven episodes (out of a total of fourteen, one of which was the two hour pilot). In spite of strong fan response, the show never really bounced back or found another network. DVD sales, however, were strong, moving over 500,000 units in the first year alone. In 2011, The Science Channel ran all fourteen episodes in the intended order (a departure from Fox’s presentation).
Whedon reportedly really, really loved Firefly, and he was committed to bringing it back in some form. He finally managed to convince Universal Studios that he could make the film for under $40 million and do it in fifty days (instead of the normal eighty days of shooting for modern movies), and his original script came in at 190 pages, attempting to cover all of the plot points raised in the first fourteen episodes. At Universal’s direction, he cut back the plot and was successful in filming in less than eighty days.
The television series represented a fusion of space opera with the western, a concept which Whedon essentially invented. One of Whedon’s other goals was to show “regular people,” as opposed to the movers and the shakers. Put another way, the show is about the “nobodies” who “get squished by policy.” Or as Whedon stated, the show is about the kind of people that the shiny white gleaming Enterprise would pass right by….
Unfortunately for Whedon and his ensemble cast, and despite strong critical response and high anticipation, the film only opened at #2 at the box office and spent only two weeks in the top ten, ultimately grossing $25.5 million. When all was said and done, the movie almost broke even. Critical response was generally very positive, though there were exceptions.
Setup: Mankind has spread to the stars, or at least an extra-solar system, with some thirty planetary bodies which have been terraformed. The central planets, or the Alliance—a fusion of United States and Chinese elements—waged a war for control of the outer planetary bodies, and won. In the wake of that war, Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) of the firefly-class starship Serenity assembles a motley crew and ekes out a precarious existence trying to make enough to live on without drawing the attention, and ire, of the Alliance. As it turns out, both Reynolds and his second-in-command Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres) fought on the side of the losers in the civil war, and are survivors of the Battle of Serenity Valley.
That’s not all that’s going on, though. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a surgeon, is aboard and pays for his passage with medical services; he’s accompanied by his sister River (Summer Glau). Unbeknownst to any of the other members of the crew, Simon broke River, a powerful psychic, out of a secret Alliance facility where she was conditioned to fight and to serve the Alliance. And not even Simon and River know that the Alliance has sent an Operative, a man with no name and no recorded history, to recover her. Simon intends to safeguard his sister at all costs, but Mal insists that the sister—he’s aware of her psychic gifts as a “reader,” will come in handy on what amounts to a corporate payroll snatch. Simon opposes this use of his sister, but is helpless to stop it.
And so the stage is set….
Short summary: I’m going to be rather careful here, so you’ll get a few spoilers—but not many, as the central mysteries of the film (the Reavers and River Tam) tie together in an unexpected manner. Instead, I’ll point out that Mal’s raid, intended to capture a corporate payroll, is disrupted by the approach of the dreaded Reavers. River senses their approach, and our plucky heroes flee the scene. Of course the Reavers chase them, and of course they successfully evade the Reavers, but the conflict between Mal and Simon comes to a head and Simon declares that he will take his sister off Serenity after she’s gotten her share of the bounty for the raid.
Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out as intended. When Mal and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) go to get the bounty, something strange happens to River: upon viewing a television commercial, she goes blank-faced, and then attacks every individual in the room. She injures and kills everyone in sight in a surprising balletic dance of death, including injuring Jayne severely, and is stopped from shooting Mal only by her brother’s appearance. Speaking the “safe words” taught him by the people who helped him infiltrate the facility where River was held and conditioned, he forces her into sleep.
As a result, River and Simon wind up staying on the ship, and the quest to find out what’s going on winds up involving the entire crew.
The visual effects in Serenity are pretty impressive, and become more impressive when you realize that Whedon did them all on a budget. The movie lacks traditional space battles, instead focusing on human-scale violence (for the most part), but even so, Whedon achieved an incredible look and feel for the movie especially given how little money he had to work with. CGI, for example, was right out in that early chase scene in which the Reavers, in a hovercraft-style vehicle which might have been spaceworthy, chase the crew of the Serenity who are on a “mule,” some kind of hovercraft which serves them for hauling goods and people about. That scene was accomplished by putting a dummy mule vehicle on a crane arm, which they then filmed driving down Templin Highway in California.
No matter how you slice it, though, the look and feel of Serenity is nothing short of amazing, and the special effects are wonderful.
The music, scored by David Newman (he has a rather famous cousin named Randy) and performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, is pretty good. It is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kidd, and Rodeo, quintessentially American symphonic music which captures a pioneer spirit and the vast scale of space while remaining warmly human. The music, I’m told, is not as quirky as that of the series, and it also tracks modern cinema’s bombastic action cues, but it also features an eclectic mix of of acoustic guitar, banjo, flute, percussion, and full symphony orchestra. All in all, Serenity is backed by an effective score.
The perfomances are, by and large, at least adequate, and in some cases considerably more than that. Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin all shine in their respective roles as Mal, Zoe and Jayne, people capable of considerable violence—although they are all, also, people with more going on upstairs than they are inclined to let on. Sean Maher’s Simon Tam is a very different kind of character, but he convincingly displays a touching naivete and an abiding and overriding love for his sister and is one of the movie’s standouts. Every actor, it seems, gets their chance to lift the bushel and show off their light just a little bit, and it’s always in a way that’s consistent with the characters. Jewel Staite’s Kaylee Frye gets some wonderfully angry moments, while Alan Tudyk’s Wash Washburne displays competence as a pilot and glee at the idea that a little girl beat up one of his macho crewmates. Morena Baccarin’s Inara Serra shows her moral fiber and is one of the only people aboard who dares to criticize Mal. Summer Glau, in some ways, has less to work with than the others in spite of her character’s ferocity and psychic power, but she gets in a good line or two and is the character around which all the others move. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the Operative, as he is—unlike the crew and passengers of the Serenity—a serene man who genuinely believes in what he’s doing, which is to hunt down and kill River Tam before she can do harm to the Alliance. Two other names, by the way, stand out—actors Sarah Paulson and Tamara Taylor. Both have small roles but absolutely dominate the screen during their performances, and are actors I always seem to notice.
Structurally, there’s something wrong with the plot and the pacing, though I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it. Ultimately, the movie feels like two episodes of a television show, each an hour or so long. In addition, the mystery of River Tam, and what she might know, is all so ambiguous and nebulous a motive for the rest of the characters that it feels somehow forced. Don’t get me wrong—there’s a good story there, and Whedon’s meticulous plot construction feeds that mystery, along with vital clues, at every step of the way. Still, somehow the development feels episodic rather than flowing to a natural conclusion.
———– BEGIN SPOILERS ———-
What happened on Miranda, which was nothing less than the death of an entire planet full of people, and within the last ten years or so, was covered up by the highest officials in the Alliance. I find it difficult to believe that an entire planet full of people could die with so little notice that our characters have trouble even remembering that Miranda was a planet. Add to that that the mysterious Reavers hang out near Miranda, and every conspiracy theorist in the universe, never mind investigative journalists and government watchgroups, would begin to ask some tough questions. To put it another way, the revelation of the central mystery—that the government accidentally killed an entire planet full of people and created a group of subhuman raiders who eat people alive, which group now threatens the other planets near Miranda—depends on a frankly incredible and unbelievable fact: that no one realizes that something went wrong on Miranda that was abnormal. Most people don’t even remember Miranda at all.
Willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far, Mr. Whedon, and I’m afraid that here you’ve pushed past that particular boundary.
———- END SPOILERS ———-
Another problem with Serenity is the somewhat sophomoric creation of tension. In one scene, Simon asks his sister if she’s okay with leaving Serenity and the crew behind—he’s worried, but wants to keep his sister happy, too. She replies that “it isn’t safe,” and he turns away. After at least a full second, and long after Simon has turned and cannot hear her, she continues “…for them.” That’s the kind of overly theatrical touch that always bothers me. The only reason to put something like that into a scene is to convey information directly to the audience without showing it to the characters, and for some reason that always bothers me.
One other thing about Serenity bothers me to no end, and that’s Whedon’s trademark “witty dialogue.” It’s supposed to be funny and flip, but to me, it undercuts the seriousness of the story. It is probably significant that as the movie progresses, and more and more information comes to light, fewer and fewer jokes get cracked. Still, consider the opening sequence of the film, in which the following occurs:
Wash: This landing is going to get pretty interesting.
Mal: Define interesting.
Wash: Oh God, oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die?
Mal (over the ship’s intercom): This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence…so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.
Seconds later, after Mal has left the cockpit…
Jayne: We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode…
If that’s your idea of snappy, witty and comic dialog, then Serenity is your kind of movie. If it’s not…well, either have a high tolerance for it, or watch something else.
Am I sorry I watched Serenity? Absolutely not. It’s a flawed movie, certainly, but it’s visually stimulating, well scored and rather well acted, and it keeps moving at a breakneck pace almost as soon as the exposition is done. In fact, it moves so fast and so smoothly that the movie’s flaws weren’t evident to me at first blush. That’s something of a compliment, by the way. Whedon plays absolutely fair, too, giving the viewer all the clues available to his characters (and then some, actually), to the horrific secret underlying (and driving) the story. I suspect that to fans of the television series, the completion of the main character arcs is also deeply satisfying.
Fortunately for me, the witty banter ends before it becomes too cloying, and the speed of events really hides the few plot holes and poorly conceived scenes. Don’t get me wrong—this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad movie, and it’s a great deal of fun. If you can contrive to catch it, it’s worth a look.
- Hit Me With Your Best Shot: “Firefly / Serenity” (thefilmexperience.net)
- Serenity [Retro Review] (mutantreviewers.wordpress.com)
- Firefly/Serenity or “How I realized the Fox network was run by halfwits!” (storiesbywilliams.com)
- Why does Joss Whedon always kill the characters we love? (io9.com)
- The Ten Cruelest Things Joss Whedon Has Done To His Characters (comicbookresources.com)
- Favorite Scene: Firefly (le0pard13.com)