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Thursday, September 29, 2005
My long review of Serenity
Over the years, every time Joss Whedon has announced he’s going to do something new, daring, radical and different to push the envelope, I’ve always been the first in line to say “Go, Joss, go!” while secretly wondering if this is the time he’s going to go too far and, perhaps, fail spectacularly. I wasn’t sure he could pull of a musical episode, but he did. I wasn’t sure about the experiment with an episode that would feature no dialogue for 45 minutes of screen time, but it worked. I even wondered if an entire story told at a ballet would work as well as it did, but wow, he pulled that one off too.

So, you’d think at this point, I’d just sit back, put my blind faith in Joss and just go with it.

But when I heard that Joss Whedon planned to make a big-screen continuation of the too-soon cancelled series Firefly, my reaction was exactly what it’s been every other time I’ve heard about Joss making the next big leap—damn, that’s cool, but can he pull it off.

Going into Serenity, I have to admit I was a bit concerned. Other TV shows have made the jump to the silver screen, but a lot of times you’re left feeling like all you got was an 2-hour episode of the TV show you loved but at the cost of having to go down to the local cinema to see it.

For example, as good a movie as Star Trek: Generations was, there are times when it felt like it was trying too hard to call attention to itself, saying “Look, I’m a movie, dammit!” Suddenly, the Enterprise was artistically lit and we had Data getting emotions, both of which I enjoyed but why couldn’t they have been done on the small screen? Or The X-Files movie where an entire season built up to the supposedly huge revelations we were going to get on the big-screen, only to have it come off as little more than an elaborate mythology episode only with more scope and bigger sets.

So, I have to admit that as much as I was looking forward to Serenity, previous movies had left me wondering and doubting that Joss Whedon could pull it off.

Again, you’d think I’d’ve learned by now.

So, I’ve said it before and I hopefully won’t have to say it again—Joss, I am sorry I doubted you.
OK, let me warn you right here that if you’re looking for a wholly unbiased review of Serenity, you might want to look elsewhere. I’m just saying I’m likely to be a bit more gushing and fan-boy than a lot of other reviewers out there, though I am going to attempt to be objective about the film. Also, if you’ve not seen the film and are a big Firefly fan, I would suggest not reading this review until after you’ve seen the movie as I’m going to give away big-time SPOILERS for the whole thing.

You have been warned.

When the news that Firefly was cancelled came out a few years ago, I have to admit I was pretty disappointed. Not just because I loved the show and not just because I thought Kaylee was hot. (Though that was part of it) I was disappointed it never caught on enough for it have time to realize the potential of the groundwork laid in those first 11 or so episodes we got to see on FOX.

Instead, we were left to wonder what might have been.

And then, along came DVD sales and Joss’s refusal to let it die. And Universal Pictures took notice and gave Joss a second-chance for Firefly to live on.

Thank goodness.

Or was it thank goodness?

See, Joss’s shows are those that reward viewers who watch and pay attention. He likes to tell long, involved story arcs. So, going in to Serenity, I wondered how he’d walk the fine line between appeasing the long-time fans that have worn out their DVDs and the non-fan who might be accompanying we obsessive fans or had their interest piqued by the marketing campaign for this film.

The good news—if you’ve not ever seen Firefly, you can walk into this one and the movie gives you enough information to understand what’s happening. And the better news—for Firefly fans, the way the information is presented is incorporated well into the narrative so you don’t feel like you’re getting a primer on Firefly and wasting a few minutes of valuable screen time. Don’t get me wrong here—there are things that crop up with no explanation to non-fans that we obsessive Whedon-ites will get and they won’t. But I never got the feeling that these events were unfolding in such a way that a non-fan would feel left out or like they’d come to the party late. Specifically, I refer to how Book is presented in the film. If you know who he is and what he was in the series, then his scenes take on a bit more resonance as a fan. If you don’t know, his scenes are still important but you won’t feel like they’re going down a side-street to include a character from the show who maybe shouldn’t be in the film.

Another concern I had—would Serenity turn into a Next Generation movie? By this I mean, you’ve got the top tier characters, all of whom are going to get a significant amount of screen time (Picard, Data, Worf) and then you’ve got the supporting cast who might get one isolated scene if they’re lucky (Crusher). Firefly had a larger cast than TNG did, so this could be a concern. In this case, it wasn’t. Yes, the emphasis in this one is firmly Mal, River and Simon, but there are enough other threads running that you get a nice character moment or two with each one (Kaylee does steal the show with two of the best lines in the movie). I think part of this is that Joss’s strength is writing characters and finding great dialogue for them. The dialogue in this one is, as usual, imminently quotable and well worth paying attention to. Joss not only gives great lines to the usual cast ,but also to the new characters created for this movie.

The story manages to bring up a lot of elements from the show—Reevers, what happened to River and why, the Alliance hunting her and why they want her back—into the story and move them forward. Questions are brought up and the answered. When we find out why the Alliance wants River back so badly, it makes sense. When we find out what they’ve done and how they helped create the Reevers, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. It’s one of those where all these plot elements come together and you go—of course, that makes perfect sense.

I won’t give away the big revelations—it’s more fun to go in unaware of them as I did.

The movie is also significant in that, like Generations, it kills off some popular characters. Yes, you read that right—characters. Both Book and Wash die in the course of the movie. And there were time I doubted anyone else would make it out alive—esp. poor Simon and River. But unlike Generations where one of the selling points of the film was to find out the final fate of Kirk Serenity has kept this in the dark. And going back to my Star Trek analogy, their deaths are more Spock than Kirk in terms of emotional impact. I really felt sad to see these characters die and pass out of the Firefly universe, as I did with Spock’s death in Star Trek II. With Kirk’s death, it just felt like a selling point to a film instead of something that naturally came out of the story being told. Yes, I was sad when Kirk died, but I honestly still get tears when I see Spock’s death. And I got a bit misty here, esp. when Wash died. That one I never saw coming….and it makes me wish we had a TV show to see just how Zoe would react in the coming weeks.

Of course, all the trademark Whedon bits are here. There is his trademark dialogue and the ability to switch from horror to comedy effortlessly and naturally. His direction is good and apart from one scene that shouts out, “Look, I’m a movie!” he does well and it’s unobtrusive. Also, I give the movie credit that it has special effects but they aren’t effects that say, “Look at me and how cool I am.” About the only part that comes close is when Mal and company lead a fleet of Reevers to take on the Alliance so they can spread the word on what the Alliance has done. I found myself comparing this to the opening of Revenge of the Sith earlier this year..but finding Serenity coming up stronger. The battle here is easier to follow and feels less like a video-game than Sith’s did. Also, there’s a bit more of an edge-of-your-seat suspense feeling to this sequence than we saw in Sith.

And Joss does throw in a few bones for his long time fans. We get a nice homage to the Buffy-bot from seasons five and six. Jayne uses Vera, which was a plot point in the show. And I am sure there are others that I will catch up repeat viewings. Because this one is worth repeat viewing. It’s just that good—from the visual to the dialogue to the characters, it all works.

I don’t think it’s too far to go out on a limb and say Serenity is the best movie I’ve seen all year. And while it is self-contained and it does wrap up all its plot threads, Joss leaves the door open for more movies or (better yet) the show coming back to the small screen. I am hopeful that Joss will get the chance to tell us more stories from this universe. It’s compelling, intriguing and entertaining.

Joss Whedon has done it again.

I should never have doubted him.

And if you want a counterpoint, check out Sarah's review that she posted after seeing it.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 9/29/2005 02:05:00 PM | |
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