Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Serenity Movie Review

Seven years ago I went into the cinema to watch Serenity not knowing anything about it. I didn’t know anything about its writer and director Joss Whedon, who already had a cult following for his “Buffy” TV series and its spinoff “Angel.” I had also never heard of his short-lived series “Firefly,” canceled after a mere 13 episodes, which served as a precursor to the film. All I knew was that I was totally enthralled by the universe presented on screen.

Serenity’s amalgamation of the science fiction and western genres was unlike anything I’d seen to that point and in retrospect it’s almost an obvious combination to make. The premise is that 500 years in the future, the earth has become uninhabitable and the population has been relocated to another system of planets terraformed for habitability. There is an alliance that controls the central planets but at the edges of the system life is governed by a kind of Wild West code of justice.

At the end of the decade I placed Serenity on my list of favorites of the ‘00s without having seen it since 2005. I decided this month to check out the “Firefly” series to see how the characterization and story enhances the movie. Luckily it was available on Netflix streaming so I didn’t have to go out of my way to get it. I found the series to be interesting for the same reasons the movie was, but overall a mediocre show and not at all surprising it was canceled mid-season. The show has some good moments, but no really good ones and it’s got some pretty bad scenes and episodes. The writing is not all that good and the show doesn’t really seem to be about anything other than this group of smugglers evading the alliance through the galaxy. It definitely has a feel like it’s building toward something bigger and perhaps if it had been able to run through a full season it might have gotten there. Otherwise it’s not really worth a look. Of course this made me nervous that maybe the movie wasn’t as good as I remembered.

As it turns out, Serenity is exactly as good as I remembered and still exciting to watch and a hell of a lot better than the show ever was. Seeing the show is not at all a prerequisite for seeing the movie. You’ll understand right away who the characters are, especially Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), the brother and sister who travel as fugitives. River is the big mystery throughout the storyline. She was once a captive of the alliance and the victim of experimental brain surgery that has left her emotionally withdrawn and more than a bit eccentric. She has incredible skills with a gun when necessary (as per one incident in the TV show). Her brother Simon is a brilliant surgeon who broke her out of her prison and sacrificed everything to protect her.

They travel aboard the spaceship Serenity helmed by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). The rest of the crew is a ragtag bunch, all filling a niche role. Alan Tudyk is Wash, the pilot; Gina Torres is Zoe, the captain’s old compatriot from the independence war; Adam Baldwin is Jayne, the ship’s muscle; and Jewel Staite is Kaylee, the ship’s engine mechanic. Other crew members from the show who make brief appearances off-ship are Inara (Morena Baccarin), Mal’s erstwhile love interest, and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), now living on a commune on a distant planet. Though these two characters are not outlined in their entirety, I remember feeling the first time I saw the film that the background of their relationships to the captain was clearly implied. Having seen the series now, I know more concretely what that background is, but it’s clear Whedon took the trouble to ensure viewers of the film would not feel lost if they were new to the mythology.

Serenity’s first most obvious influence is Star Wars. There’s a central governing power that is abhorred by most inhabitants of the galaxy (though in Star Wars the Alliance was the independence movement). Captain Reynolds is the Han Solo character. He’s out for himself, never taking a risk that doesn’t have a direct benefit for his own circumstances. He lives by his own code. He’s a mercenary and a smuggler. And by the end he achieves a full character arc by taking his crew into almost certain death for the benefit of spreading truth to other worlds. The truth they set out to discover is the mystery behind a legendary planet on the outer rim called Miranda. The stories tell of a planet where terraforming didn’t hold and the inhabitants died. But why does River utter the name of the planet and then burst into a fit of martial arts bravura single-handedly dismantling a bar full of marauders? River has secrets as well. Simon aims to learn these secrets so he can help her, but it becomes more and more clear she was designed to be some kind of weapon in the Alliance’s arsenal.

Apparently River has psychic abilities and may have learned too much. Does the Alliance want their property back or do they want her dead? They send a nameless man – The Operative – to track her down. He is a ruthless assassin who won’t stop at killing women and children if it means achieving his goal. He’s a real Machiavellian, but he also believes in the warrior’s code of falling on your own sword after a failure. I knew Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work from a couple of films prior to this one, but this was the first time I knew he could be destined for greater roles.

One of the film’s best assets is the Reavers. They are a race of men, I suppose, or some kind of animal who have succumbed to their absolute basest nature. They are described more or less as pure aggression. They are mentioned occasionally in the show, but we never really see them. The suspense is artfully built around them because everyone is deathly afraid of the prospect of being anywhere near them. Even the Operative, calm and collected as he always is, falls into a panic at the sight of them. We must assume they are men because Serenity doesn’t encompass a universe of alien beings. All creatures are of earth origin. They’ve just been moved to other worlds.

I love the production design of the ship and the worlds they visit. Not everything is pristine and perfect as we often envision the future. The ship is old and decrepit and shows its age on every surface. The costuming is reminiscent more of an old western than a science fiction film with long overcoats and boots. The exception of course is Alliance officials, who look mostly like government bureaucrats always do. It’s truly a wondrous world that Joss Whedon created. I’ve always been a little disappointed that Serenity wasn’t successful enough to produce a sequel. Maybe I should be grateful that it didn’t become like every other Hollywood success and it’s been allowed to stand on its own as a simple little sci-fi tale that will recede quietly into the annals of film history.

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