Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Review: "Gremlins" by David Pretty

Gremlins has to be one of the most tonally-schizophrenic movies ever made. The first half charms with classic Spielbergian suburban kitsch and the second half morphs turns into a pretty intense little horror movie. It's almost as if the script itself tries to mirror the nasty Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation that the creatures themselves experience. 

The story begins whimsically enough, with inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) on the hunt for an unusual Christmas gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). While trolling through the sort of curiosity shop normally only found in 1930's Shanghai, Rand comes across an exotic animal called a "Mogwai". The owner of the shop, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) refuses to part with the critter, but the old man's grandson sells the creature to Rand after he swears to abide by the following three iconic rules:
  1. Don't expose the Mogwai to sunlight. 
  2. Don't get him wet.
  3. And for the love of Sweet Baby Jesus do not, I repeat, DO NOT feed the furry little bastard after midnight no matter how much he bats those disproportionate eyelashes.
Rand brings his furry contraband back to the sleepy little town of Kingston Falls, the sort of place that you can only find on a Hollywood back lot. When he gives the Mogwai to Billy, we're treated to our first glimpse of the critter, who looks like a marketing executive's wet dream. Gizmo is cute, fuzzy and sounds suspiciously like Howie Mandell's cartoon character "Bobby", probably because Mandell actually voiced the damned thing. 

Well, as you might imagine, within about thirty minutes of run time Billy manages to fuck up every single one of the rules and pretty soon the entire town is over-run with Gizmo's evil twin. It's at this point when things take a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn away from kiddie flick territory and barrels head-first into the realm of coal-black comedy.

Now keep in mind: everything up to this point has been pretty saccharine. The town and most of its residents are like rejects from a Frank Capra movie, Billy and his would-be girlfriend Kate are wholesome, plucky, freshly-scrubbed young go-getters and Gizmo is just about the cutest l'il feller you ever done seen! However, if you make the mistake of glancing at the bottom your popcorn box for so much as a second, you'll probably miss the moment when all those sweet little Mogwais suddenly transform into a pack of evil, slavering, homicidal Gremlins™. 

These scaly, razor-toothed, bat-eared little creeps are worse then a horde of football hooligans. At first their antisocial behavior is limited to chain smoking and breaking more shit then Fred Durst, but soon they move on to attack Billy's mom in her own kitchen, murder a research scientist (!), mow down an elderly couple in their living room (!!) and indulge in some hideously-dated Flashdance parodies. The humans are quick to respond in kind and pretty soon Gremlins are being stabbed, decapitated, blinded, burnt, microwaved, blown up, melted and put on "frappe" at every turn!

Only From Dusk Til' Dawn, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the first fifteen minutes of Revenge of the Sith are this tonally disjointed. Because of its borderline-psychotic and awkward juxtaposition of Christmas tropes, creative cruelty, doe-eyed animatronics, splatterific gore, Spielbergian wholesomeness and spates of comedic violence, this film was a major impetus behind the creation of the "PG-13" rating. Indeed, Gremlins has a hard time deciding if it wants to traumatize little kids or leave hardcore gore-hounds clamoring for more.    

Regardless of the film's intoxicated demeanor, it's certainly a treasure trove of Eighties nostalgia. The practical puppetry effects are gleefully rubber-riffic, Corey Feldman turns in the sort of performance that he seems incapable of delivering as an adult, the clothing and hair are all "totally radical" and the rampant product placement is a hoot, especially in the big department store finale. Not only is Gremlins a great visual time capsule for anyone who grew up in that kooky decade, Joe Dante also takes great pains to seed the film with his characteristic homages to classic Hollywood.

Especially welcome is penultimate Eighties hottie Phoebe Cates, who delivers a truly bizarre eleventh-hour soliloquy about the nature of Santa Claus. Honestly, if they made this movie today there's no way in hell that such an odd, psychologically-volatile scene would ever be included.

But that's what makes Gremlins so interesting. In the hands of a lesser film-maker, this movie could have been a vacant, disposable bit of pablum. But thanks to a clever satirist like Joe Dante, this tale of  dark metamorphosis is loaded with subtext about the death of childhood innocence, our obsession with violence and the pointless nature of technology and materialism.  

If you haven't seen Gremlins in a while, you owe it to yourself to have another look. Even though it doesn't quite succeed as either a childish diversion or as a balls-to-the-wall horror flick, it's still a gleefully subversive experiment.

    Tilt: up. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Movie Review: "King Kong" (2005) by David Pretty

Sometimes there's no bigger impediment to art then success. As the story goes, Peter Jackson had to fight tooth-and-nail in order to get The Lord of the Rings made as a trilogy. At first, the powers-that-be were only willing to bankroll two films but Jackson eventually won that battle and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Not only was Jackson completely vindicated, he also earned total creative control over his next project. This turned about to be another childhood inspiration: a remake of the 1933 classic King Kong. Unfortunately, without a powerful contrary voice urging restraint and reason, Jackson ended up delivering a bloated, overindulgent mess that could easily stand to have an hour excised from it.

As you start to chip away at the film's prodigious one-hundred-and-eighty-minute run time, several things quickly become evident. First off, it's pretty clear that Jackson loves the original source material. After all, he kept the story set in the Depression-era 1930's, giving Ann Darrow all the built-in motivation to be desperate. The ironic thing is, if he'd just waited a few years, a contemporary economic crash would have saved Jackson a few bucks on the production design.

I also admire his restrain in the first half of the film, during which he concentrates on build-up and character development. By the time Ann and Jack are thrown into peril, you actually feel a semblance of sympathy for them. Unfortunately, Jackson also wastes an inordinate amount of time on background characters. Honestly, does anyone really give a shit about Jimmy and/or Hayes? Their protracted and numerous scenes together have absolutely no impact on the plot, especially since Jimmy completely vanishes as soon as the story shifts to New York.
It's also pretty obvious to me that Return of the King left Peter Jackson more then a little CGI drunk. As a result we get some really dumb, cartoony action sequences, including the moronic "tumblin' brontos" scene and the protracted *slash* nauseating "vermin a-go-go" set piece. Fortunately, the director eventually turns his colorful digital palette and leisurely run-time towards making Kong and Skull Island two very interesting characters. Literally realized as an anatomically-accurate giant ape with a true spectrum of facial expressions and mannerisms, Kong is a truly authentic creation. You can credit motion suit capture whiz Andy Serkis for a lot of this success.

Unfortunately, the human characters don't fare nearly as well. Naomi Watts is pretty, plucky and winsome as Ann Darrow, but Fay Wray still can still out-scream her with one lung tied behind her back. Adrien Brody makes for a sympathetic but slightly unconvincing emo-hero. Since he often comes across as a wet blanket, there isn't a lot of palpable chemistry between the two leads.

And whereas Robert Armstrong in the original Kong was a mindless slave to ambition, Jack Black's Carl Denham is nothing but a smarmy, unrepentant douchebag. A major part of the problem is that Black is horrendously miscast. His exaggerated mugging may be perfectly at home in a comedy, but it makes Denham completely and totally unsympathetic here.

I was hoping that the "Director's Cut " would have more scenes between Kong and Ann, but no such luck. Instead we get more CGI demo reels of gross, slimy things attacking people we don't care about. Despite an inevitable but crackerjack finale in which Kong breaks loose, rampages through Manhattan, ascends the Empire State Building and then battles a swarm of biplanes, this remake pales in comparison to the original in almost every way.

Not unlike George Lucas, I fear that Peter Jackson has been living in "Peter Jackson Land" for too long. What else would possibly explain this overstuffed, needy and tonally out-of-whack interpretation of what was originally a lean-n'-mean action-adventure spectacle?

 Tilt: down. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Movie Review: "Serenity" by David Pretty

Pop quiz: how many television shows have been turned into multi-million dollar motion pictures after they were cancelled during their first season? Well, excluding Serenity, the answer is precisely zero.

If anything, Firefly proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that if someone makes something really, really good, eventually it'll find an audience. And if that audience just so happens to be a bunch of crazed Browncoats with a boundless love for THE CREATOR, a.k.a. Joss Whedon, then miracles are still on the table.

So how can a movie like Serenity possibly exist? This can best be answered by recounting the following urban legend / likely very real story which has appeared in various permutations all over the innerwebs of late. The details may vary but the spirit is the same:

"So on Friday I lent my copy of Firefly: the Complete Series to a friend of mine. On Monday morning I  received the following frantic text from him / her: 'OMG!!! I absolutely loved it! I'll be over tonight to pick up Season Two!"

 photo malgif_zps079bc4bb.gif

Although the initial audience for Firefly was small, it was also powerful mighty. Browncoats stumped relentlessly on behalf of their beloved, defunct show to the point where no co-worker, friend or family member was safe. After enduring days, weeks, or perhaps even months worth of concentrated naggery, many a skeptic was worn down to the point of borrowing a boxed set or watching the show on Netflix.

And like a genial version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, many of these people were converted in turn. Blown away by the show's undeniable awesomeness and incensed that the network has treated it so shabbily, they too found themselves spreading the Gospel of Firefly to anyone within earshot. Like some sort of entertainment-related virus, the show's fandom continued to spread exponentially. Thanks to this grassroots movement, Mal and company eventually received a new lease on life.

One particular instance of retroactive discovery really helped the revival effort. After Firefly was unceremoniously dumped by Fox, Joss Whedon tried to get another network to pick it up, but to no avail. When a theatrical film was first proposed, an executive at Universal by the name of Mary Parent supposedly optioned the project after watching the show on DVD for the first time!


Serenity picks up a few years after the end of the television show. Sheppard Book (Ron Glass) has left the ship for a life of missionary work and spiritual council on the sanctuary planet of Haven. Inara (Morena Baccarin) has also made good on her threat to vamoose, becoming an instructor at the Companion Training House on Sihnon. Meanwhile, life goes on for Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the rest of the his plucky crew.

Hard-pressed for cash, Mal entreats the troubled but psychically-gifted River Tam (Summer Glau) to accompany him on a bank job. His promise to protect her fails when the planet is unexpectedly swarmed by a horde of deadly Reavers. Thanks to some fancy flying by Wash (Alan Tudyk), Mal, Zoë (Gina Torres) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) manage to escape but the incident puts Mal at odds with River's protective older brother Simon (Sean Maher). The causes a major rift which devastates the ship's engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), who is still smitten with Simon.

But before they can part ways, River utters the cryptic word "Miranda" and then inexplicably annihilates the entire population of a bar where Mal is trying to conduct business. Instead of abandoning her to the authorities, Mal has an attack of conscience and brings her back to Serenity. With the help of techno-nerd / media junkie Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), it's revealed that River has been programmed with a subconscious wealth of deadly military training. Her subliminal trigger was accompanied by the keyword "Miranda" which turns out to be a hitherto-unknown planet that's been mysteriously stricken from the star charts.

In their nigh-suicidal quest to unravel this enigma, Mal and company are forced to contend with determined Alliance pursuers and vicious Reaver blockades. To make matters worse, a cold, calculating government agent known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) begins to track them. Merciless and clever, this dangerous new foe will stop at nothing to recapture the Tams and keep hidden secrets buried.

There's a lot of story packed into Serenity, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. After all,  Whedon planted a bushel of embryonic story seeds in those fourteen episodes of Firefly. In a sane world he should have been given six more seasons to bring them all to fruition. Instead, we get a two hour long movie tasked with tying up some loose ends. Rumor has it that the first script Joss submitted  clocked in at an elephantine one-hundred and ninety pages and was subtitled "The Kitchen Sink".

As you might expect, Serenity is chock-a-block with doin's and transpirin's. Yes, it would have been great if this dense story was spread out over several forty-five minute long sweeps-week episodes, but beggars can't be choosers. Even though a lot of heavy shit goes down here, the plot doesn't feel color-by-numbers and nothing has been shoe-horned in just for convenience sake.

If anything, Joss's script does a great job supplying key answers to burning questions. We find out exactly why River is so messed up. We learn why the Alliance wants her back so badly. We get a Reavers origin story and we finally see the Serenity crew go mano-a-monster with them. Relationships deepen between several characters and we experience some positively shocking and heart-rending losses.

Along the way we're treated to more gloriously-loopy Whedonesque dialogue.  Here's a typically- amusing exchange at the start of the film:

Wash: Well, if she doesn't get us some extra flow from the engine room to offset the burn-through, this landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
Mal: Define "interesting"?
Wash: "Oh, God, oh, God, we're all gonna die"?
Mal: [to the crew via intercom] This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then... explode.   

There are plenty of great lines, delivered with tremendous verve by the accomplished cast. River's cuteness factor goes through the roof when she casually observes "I swallowed a bug" after a harrowing chase scene. Jayne continues his campaign as fan favorite when he utters the deathless line "Mal, she is starting to damage my calm!" during one of River's freak-outs. And sweet little Kaylee gets to drop one of the funniest lines ever when she goes into graphic detail about her current dry spell.

As you might expect, the film's $40 million dollar budget give Joss's humble l'il Space Western a moderate facelift. The unexpected clash between the Alliance and Reaver fleets reminded me of the opening of Revenge of the Sith, but with consequences, peril and me actually giving a shit. The scene with Serenity hurtling towards the ground in a frantic tailspin is particularly intense. The special effects aren't perfect, but they're definitely head and shoulders above the T.V. series. Even though Firefly was never about special effects, the surface detail on the new and improved Serenity is a lot more convincing. 

Speaking of convincing, the location-based practical effects also helps to sell the illusion. For the wild Mule chase that kicks off the film, CGI was eschewed for a full-sized vehicle attached to an armature which, in turn, was attached to a camera truck. Given the fact that the actors and props were firmly entrenched in the real world, there's a legitimate sense of peril throughout this entire action sequence.     

The western/sci-fi trappings that characterized the original series have been toned down considerably, probably to avoid alienating and/or confusing viewers that are new to the 'verse. In spite of this, the film's production design is still vibrant and alive. The costumes are quite good, particularly Kaylee's colorful, patchwork shirts, Jayne's combat gear and Simon's fancy duds. It's also great to see the Reavers for the first time. Even though their appearance makes a startling impression, Whedon goes out of his way to make sure that we never get a good look at them.

The Civil War-inspired costumes, Asian design influences, elaborate sets and mobs of colorful extras all conspire to produce a visual synergy that comes together in several key scenes. The dusty frontier town that Mal decides to rob is appropriately sun-baked and remote-looking. The motley, cluttered environs of Beaumonde look like Hong Kong by way of Blade Runner. Populated only by some distressingly real-looking human remains, the deserted, conceptually-futuristic Miranda is downright chilling. By avoiding sterile, computer-generated backgrounds, I'm convinced that Whedon got the best possible performances out of his actors.

No matter how much cinematic eye candy you've got, it's all for nought if the director has no vision. And let me tell ya, Joss Whedon sure has come a long way since directing his very first episodes of Buffy back in the late Nineties. Indeed, for someone who cut his teeth on television there isn't a single moment of Serenity that feels static, stagey or inert. Subtle camera moves, low and interesting angles and strategic use of slow-motion all serve to arrest the viewer.

Whedon's efforts are aided considerably by Jack Green's varied cinematography which alternates between dark n' gritty earth-tones contrasted with starkly-realistic overexposure for the exteriors. Add in some ridiculously air-tight editing by Lisa Lassek and you've got a movie that not only flies by, it's almost impossible to take your eyes off of it.

The eminently-watchable cast also helps to nudge things along. Notwithstanding his previous fourteen Firefly episodes, we actually get to see Nathan Fillion's Malcolm Reynolds experience something of an arc here. Clearly the last few years spent out in the black trying to eke out a living have really worn on Mal, and at the beginning of the film he's reverted back to his hardened, cynical ways. He knowingly puts River at risk, kicks a stranger off their Mule during their escape and is perfectly willing to dump River and Simon off at their next port of call.

But then something interesting happens. When River is threatened by external forces, Mal digs his heels in and vows to protect her, even when this puts his ship and the rest of the crew in danger. Indeed, the story of Serenity truly represents Mal's transition from self-centered rogue to big, damn hero. And frankly there's no better actor on the planet to see this through then Nathan Fillion. Whether he's delivering a rousing speech, engaging in witty banter, or exchanging fisticuffs with a relentless assassin, Fillion is seamless in every capacity.

His intrepid crew is equally game. As Zoë, Gina Torres is just as resolute and capable as ever, even during their darkest moments. In addition to serving up some of driest and funniest line deliveries in the movie, we get to see just what it takes to push our favorite "warrior woman" over the edge. When the disciplined and regimented Zoë looses control you know that shit's gettin' real.

Alan Tudyk continues to dispense his own unique brand of wisdom as Wash. In striking the perfect balance between comedy and common sense, our favorite stick-jockey comes across as a lot more heroic this time out. Now, with most movies, I have a tendency to roll my eyes whenever pilots pull off these ludicrously-impossible maneuvers, but somehow Wash's Zen mantra of "I am a leaf on the wind - watch how I soar" makes everything plausible to me. 

As the ship's bottomless font of heart, soul and worldly wisdom, Morena Baccarin continues to impress as Inara. Her reunion with Mal is appropriately bittersweet and even at the end, their relationship remains complicated. I love how she reams out Mal for coming to her "rescue". After dropping plenty of warning tells in her "plea for help" she can't fathom why he still fell for The Operative's trap.

Inara: Mal, what are you doing here?
Mal: You invited me.
Inara: I never thought for a second you'd be stupid enough to come!
Mal: Well that makes you a tease.  

Adam Baldwin continues to relish Jayne's role as a professional bad-ass and full-time shit-disturber. He gets plenty of great scenes in Serenity: lamenting his lack of grenades, trying to puzzle out the appeal of cannibalism, lobbying for the removal of River and Simon, revealing a stark fear of the Reavers and flirting with open mutiny against Mal's suicidal mercy mission. At no point does it feel as if Baldwin is pretending to be Jayne, he is Jayne, pure and simple.

Above and beyond keeping the ship together and pining over Simon, Jewel Staite doesn't get a whole helluva lot to do as Kaylee. Granted, the movie is only two hours long, so not everyone can get the attention they deserve. Nevertheless, Kaylee has some of the film's most memorable lines, such as the aforementioned "'twixt my nethers" reference as well as her stalwart decision to live after Simon finally comes around. Regardless of her limited screen time, Jewel's on-screen charisma is palpable and I like to think that Kaylee is a major reason why Mal ends up doing the right thing in the end.

Between Joss Whedon's writing and Alexis Denisof's performance, the character of Wesley Wyndham-Price went from being a reviled character on Buffy to a fan favorite on Angel. Although I don't think that Simon was ever hated by fans, he was prissy, rarefied and kinda stuck-up at first. Since the main thrust of Serenity's story concerns the Tams, Sean Maher really gets a chance to bring Simon full-circle. Not only do we admire his unflagging devotion to his troubled sister and cheer on his confession to Kaylee, it's also pretty awesome to see him finally stand up to Mal and punch his lights out.

But at the end of the day, the movie really belongs to Summer Glau. After all, she's essentially playing two characters here: one a broken girl with mental and emotional disorders and the other is an incredibly-proficient human weapon. I'm pleased to say that she's completely convincing in both capacities. Working with fight coordinator Chad Stahelski, Summer parleys her dance background into some of the most vicious and balletic fight sequences ever filmed. No wire work, no visual trickery, just a ninety-eight pound girl whaling the bejesus out of swarms of enemies. I'm amazed that they managed to come up with so many original moves, such as the gloriously-unexpected scorpion kick. Honestly, Summer is so integral to the film's success I'm amazed that she doesn't share top billing.

No longer a full-fledged member of the crew, Ron Glass's Derial Book is reduced to cameo status here. This is kind of a shame since he exudes familiar comfort, sound advice and unearthly guidance whenever he's on-screen. If you want to know just how good Ron Glass is, check out his heart-rending farewell speech. It's played with such authenticity that it's sure reduce any viewer into an emotional wreck within ten seconds flat.

Along with Summer Glau and Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the film's third MVP. A movie like this is only as good as its antagonist and Ejiofor goes above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that The Operative is very, very antagonistic. After you witness the following exchange, you know this guy isn't fucking around:

Mal: I don't murder children.
The Operative: I do. If I have to.

Cool, calm, intelligent and deadly, the likelihood of Mal triumphing over such a determined and accomplished foe remains in doubt right up 'til the final reel. Although the script is guilty of some dubious finagling in order to get them together for a final showdown, Fillion and Ejiofor play the scene so well that you stop caring about semantics. The Operative is just the sort of baddie you love to hate: justifiably cocky, supremely gifted and unthinkably ruthless.      

In a sane world, Serenity should have been a huge box office smash, leading to a new sequel every three or four years, like the James Bond series. But alas, the film only made $25 million dollars in North America, leading me to believe that die-hard fans came out in droves but no-one else did. I can only speculate as to why this happened.

Even though Serenity can be watched and enjoyed without having seen a single episode of Firefly, I fear that the general populace took one look at it and assumed that only die-hard fans would understand it. Wary of the unknown commodity of "new" things, most movie-goers tend to gravitate towards entertainment-related "sure bets", hence the current pall of reboots, re-imaginings, sequels and remakes currently plaguing theaters. This myopic attitude likely killed any chances for an ongoing Serenity film series.

Between the overseas markets and DVD / Blu-Ray sales, I'm pretty sure that Serenity made enough cheddar to break even or turn a profit. Still, in Hollywood terms the film was a spectacular failure, despite the fact that it's an emotional roller-coaster that's jam-packed with thrilling set pieces, interesting characters, a strong plot, cracklin' dialogue, terrific performances and a thrilling and startling resolution.

I don't know 'bout you, but I'd love to get another heapin' spoonful of that. But what do we get instead? A gorram Robocop remake.

      Tilt: up.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

T.V. Review: "Firefly" by David Pretty

The Fox T.V. exec who cancelled Firefly after only eleven episodes should be stripped naked, have their junk dipped in Fun Dip powder and then get strapped to a bullet ant nest. Only a punishment so heinous is appropriate for such a supremely stupid move.

Just over ten years ago (Ten years?!?  Sweet Merciful Saffron!) screenwriter / script doctor / creative genius Joss Whedon was in a period of transition. His late-90's pop-culture juggernaut Buffy the Vampire Slayer was starting to flag. The show's equally-amazing spin-off Angel hadn't quite broken through into mainstream popularity. Whedon knew that he needed a transition, stat.

After reading the Civil War historical novel The Killer Angels, he became fascinated by Confederate veterans who, after fighting on the losing side of the war, had to eke out a lean pioneer existence on the fringes of a society that held them in contempt. Keen on the Old West setting but also lamenting the dearth of gritty, organic sci-fi, Whedon mashed the two together and gave us the first televised Space Western in the form of Firefly.

Although there aren't a lot of official promo vids for the show, there are a few stellar fan-made trailers; a testament to Firefly's enduring popularity.  Here's one of my favorites:

When the War of Unification breaks out against the despotic Alliance, Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) volunteers for the Independent army and eventually earns the rank of sergeant after several harrowing skirmishes. Unfortunately, during the pivotal Battle of Serenity Valley, the Alliance takes advantage of the Browncoat's lack of command organization, support and resolve and the rebels are routed. 

His faith in righteous causes shaken, Malcolm, along with loyal ex-corporal Zoë (Gina Torres) narrowly avoid capture, procure a Firefly-class transport ship re-named Serenity and then jet off "into the black" in search of financial independence. Along the way they pick up a laconic, wise-cracking pilot named Wash (Alan Tudyk), a beautiful interstellar courtesan called Inara (Morena Baccarin), a hired goon by the name of Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) and a sweet and brilliant engineer called Kaylee (Jewel Staite).

In the show's played-out-of-order pilot episode, Mal agrees to take on some passengers in order to make ends meet. They include an inhumanly-wise preacher named Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) and a well-appointed doctor with a lot of baggage named Simon Tam (Sean Maher). During their subsequent voyage it's revealed that Simon has smuggled his prodigy sister River (Summer Glau) onboard after liberating her from a mind-altering Alliance testing facility.

Despite Mal's mercenary leanings, he decides to harbor the two fugitives, incurring the ire of Alliance goons and drawing the unwanted attentions of the notorious Blue Sun Corporation in the process. While dodging these prodigious threats, the Serenity crew are also forced to deal with shady contacts, planetary warlords and a race of psychotic space bogeymen known only as the Reavers. All of this is told with typical Whedonesque aplomb: I.E. labyrinthine continuity, clever twists and witty banter.  


Whedon, art director Colin De Rouin and production designer Carey Meyer managed to create a pretty convincing 'verse on the cheap. From the low-fi frontier town featured in "Safe" to the Blade Runner-esque market in "The Message" to the bustling metropolis of Persephone in "Shindig", the environs feature plenty of small touches and convincing details. 

I'm also a big fan of the ship designs. Since the Alliance is depicted as a bunch of anal-retentive corporate fascists, their cruiser looks like an oil refinery in space: uninspired, practical and ugly. The Reaver cutter, with its chaotic, asymmetrical design is the perfect visual match for the deranged crew inside. The Serenity, with its bulbous, glowing posterior, instantly evokes its namesake as well as a flood of warm fuzzy feelings.  

The interior Serenity sets are a major triumph. The full-size cargo bay (complete with smuggling compartments) really sells the ship as a bulk transport. The bridge is elaborate, well-used and totally convincing. The same can be said for Kaylee's engine room, which features a very real and functional-looking turbine. Finally, the lived-in mess hall serves as the perfect spot for a raucous family dinner or a misbehavin' conference room.

Also worth noting are the customized crew cabins. I'd like to think that Jewel Staite herself designed Kaylee's flowery door sign but it's more likely that we have set decorator David A. Koneff to thank for that. There are plenty more examples: Inara's shuttle perfectly embodies her comforting nature and impeccable style while Mal's "submarine" style entry ladder and hide-away sink embody a cool, space-efficient design ethos. 

Whedon also gets a lot of mileage out of Shawna Trpcic's costume designs. While Mal is rockin' that whole Han-Solo-by-way-of-Jesse-James thang, Zoe's got the leather tunic and ass-kickin' boots for maximum "warrior woman" intimidation. Depending on his mood, Wash is either clad in a goofy Hawaiian shirt or an all-business pilot jumpsuit. And in a move befitting a classy Companion, Inara is typically gussied up in some sort of gorgeous and flattering frock.  

All told, the show uses plenty of real-world locations, contemporary visual touchstones and sci-fi trappings to create a convincing and immersive milieu.


It's a pity that the producers of Firefly didn't go with olde-skool models-on-greenscreen since televised CGI was, and continues to be, pretty friggin' heinous. Having said that the effects here are pretty much on-par with the first season of Battlestar Galactica which followed two years later.  

Mercifully, except for a few fleeting shots of Serenity flying through space or touching down in a planetary establishing shot, there's actually precious few visual effects compared to some other sci-fi properties. The fact that I'm already done talking about this subject should speak volumes about the show's well-placed priorities.


As the guy who gave us all those catchy-like-Ebola ditties in the Buffy musical, Whedon manages to infuses Firefly with some equally-memorable tuneage. As if the main theme by Sonny Rhodes won't be stuck in your head for all of eternity, the often-raucous pickin' and / or grinnin' musical suites by Greg Edmonson provides the perfect soundtrack for all the bar fights, shoot-outs and quick getaways. I'm convinced that if the show had lasted another season or two we would have inevitably witnessed an argument between Mal and Inara that was rendered entirely in song. 


In a brain-dead move that only a T.V. exec could make, the show's original pilot, "Serenity", was deemed inappropriate as a series opener and shelved for four months after the premiere. Instead, the neurosurgeons at Fox insisted that "The Train Job" be aired first, which was originally intended to be the second episode. 

Like many other potential fans, I was completely flummoxed by this. Hurled in media res-style right into the action I had no idea who these people were or why I should care about them. Add in the incongruous and wholly-illogical western trappings, the cornpone theme song and the inexplicable, Tourette-style smatterings of  Mandarin, I was decidedly unimpressed by my first viewing of Firefly. Weeks later I made a half-assed effort to seek out more episodes, but Fox preempted and moved it around so much, I couldn't even find it.  

It's a damned shame that the show didn't air in the proper order and with consistent regularity since strict continuity is another one of Whedon's trademarks. What's even more baffling is that the show's intended pilot is actually really, really good. When I got a chance to watch Firefly on DVD years later I was completely baffled as to why anyone would deliberately circumvent the natural order of this terrific program. 


Here's just a few choice reasons as to why this episode should have aired first:
  • We get some much-needed backstory regarding Mal and Zoë's military history.
  • Many of the show's distinctive traits are properly introduced.
  • We get to see the Serenity crew shake off an Alliance patrol and encounter the duplicitous Badger (the wonderfully omnipresent Mark Sheppard) for the first time
  • Most importantly we see how Book, Simon and River got onboard the ship.  D'uh.
Not to evoke a certain Corellian smuggler again, but Mal is depicted here as a slightly-amoral character who's not to be trifled with. He green-lights an illegal salvage operation, threatens to chuck River and Simon out of the airlock, and has absolutely no qualms about ventilating a stowaway Fed and then kicking his carcass out of the back of the ship. As with Solo's defensive slaying of Greedo in Star Wars, did I see Mal as an irredeemably dark character?  Hells no.

Apparently oblivious to the concept of character arcs, the upper-echelon pinheads at Fox thought that Mal was too edgy in the original pilot and wanted Whedon to make him more "jolly". I suppose this was the main reason why "The Train Job" was subbed in as the ersatz first episode.

Oh, and we also get our first hair-raising encounter with the Reavers, which prompts this terrifying quote from Zoë:

"If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order."

Okay, maybe that was a wee bit on the dark side.    


This is a great episode but as an introduction it's way too breakneck. After a gleefully gratuitous bar fight, we meet Adelei Niska (Michael Fairman), who comes across as a duty manager in Hostel. Whedon betrays his aforementioned fetish for continuity when Niska turns up again like a bad penny in "War Stories".

I wonder if the suits at Fox wanted this episode to air first because Mal exhibits compassion after a plot twist puts a dark spin on their "victimless" heist? If that's the case I can't help but wonder if they stuck around to the end to see our intrepid Captain Tightpants go all "SPARTA" on one of Niska's goons.


In its first three episodes, Firefly managed to go from an intriguing origin story to a heist drama to this, a stellar horror yarn. Serenity comes across a ship that's be mauled by Reavers, leaving one irreparably-damaged survivor on board. Before our (anti)heroes can leave the horrible scene in their wake, they're interdicted by an Alliance patrol and then questioned. In spite of Mal's warnings, the Alliance Captain takes the derelict's sole survivor onboard, oblivious to the fact that his ordeal may have turned him into something monstrous.

Tim Minear's cool direction makes this one a real standout. This episode really takes advantage of the show's visual tropes to crank up the realism and the tension. The eerily-silent exterior space scenes and the hand-held camera shots give this episode a documentary feel and really amps up the viewer's sense of unease.  


Another episode, another radically-different tone. The crew shore-leave on the relatively-swanky planet of Persephone where Inara steps out with a well-to-do jackass named Atherton Wing and Mal gets embroiled in yet another scheme for Badger. The two parties end up meeting at a formal ball where several social graces are shattered and both accusations and fists start to fly.   

Although this one pales slightly compared to its predecessors, it's still a fun and entertaining forty minutes and change. Look for a couple of cool cameos by Larry "Dr. Giggles" Drake and future True Blood Evangelist-turned-bloodsucker Michael McMillian as a Hopeful Suitor. Plus Jewel Staite completely steals the show, dressing up for the "cotillion" in a frilly pink dress and then ferreting out some strawberries, which she's first seen munching on in borderline-pornographic style during the pilot.


After a deal goes sour, Sheppard Book is wounded and the Tams get kidnapped, forcing Mal into a classic "who do I help first" scenario. Although fairly low-key compared to the first three episodes, "Safe" still has a  lot going for it. We get to see the Tams as precocious kids, River shows off her mad dancing skillz, the mystery of Derrial Book continues to deepen and the deathless phrase "big damn heroes" is uttered for the first time.

Oh, and a very young Zac Efron plays Simon in a flashback. But don't let that color your opinion of this otherwise decent episode.


Right from the get-go Firefly always exhibited Whedon's penchant for humor but Episode Six is something really special. I'm a pretty tough mark when it comes to comedy but this episode never fails to crack me up. 

After a night of debauchery, Mal finds himself betrothed to a beautiful and servile young woman named Saffron played by the ridiculously-alluring Christina Hendricks. This prompts the following hilarious conversation between Mal and Jayne:

Mal: How drunk was I last night?
Jayne: I don't know, I passed out.

Of course everyone has their own opinion of the stowaway. Zoë is horrified by the woman's subservient demeanor, prompting a heated argument between her and husband Wash. Kaylee is protective of Saffron, casually referring to Mal as a "monster" for rebuking her. Jayne is bitter that Mal somehow managed to snag himself a free geisha and promptly offers his beloved gun "Vera" in trade for her. Inara struggles to appear nonplussed. Finally, Book warns Mal: "If you take sexual advantage of her, you're going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater."

Naturally Saffron isn't quite who she appears to be, leading to a very interesting predicament. Again, Firefly shows its diversity by serving up the perfect balance between drama and flat-out comedy. 

Oh, and did I mention Christina Hendricks?  *Mreow!*


Another bonafide classic that perfectly marries humor and thrills. In this episode, the Serenity crew touch down on the backwater burg of Canton where Jayne has some checkered history. Since participating in a botched heist many moons ago, the merc's craven thievery has since been re-interpreted as a "Robin Hood" tale and he's become something of a local hero, complete with a statue in town square!

Just when you managed to get the Firefly theme song out of your head along comes "The Ballad of Jayne Cobb." You may need a lobotomy to eject that particular ditty outta yer skull.  

In addition to seeing Jayne in a completely different light, this episode features another metric shit-ton of quotable lines ("Bye now! Have good sex!"), a great turnabout subplot featuring Inara and her client and River's traumatic encounter with Derrial Book's, um...hair.  


Once again the show takes a one-hundred and eighty degree shift in tone. This one takes no time plunging the characters into peril. Serenity is dead in space, crippled by some mechanical breakdown and devoid of her crew. We see the ship's sole occupant, a mortally wounded Mal, fall to the deck and slowly start to bleed out. 

Tim Minear's fantastic script bounces us around between several different stories. In addition to learning what triggered the crisis, flashbacks show us just how the original crew of Serenity came together. This is interspersed with "real time" footage of the wounded Mal desperately trying to set things to rights.

It's fun to watch the crew coalesce. Zoë refers to Serenity as a "death trap" at first sight and then promptly declares "I don't like him" when she meets prospective pilot and future husband Wash. We also witness Kaylee's unconventional introduction, replacing a clueless fling named Bester as the ship's mechanic. Inara arrives to class up the joint while "taking back" a negative descriptor about her profession. Finally, we see just how fickle Jayne's loyalties when he turns on his former partners seconds after Mal offers a sweeter deal.

We also get yet another subtle but cool reason as to why the episodes should have been broadcast in their proper order. In the original pilot Kaylee warns Mal that they need to replace the "port compression coil". Unfortunately he ignores her request, leading to the critical system failure documented in this episode.


After River unexpectedly attacks Jayne with a knife, Simon proposes that they break into an Alliance medical facility in order to diagnose her psychosis. To sweeten the pot for his ship-mates, he suggests that they liberate a bunch of valuable and re-sellable medications at the same time.

Whereas "The Train Job" was a heist story, this one's more like a tense bank job. Simon is shown coaching Mal, Zoë and the hopelessly-dense Jayne on how to convincingly pose as medical technicians. Kaylee and Wash re-purpose a wrecked ambulance airship. Simon and River play dead in order to get smuggled into the hospital. Oh, and there's plenty of good, old-fashioned duplicity afoot as well.

"Ariel" also features an appearance by the notorious Blue Sun corporate hit men who nonchalantly murder Alliance personnel in their effort to capture the Tams. Like the unstoppable alien bounty hunter in The X-Files, these guys are relentless, viscous and completely devoid of any conscience.   


You say you like your sci-fi kinda kinda "gritty"? Well, look not further then Episode Ten. 

Jealous of his wife's history with Mal, Wash insists on venturing off-ship with the Captain in order to gain a bit of experience. Unfortunately, he picks the worst possible time to do so because psychotic gangster Adelei Niska is back for a spot of revenge. The duo are captured and brutally tortured, inspiring a daring rescue attempt on behalf of their crew-mates.

Written by James Contner and directed by Cheryl Cain, "War Stories" continues to world-build whilst dragging our beloved characters through a knothole of agony. Niska's abuse of Mal is quite harrowing, prompting me to consider the possibility that "Cheryl Cain" is an alias for Quentin Tarantino. On the flipside, it's great to see the Serenity crew take the fight to Niska after placating him for so long. 

Contner is true to the characters, meaning that both Kaylee and Simon are pretty useless during the resulting battle. On the flip-side, Sheppard Book and River Tam prove to be surprisingly adept at gunplay. As such,  the show's campaign-style mysteries to deepen!   

Between Niska's return and the many allusions to "Ariel", "War Stories" really shows just how closely linked these episodes really are. 


Screenwriter and creator of The Tick Ben Edlund provides a classic teaser, showing Mal sans tightpants sitting on a boulder in the middle of the desert and wryly observing: "Yeah...that went well." As soon as we flashback to Saffron's re-appearance, we know that the gorgeous con artist is responsible for Mal's predicament, we just don't know how she did it. And that's what makes watching this episode so much dang fun!

In addition to the (very) welcome return of Christina Hendricks, "Trash" unfolds a neat little heist plot, with the first prototype laser pistol (the "Lassiter") acting as a very sexy MacGuffin. 


At a floating Space Bazaar, Mal picks up an unusual delivery, the body of a former war buddy named Tracey who evidently became embroiled in some pretty sketchy business. Just like everyone else packed inside a crate, its not long before Tracey is up and walking around, being coy about the nature of his deception and bringing Alliance heat down on his former squad-mates.

Jonathan M. Woodward gives a truly memorable performance as a veteran who's clearly had a much harder time adjusting to civilian life then Mal and Zoë. His final few scenes are almost impossible to get through without getting all misty-eyed. 

In addition to the Space Bazaar's fabulous production design, "The Message" also features a thrilling ship-to-ship chase between the Serenity and a very determined Alliance vessel. Between the solid direction, decent CGI and emotionally resonant finale, this episode adds up to yet another winner.  


Inara breaks character, begging Mal and her ship-mates to render aid for a friend named Nandi (Melinda Clarke) who runs a brothel on a frontier planet. As it turns out, one of Nandi's girls has been knocked up by a comically-evil land baron named Rance Burgess (Fredric Lehne) who wants to take the child away from her by force. 

This is, without a doubt, the most derivative episode of the series. We've seen this "greedy landowner vs. the little guys" plot a million times before. Fredric Lehne does an effective job being a creep, but the part is so underwritten that Burgess comes across as a hollow, Snidely Whiplash type of villain. Perhaps the most distasteful scene is when he forces the quisling Chari to kneel in front of him while a lascivious and rambunctious crowd of yahoos watch. Things get particularly icky when there are allusions as to what she's forced to do while she's down there.

My other criticism is Inara's odd behavior. Up to this point in time, she's been depicted as a sexually mature and confident woman so it's kind of disappointing to see her openly sobbing over Mal. Yes, I understand that she secretly holds a torch for him, but as a Companion I always assumed that she knew the difference between sex and love. On the plus side, it does give her an opportunity to drop a bombshell at the end of the episode.  

Although this one is the runt of the litter for me, it still has a few choice moments. Zoë and Wash debate the pros and cons of bringing a baby into a life fraught with danger, Mal finally gets some action that doesn't involve flying fists and/or whizzing bullets and Rance's attack on the brothel is very well-executed. Yes, it's a Magnificent Seven rip-off, but it's a Magnificent Seven rip-off with the Serenity crew and that automatically makes it greater the the sum of its parts.       


This was supposed to be the season closer but in the bizarro world of Fox, it was the second-last episode to be broadcast. In fact, the original pilot "Serenity" was the very last Firefly to air on T.V. Seriously, does anybody out there understand this shit? If so, please drop me a line.       

Brilliantly scripted and coolly directed by Whedon himself, "Objects in Space" makes for a very compelling dollop of drama. A relentless and inhumanly-capable bounty hunter named Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) infiltrates Serenity, subdues the crew and attempts to capture River and Simon in order to collect the price on their heads. River has other plans, however, and pretty soon Early is forced to consider the possibility that he might be out of his league.

The sheer artistry and overt weirdness in this episode puts it at the top of the heap for me. Over the course of the previous thirteen adventures we've come to know and love these memorable characters. As such, we feel nothing but bliss as we eavesdrop on Simon and Kaylee's flirtations, the shop talk of Jayne and Book, the regretful exchange between Mal and Inara and the passionate snoggery of Zoë and Wash.

But when these same encounters are filtered through River's warped perspective we experience a real epiphany. After Whedon hints at the girl's psychic leanings and we're treated to a gloriously-surreal sequence, we emerge into a reality in which River is threatening her fellow ship-mates with a gun. Although relating to River has been virtually impossible up to that point, Whedon shows us exactly what she's going through in one quick and economic sequence.

This prompts Kaylee to divulge River's Manchurian Candidate moment when she gunned down three of Niska's men without even looking. At the same time, we see Jubal Early break into the ship and then patiently lie in wait for the crew to bunk down for the night. After knocking Mal out of commission he locks everyone else up in their cabins and then threatens poor l'il Kaylee in the engine room. This scary scene still makes me squirm every time I watch it.

The episode really starts to percolate after River vanishes and then starts to taunt Early over the ship's intercom system. When the bounty hunter threatens to shoot Simon unless she surrenders to him, River tells him that she can't because she's become one with Serenity. During the balance of the episode, crazy l'il River manages to completely unnerve the hard-boiled merc, mentally dissecting him like Hannibal Lecter.

Honestly, Objects in Space is about as good as television can get. Ergo, I get supremely sad when I realize that this is the last episode. Boo-urns.   


Not only do Joss Whedon shows exhibit great plotting, winning dialogue and terrific story arcs, they're also impeccably cast. Although Whedon supposedly wrote the part of Malcolm Reynolds for Nicholas Brendon, I'm glad that Nathan Fillion ended up in the role. Although this was Fillion's first lead, he carries the show with aplomb, exhibiting boundless charisma. Indeed, Fillion has no problem whatsoever bouncing back and forth between intimidating, wily, resolute, inspiring, slightly dim and then brilliantly comedic. All told, Mal is the classic rogue with a heart of gold and Fillion is cast to type.

With her long history of playing tough female characters, Gina Torres was the ideal choice to play Mal's second-in-command Zoë Alleyne Washburne. Although her military history with Mal demands a certain level of trust and allegiance, she certainly isn't afraid to speak her mind. Writing strong female characters can be tricky since you don't want them to come off as prettier-looking dudes. Mercifully, the Firefly scribes are a lot more deft, infusing Zoë with plenty of layers. Without a doubt, her quiet moments with Wash feel just as genuine to me as her myriad of intense action sequences.

Let's face it: Alan Tudyk makes everything 100% more awesome. Not only does he get some of the show's best lines, he actually manages to elevate the dialogue thanks to his own inimitable delivery. Again, I really wish that the show had aired in proper order since his "dinosaur theater pantomime" is still one of the most unique and memorable character introductions in television history. Although Wash consistently exhibits a wry sense of humor, he can also be opinionated, stubborn and a tad defeatist. Regardless, when the chips are down Wash is someone you really want at the helm.

As for Morena Baccarin, I'm pretty sure Whedon and company picked her up as a will-call from the goddess factory. Again, this is a great example of casting to type. In every interview I've seen with Morena, she comes across as warm, graceful and intuitive. In the hands of lesser writers, Inara would be nothing more then a "hooker with a heart of gold", but in Firefly she's the most refined, worldly and dignified member of the crew. Of all the characters, I think that Inara suffers the most from the show's truncated run.

Adam Baldwin's Jayne Cobb also exhibits quite a few surprising layers. At face value Jayne is dense, graceless and Cro-Magnon-like yet he still sends money home to his moms, proudly wears a garish orange cap that she knit for him and isn't above weeping openly at funerals. Above all, Jayne is an intriguing wildcard who adds a feeling of danger to every scene he's in. Although he's reasonably loyal to the Captain, he just can't fathom why Mal doesn't just sell River and Simon to the highest bidder. Adam Baldwin inhabits the role perfectly, delivering the perfect blend of boorishness and befuddlement.

As embodied by the ever-charming Jewel Staite, engineer Kaylee Frye is relentlessly sunny and optimistic. She's no wilting prude, however, as evidenced by her now-famous declaration "Goin' on a year now I ain't had nothin' twixt my nethers weren't run on batteries!" as well as her opportunistic tryst with Bester. About the only thing that seems to get her goat is when someone puts on airs, a trap that Simon seems to blunder into from time to time. Jewel's performance is equally devoid of any pretension, effortlessly conveying Kaylee's boundless love for her ship and her unconventional family. 

Simon is the most dandified and overtly nerdish character on the ship. Inhumanly intelligent and a bit socially inept, we get some insight into Simon's rarefied upbringing during the prologue of "Safe". Even though he can be a bit snooty at times, he's fiercely protective of his sister and incredibly gifted as a healer. Over the course of fourteen episodes, Sean Maher does a great job making Simon more and more relaxed and likable. By the time he's flirting with Kaylee at the start of "Objects in Space" he's won all of us over.

Even before all of those covert medical experiments broke her brain, the flashbacks in "Safe" indicate that River was a very imaginative and eccentric kid. I've always seen her as an analogy for bookish types who become so immersed in their studies that they can't deal with reality anymore. During "War Stories" and "Objects in Space" we realize that River has some tremendous and frightening gifts, a story seed that comes to fruition in the movie Serenity. The wonderful Summer Glau manages to sustain the character through a spectrum of mental and physical turmoil. At times her pain and desperation is palpable and whenever she's given a fleeting moment of lucidity or humor it comes as a sweet relief.

Props to veteran actor Ron Glass who I didn't even recognize as Detective Ron Harris in Barney Miller until someone else mentioned it to me recently. As written, Sheppard Derrial Book is a paradox wrapped up in an enigma. He talks like a preacher, walks like a preacher, but you get the distinct impression that the dude ain't a preacher. After all, he seems incongruously familiar with weapons, fisticuffs, security systems, illicit activity and Alliance protocol. Credit Ron Glass for taking what might have been a series of dead giveaways and making it all seem like par for the course.


How often can you say that every single episode in a show's debut season is pretty durned fantastic? Honestly, there's absolutely no deadwood here and, as such, my conspiratorial brain instantly kicks into hyper-drive.

I get the distinct impression that Firefly was the victim of some heavy-duty behind-the-scenes attrition at Fox. The show was probably first sold to a well-placed executive who was a fan of both Whedon and the concept. But then, after that person was sacked for having too much foresight, a new regime came in and wanted nothing more then to ret-con the legacy of their predecessor. Why else would a show this good get mixed up, preempted and shuffled around until it died a premature death?

By 2002, the reigning powers at Fox only seemed interested in cheap, lucrative reality shows and sitcoms. If this narrow-minded approach had been in vogue in the early 90's, then it's likely that genre show like The X-Files probably wouldn't have been given enough time to find its audience and would have faded into cult obscurity. If only Firefly had received the same sort of patient nurturing that its predecessor received.

While re-watching Firefly recently I couldn't help but inventory all of the plot seeds that were so lovingly planted during that optimistic first season. When you learn that Whedon had a clear, seven-year plan for the show, it's maddening to think that some myopic, vindictive little pencil pusher denied the sci-fi community such a bountiful gift.

    Tilt: up.