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!"

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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.

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