Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Serenity is one of those films that represents a dividing line. It creates a distinction, not just for the viewing public, but for the [i]reviewing[/i] public, i.e. The Critics. It divides film critics into two categories, the first being that critic who recognizes a film for what it strives to achieve and what it delivers, for its ability to entertain. The second category consists of critics who have reached a self-masturbatory intellectualism that hinders their ability to actually enjoy movies; they create for themselves an imaginary pedestal from which they stand, convinced of their own infallibility and savvy. The second category didn’t like Serenity.

They had good reasons, I suppose. Joss Whedon’s first foray in film directing is not pristine. While Mr. Whedon excels in script-writing and world concocting, there exist more capable directorial hands. For a first attempt, his aim is only slightly shaky. But for the High and Mighty Critics, that is basically enough.

In a typical negative review of Serenity, you will find the following criticisms:

Serenity suffered from a director who is more comfortable with the television format. Many of the shots are to up-close, the editing very reminiscent of a TV show. It’s like UPN on the silver screen, trying desperately to make you believe that it’s more than just television.

The pacing is more reminiscent of television as well, and the cast is very large. This type of large cast works well for TV, because they have several shows to develop each character. There just isn’t enough time in a movie to develop so many characters and make them all genuine and credible.

The premise is not all that unique, either. People falsely rave about Mr. Whedon’s “unique vision of the future,” but all of this has been done before. East meets West, Cowboys in Space; hell, ALL space operas are basically Cowboys in Space.

But it’s not a [i]horrible[/i] film. In fact, given what they had to work with, they did an okay job. 3 out of 5 stars.

In a more positive review of Serenity, you’ll find a few different observations. Mind you, people who really liked Serenity also really like movies in general. Films are not some intellectual pursuit for them. These kinds of people review movies because they actually like movies, not because they like the sound of their own voice.

Though I can’t claim that I don’t like the sound of my own voice, I really do love movies, and consider myself part of this group. The following are my thoughts of the film.

It was great. As a fan of the series, Serenity was beautiful gift, and I treasured every moment. Actually, I was a little apprehensive for awhile; I had brought a friend who had never even heard of Firefly, and I worried that he wouldn’t like the film. I was afraid he wouldn’t get it, or that he just wouldn’t appreciate it. But when I looked over and saw a big stupid grin on his face, I knew he was enjoying himself. So started enjoying myself as well.

A word of advice. If you’re a fan of the series, attend opening night. Go with other fans of the series. Even if you don’t know them, you will enjoy the film so much more with other fans. It’s like the whole point of canned laughter. Canned laughter is supposed to help the audience know when to laugh, it’s supposed to encourage a light and humorous atmosphere. That’s kind of like going to this movie with fans, except the laughter isn’t canned, and the claps and collective sighs and cheers are genuine. For fans, it becomes an experience you will always remember. This is why it’s cool to be a geek.

The movie opens up with a woman’s voice, sweetly but seriously explaining that Earth became uninhabitable, so everyone left for a new solar system. She explains the terraforming process, and a little bit about the political history of the Alliance and the Civil War. The best part about this is that it isn’t some random narrator; it’s actually a teacher giving a history lesson in a class. This kind of exposition thrills me, and Whedon does an incredible job of never giving you information in an unlikely or hackneyed way.

I was pretty sure that the movie would in some way be a recapitulation of several moments from the series, but I was happily incorrect. With the exception of a flashback (where we learn how Simon freed his sister, River, something never really explained in the show), the rest of the film takes place after the season one finale. For fans, this is easy enough to follow, and Whedon makes sure that nothing really confusing occurs for the mainstream audience. For fans there are several special treats, little inside jokes that only those who’ve seen the series will get, but these moments don’t get in the way. They’re easter eggs.

I’ve heard the complaint that nothing about the show is very original, and that’s fine. I think it’s a stupid complaint. When Battlestar Galactica aired, people complained that it was a rip-off of Star Wars, citing striking similarities between the characters. What they failed to realize is that the characters in Star Wars weren’t original either. They are archetypal characters, figures that have existed in storytelling for centuries. For example, Serenity features a prostitute with a heart of gold, and people complain that it isn’t original. Of course it’s not! It wasn’t original when Dostoevsky utilized it! It’s a literary device.

Same thing goes for the setting. Yes, it’s not that original. Big deal. That is not the point. What makes Serenity good is the same reason that Firefly was so entertaining: execution. Whedon plays these old and familiar elements so well that we can’t help but be entertained. Whedon breathed new life into an old formula, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

In terms of plot, the film follows a two-act structure, the first a sort of build-up and introduction of the characters, followed by a mostly action packed end. The last 45 minutes of the film just move. It’s like the story was building up steam for the first half so it could burst through the second half. Some might complain that this makes an unbalance film, but I felt it worked very well.

As for the actual storyline, I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, but suffice to say it focuses on the Alliance’s burning need to recapture River Tam, a young girl rescured by her brother from a secret government facility. It’s understood (mostly from the flashback at the beginning of the film) that the Alliance was making River into some sort of human weapon/assassin with prescient abilities, very reminiscent of the proverbial Majestic 12 or Remote Viewing or Pick Your Conspiracy. It turns out that it’s not just because she’s a government weapon that the Alliance wants to find her, but also because she most likely knows great and terrible secrets by virtue of her psychic abilities. The Alliance clearly doesn’t want these secrets to get out, even though no one really knows what the secrets actually are.

The first part of the movie consists of the crew of Serenity getting in various scrapes, trying to figure out what do with River. The second half consists of the crew figuring out what to do, discovering the terrible secret, and then acting on it in an equally terrible and action-packed way. The film ends satisfyingly enough, with plenty of room for either a sequel or a continuation of the series.

At the end of it all, I was very happy. I felt my time had been well spent, and I just might go again on opening night. One of the central themes of Serenity is the power of belief; one character says to another, “I don’t care what you believe, just believe.” While that is a conveniently vanilla statement on its own, the film really emphasizes what a person who believes in something can do. The villain firmly believes his cause is necessary and vital, and the protagonist firmly believes that he’s got something worth fighting for.

I think there’s a bit of an allegory for us fans here as well.

Firefly was cancelled by a network that believed it was necessary, even vital. The fans believed Firefly was worth fighting for, and essentially made the movie happen (through sales of the Firefly DVDs). In the film, the good guys win, a victory that fans can truly celebrate, because this time, we won too.


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10:25 AM  
Blogger John said...

(re above: i hate robot comments too)

Like your site, and your comments about Serenity - I'm a film critic in Ireland, and saw it this morning. I agree that it will divide critics who won't think Weedon's overwhelming impulse to entertain balances his limitations as a director and lack of money. i though it was hilarious, loved the pirate/kung fu/ western feel and the zombie bad guys. i have my own site at

check it out sometime

11:34 AM  
Blogger J.E. Remy said...

As a fan of Firefly were you, like me, finding that you were oddly attached to these characters? Every fight (not just physical, but social) that occured, I found myself concerned. Every wound (to the individuals or the ship) left me cringing just a bit. It was like visiting an old friend only to find out life hadn't gotten any easier for him. This alone drew me quickly into the story, but I wonder if some of that concern was lost on those seeing the crew of Serenity for the first time.

10:27 AM  
Blogger nym said...

I agree with you, J.E. Remy. I feel a strong kinship with these characters, by virtue of the television series. I'm sure that what happened with them resonated stronger in me than in a newcomer, but I think that Whedon structured the scenes well enough that even newcomers could still care enough, if not as deep as fan.

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