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Serenity (2005)
Writer and director: Joss Whedon

review by Richard Bowden

Before reviewing Serenity, perhaps I should mention that I've not seen Firefly, Joss Whedon's original, allegedly mishandled and abruptly cancelled TV series - a show which by now probably holds the record for having the most vocal fanbase lobby since Star Trek's cancellation a generation ago. This spinoff, apparently taken from the original concept for the pilot episode - although it appears to be set some months after the series, has received a generally warm welcome. In the UK for instance, it was recently voted film of the year by the BBC's flagship cinema show, ahead of Harry Potter, Narnia and the like, greeted most effusively by those who love the original: "Intense storytelling, amazing visuals, sharp-as-a-tack dialogue." ... "There's never been a movie like this one... a rare feat." ... "The sense of humour, the wonderfully realised characters and their strong interpersonal bonds, masterful dialogue and emotional pain, everything is present. I laughed, I cried" (all from IMDb). This while other critics, perhaps feeling that such a popular success can't be entirely worthwhile, were less wholehearted: "Solemn, rather than playful, moderately well done" (The Observer). "There are worse problems than the movie's editing and cheapo look; there is so little invested in each character... that it's hard to even care much about what happens to them" (reel.com). The truth lays somewhere in the middle. Serenity is a damn fine SF film, and one certainly a good notch above the clunkingly written Star Wars prequels, but still one that never entirely transcends budget limitations or an uninspired central story.

It opens with a brief history of the Alliance, a totalitarian regime that runs a planetary system, terraformed and colonised by those who previously couldn't get along on a crowded and dangerous Earth. Enigmatic psychic, River (Summer Glau), and her brother, are on the run from this government and have now taken refuge on the eponymous space freighter whose members now find their options increasingly limited. After a near-bungled robbery, River mutters the enigmatic word 'Miranda' and abruptly reveals unexpected qualities when she almost shoots Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). On their tail is a nameless Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the crew set out to discover the secret of Miranda and exactly why so much is being done to recover River...

Here are the same characters as in the series, perhaps a little older and wiser, a mixed bunch whose camaraderie and banter is one of the film's strengths and amongst whom key relationships are already formed. This could be alienating to the casual viewer, but Whedon's frequently witty dialogue, bouncing between the players, almost as an afterthought in some scenes, sparks enough to create depth and interest. Immediate familiarity is a difficult trick to pull off for casual viewers, and can leave them feeling rather like joining half way in through a private conversation (as Final Fantasy VII - Advent Children, 2005, amply demonstrated). Fortunately appreciating Serenity never depends upon detailed knowledge of what has passed before, although it's a likely advantage. Indeed part of the fun is mentally taking that half step back, reconstructing possible histories between the leads.

So if there's any problem it's not with emotional baggage nor, one is pleased to report, the often brisk staging with which writer-director Whedon makes his convincing step from small to big screen (one is particularly impressed by the opening, an extended one-take roving ambitiously about the freighter, as well as his continued willingness as writer to let actors have their breathing space). No, it lies principally with the character of River, the rescued empath, whose brain contains the mighty fact the Alliance seeks to repress, as well as the nature of the dread secret itself. The idea of a tortured mentalist who holds terrible information, or a regime of forced happiness are neither very fresh in SF, and their unfolding discovery involves something of an anti-climax from those expecting Matrix-like revelations, though they serve their purpose.

Fans of the series maybe revel in some of the hand-me-down elements or the genre stereotypes on show. Other viewers might find them distracting. For instance some of the locations in which the Serenity crew find themselves too often resemble the reworked mining towns of countless straight-to-video SF movies. Whedon's universe is a retro one, in which there are more than a few echoes of the western - guns are kept in quick draw holsters - with its own wild space frontier, while the cannibalistic human mutant Reevers recall Quantill's Raiders, (or perhaps the Border Reivers who plundered 16th century north of England from horseback). He shows his roots elsewhere, too, in that we have here a modern version of Hans Solo and his crew, braving their way in their patched up ships across the galaxy, a process enlivened again by a good deal of dialogue that's larded with knowing, anti-heroic nonchalance (e.g. "Can I make a suggestion that doesn't involve violence, or is this the wrong crowd for that?" ... "In the time of war, we would never have left a man behind. Maybe that's why we lost")... Such moments both humanise and add a dimension to the crew, bringing the film alive, just as they brought a touch of magic to Lucas' original inspiration. One can forgive any amount of cliché or unexceptional art design when things are done right like this, and with such witty gusto. Serenity's great popularity can be put down to exactly that: it gives pleasure in spades, through recognition of the familiar, done with huge flair. Of course the cynic might also point to the appreciation and relief of fans not presented with a franchise-happy dumbing-down of a favourite show - or indeed the lack of any decent, intelligent SF competition to be found elsewhere on screen currently, but that's a different story.
Serenity landing
Outside of the regular cast stands the Alliance's implacable agent, an intelligent man who clearly has chosen the wrong path and who, too, follows his own peculiar code of honour, including the anachronistic use of a sword. It is to Whedon's credit that what could easily have been a black and white portrait of evil, gradually gains a degree of sympathy all of his own. "Nothing here is what it seems. You are not the plucky hero, the Alliance is not an evil empire, and this is not the grand arena," he says during one encounter - a typically knowing assertion and naturally, both given his guile, and what we know of Whedon's inspirations, one not strictly true. Like many of the best movie villains, he brings a degree of regret to his actions. The Alliance clearly is evil, and we think it is the agent's recognition of the fact at the end that allows some transformation of his character. But there's no sign that a defeat has caused any major disruption to the plans of the government, and further developments are likely. Perhaps sensing the ecstatic cult that this film has already engendered, the prospect of a follow up is clearly on the event horizon. This viewer, for one, welcome the idea - although perhaps next time a larger budget, as well as a more adventurous storyline would make it all really, really memorable...
Serenity international poster





Serenity cast line-up





Serenity - spaceship





buy the movie guide -
Serenity: The Official Visual Companion

Serenity - official movie companion

- includes the illustrated screenplay by Joss Whedon, published by Titan - �16.99 / $19.95



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