Friday, September 30, 2005

Serenity Movie Review

Serenity - Directed by Josh Whedon, screenplay by Josh Whedon -- an extension of the TV series “Firefly.”

Nathan Fillion plays Captain Malcolm Reynolds, the commander of the spaceship Serenity set some time in the future. Mal as he is called, commands an eclectic crew that carries cargo, passengers, or engages in outright thievery to scratch a living. His crew, consisting of pilot Wash, played by Alan Tudyk; two fighters, one named Zoe, played by Gina Torres and the other, Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin; an engineer named Kaylee played by Jewel Staite; a fugitive doctor, Simon Tam, played by Sean Maher and his messed up sister River, played by Summer Glau; plus two who were on the crew in the TV series, but who don't start the movie on the ship with the others -- Inara, the “registered Companion” played by Morena Baccarin and Shepherd Book played by Ron Glass. There is also a notable, although chilling performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor playing The Operative and David Krumholtz plays Mr. Universe.

To say that I was looking forward to this movie more than all of the others of this year is a pale expression of what I felt. I enjoyed the TV series... it was quintessential Josh Whedon, with quirky story lines and witty, clever dialog. True, the theme of Star Trek meets Wagon Train isn’t original, but Whedon did a good job. I could go into the long list of fan complaints about what the network did to torpedo the series, but if you don’t know and are curious google “Firefly.” There are ten thousand people who’ve retold the story, and every last one of them upset about it.

In the past, every year or two there would be a TV show that everyone watched. It was a staple at the office water cooler and all the “cool” kids in school talked about it. The same was true with movies. Everyone went to see Cleopatra, or Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, the Sound of Music, the latest James Bond movie or John Wayne bonanza.

Hollywood was given over to the bean counters, slowly but surely, and the result was that as the market changed and aged, instead of nurturing new TV series or letting a movie director take some risks, they allowed less and less. The quality of the fare suffered and instead of going back to what had worked in the past, they grew more frantic, giving shorter leashes and fewer chances... The resultant decline in quality drove more people away and still the suits in the studios turned the screws, ignoring history, ignoring the results, and ignoring the changing market.

What has this got to do with the movie Serenity? Because the fans and the success of Josh Whedon’s marketing campaign (not to garner viewers of the movie, but to gather support to get it made) something that has never happened before -- a TV show cancelled in mid-season, with un-shown episodes still in the can -- was brought back to life.

The movie is a pastiche of clichés. Worse if you’ve seen more than two trailers for the movie, you’ve heard them or seen them before you sit down to watch the show.

But it’s not the simplistic nature of the elements that make something like Serenity unique; after all there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet. Shakespeare, Dickens and thousands of other authors over the years have done a notably successful job of arranging them into interesting patterns. Whedon does as well.

The Alliance wants River Tam back and if they can’t have that, they would just as soon see her dead. River Tam is a lot like ammonium iodide... it doesn’t take much to set her off. She goes berserk in a bar, mowing down the patrons by the handful, including her fellow crewmembers. She has a great deal of antipathy for Jayne (who puts the word 'mercenary' in mercenary), who feels an equal amount towards her. Sparks fly whenever the two are close.

Mal learns that the Alliance is once again chasing them in earnest and...

Er, stop. No... I don’t want to tell you what happens in the movie. Go and see it. Take your friends. Take people who aren’t your friends, but you wish were: this will help you meet a lot of nice new people. Talk about the movie next week at work, or tell your pastor as you shake his hand and tell him how much you liked his sermon -- because it reminded you a lot about Serenity the movie.

The movie is about core values. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. What makes us human, what makes us monsters. Friends, family, duty and debts of honor. It’s all there.

As I told a friend before we sat down to watch the movie, it’s true when you watch Serenity that you have to suspend disbelief, just as you do in all movies and books. Then you have to lock it down double hard, put your foot firmly in place and don’t let disbelief rear it’s ugly head until afterwards. Afterwards, you won’t care.

I’ve seen some reviews that say that the story is a Rorschach test for pop culture. Look, I’m sixty. I don’t do pop culture very much (during Clinton’s Monica days I famously needed to have the use Altoids as sex toys explained to me).

Whedon spends the first few minutes of the movie drawing the characters. Ensemble casts are hard to do in a TV series, nearly impossible in a movie, yet Josh Whedon pulls it off better than most. The sound is a little overblown in places, there are a few characterization missteps, and some of the CGI looks rushed. The nice thing about having your foot firmly holding down disbelief is that you can ignore all of that and just enjoy the movie.

One last word. The movie is rated PG-13, but it’s definitely at the higher end of the PG-13 spectrum rather than the lower end. People (including children) are cut, shot(bullets and needles), stabbed, hacked, chopped, desiccated, flambeau and skewered as well as the more plebian punched and kicked. One needs to exercise some judgment about taking the tender-hearted to see the movie without at least warning them first.

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