Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alone In A Dark Galaxy: Serenity Caps Off Firefly Well, If Depressingly.

The Good: Decent acting, Engaging story, Good dialog, Nice pace, Daring vision
The Bad: Glosses over a lot of character, Special effects
The Basics: In the distant future, one young woman is hunted by an oppressive government and protected by a rogue crew without any special abilities.

When I finished watching the movie Serenity, I sat in shock for a few minutes. I also sat hoping that the theme song to the defunct television show Firefly, upon which Serenity is based, would play during the closing credits. Alas, it did not. My shock that kept me in my seat was not at the rude idiot who called out lines from the trailer before they were delivered during the movie, but rather at how the universe of Firefly (reviewed here!) from the television show had been changed by the two hour event I had just watched.

For those who have not seen a single episode of Firefly, Serenity does an amazing job of catch-up, making this a very accessible movie for all audiences. Instead of being a "Screw you for not watching my show!," Joss Whedon opens with a very clear establishment of the universe of Firefly to get the audience engaged. It is very effective, eliminating in the opening moments of the film the big leap the television show required audiences to make.

In the future, Earth has been mostly abandoned for planets in points further out. The authoritarian Alliance governs from a position of power on high, leaving outer colony worlds to mostly fend for themselves. The Alliance does not forgive mistakes and it works hard to maintain its sense of power and control. To that end, it recruits the best and brightest minds for its intelligence and combat divisions. River Tam was a gifted young girl who was part of an ultra-secret program that left her mind virtually destroyed. Unfortunately, her big brother broke her out of the program, leaving the Alliance and its secrets vulnerable. An Operative of the Alliance begins a hunt for River.

River, for her part, is now a weird passenger on Serenity, a consistently-falling-apart space ship on the frontier doing mercenary work. While working on a bank robbery with her new crew, River is sighted by the Operative and a gruesome, bloody chase ensues that will leave River changed and the crew of Serenity in the greatest amount of peril it has ever experienced.

For fans of Firefly, there is much enjoyment in seeing some resolution to the stories from the television show, though there is likely to be some disappointment among hard-core fans over the speed of much of the resolutions. Things happen very quickly in Serenity and in order to squeeze in the massive plot, much of the comfortable pacing of Firefly is sacrificed.

Also sacrificed are important character relationships. The marriage of Zoe and Wash, for example, shows none of the cracks it had when last we saw the characters. The interweavings of Inara and Mal are sacrificed in order to keep the plot focused on River and her story. And Shepherd Book is, sadly, almost entirely absent from the movie.

That said, Serenity delivers and it does so quite well, with a bit of flair. This is an entertaining movie and it wraps up a lot of loose ends from Firefly, while still being a very complete story on its own. Thus, fans of the show will appreciate learning more about what has been going on with River and actually seeing Reavers. People who have never seen the show will get a movie about a twisted young woman who has been abused by the government and her attempts to rediscover all she has lost in a universe filled with menace.

This is not a clean, sterile universe. Joss Whedon keeps the tension in Serenity high and is remarkably unpredictable. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty and to shock his audience, especially the hard core fans.

Fortunately, Whedon has an awesome cast to work with. Summer Glau comes into her own, moving much of the movie as River. In The Simpsons, there is an episode where there is an adaptation of Hamlet and Lisa says "No one out-crazies Ophelia." Well, no one out-performs Glau when it comes to weird, crazy and strangely fun. Glau is awesome and she pulls off the physical stunts incredibly in Serenity.

Jewel Staite is great as Kaylee, the heart of Serenity and Sean Maher has an incredible amount of screentime given how neglected his character was in Firefly. Adam Baldwin is a great source of comic relief, as is Alan Tudyk is great as the wisecracking Wash. And Gina Torres is, yet again, impossibly beautiful as Zoe. Torres reminds us that she has created a character with immense personal strength and her ability to play Zoe as passionate and hardened within an eyeblink of each emotion is rather incredible.

Much of the movie hinges on the movement of Nathan Fillion who plays Mal. He is strong and sensitive and has great range for his character. In Serenity, Fillion balances his inner character struggle with a great deal of physical exertion in combat scenes and he does it without any sense of conflict. The movie moves on his movements and he does it rather fluidly.

The only serious problem with Serenity (outside the obvious compromises for time and the general audience) is in the special effects department. What worked on the small screen in terms of speed and changing camera focus comes across as jumbled and confused on the big screen. So, while Whedon and his team create an intense and extraordinary battle for the climax of the movie unlike anything they had the opportunity to do on television, most of it happens with a speed and lack of focus that comes across as clumsy rather than artful.

On the balance, Serenity is a fast-paced adventure that serves nicely as a coda to the television show Firefly or as a nice stepping stone for future adventures in this weird Whedonverse.

For other films featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, be sure to see my reviews of:
Love Actually


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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