This review contains fairly large spoilers.
There are going to be those who will say that my long held belief that Joss Whedon’s Serenity will not do that well at the box is coloring my review of that film. All I can say is that it’s not, and that this is a mostly positive review. It’s going to be Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. The thing is that Serenity is a “just OK” movie, and with a movie like this I find it more interesting to explore what didn’t work than what did. I’m going to try to talk about what did and didn’t work fairly equally, but I know that there’s going to be a hardcore group of fans who will see any critique as a mortal insult, and I’m essentially ready for that. Hell, if I could ride the Batman Begins tsunami of hate (and I really liked that film much, much less), I can handle you Browncoats.
It should also be stated up front that Firefly, the cancelled show upon which Serenity is based, never really clicked for me. I like it well enough, but I never look at the DVD case on my shelf and want to watch it again. I like Whedon’s writing style, I like the “western in space” setting, and I really like some of the characters. But there are some who… ugh. I’ll get to that in a bit.
One of my initial concerns about the film was that there was no way that a show as continuity heavy as Firefly was – even after a handful of episodes – could be brought to the screen, especially when the basic concept of the universe would need some explaining. Whedon seems to pull it off, though. Most of the people I have talked to who didn’t see the show never felt lost. Having watched the show may have hurt it for me a bit, weirdly. With a cast as large as this, the film can’t service them all, and some of my favorites, including Wash the pilot and Jayne the mercenary, felt too back burnered.
The film ambles on rather plotlessly for a while. It’s an amiable enough beginning, and a good way for Whedon to introduce all of his concepts. Audiences don’t have to get to understand this world of 500 years distant, after Earth has been abandoned because of overpopulation, while also keeping track of the film’s plot. That doesn’t mean the first thirty or so minutes are pointless – Whedon is setting up only those Firefly concepts that will come to play in the end, including the Indian-analogue Reavers, vicious space cannibals.
Because the opening is so loose, Whedon gets to spend more time with the characters, which is nice. He’s got a pretty good crew here, and he’s whittled it down a bit by having the boring galactic courtesan Inara and the dull interplanetary priest Shepard Book off the Serenity (just in case you don’t know, Serenity is the name of the ship these folks fly on. But since I put that massive spoilers thing up top, you shouldn’t be reading this far if you don’t know this!). If only he had lost River Tam…
But let’s focus on the characters, and the actors who play them, that work. Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the charming rogue so sorely missed in the Star Wars prequels. He’s a man of principals, as long as those principals serve his own best interests. At his right hand is the Amazonian Zoe (Gina Torres), a war buddy and his conscience. Less trustworthy is Jayne (the fantastic Adam Baldwin – seriously, most of these actors are great, especially Fillion and Torres, who have wonderful chemistry, but Baldwin has such surprising comic timing. Fillion may have better timing, but it’s never a shock – he feels like he should be witty), the gun crazy tough guy. Wash (Alan Tudyk – so completely wasted in this film I can’t even tell you) is Zoe’s husband and the pilot of the Serenity. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the cute and giggly and horny engineer. Bringing up the rear is Sean Maher as Simon Tam, a doctor and the older brother to… the dreaded River.
I find River Tam to be the least likable character in the whole Whedon canon, a character who is all about tics and nothing else. The butt end of evil Alliance experiments, River is apparently psychic and has insane martial knowledge but also has been driven nuts. Or something. Her dialogue often sounds like the kind of stuff you hear in a bad Afterschool Special where someone takes the brown acid and has a truly awful, thinking they can jump off the roof and fly trip.
That’s a big demerit, since dialogue is really Whedon’s thing. The guy writes it well. Sure, it’s hyper-stylized often, but I do believe that the characters have unique voices, if not senses of humor. So amidst a crew who are so well written, River just sticks out like a sore thumb.
There’s more that I can’t stand about her, though. She’s the central character in the show and the movie in essence, because it’s her presence that cements these characters together as fugitives from the Alliance. But she’s never given much to do – her character doesn’t have a good side at all, she just lumps around the ship, muttering her faux-beatnik dialogue and having episodes. At least this film plays lip service to the idea that Mal et al should be really sick of this kid being on their ship – they kick her off at one point early on, but she’s back as a crewmember after only one stodgy fight scene.
It’s after that when the movie began to sink from really good to pretty good for me. It turns out that the secret to why River is so fucked up may have something to do with this planet Miranda, which no one knows about. As the Serenity heads to Miranda, they are chased by the cruelly efficient Operative, an Alliance assassin played with real relish by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I think would be more famous if his name was Dan or something.
At this point the narrative of Serenity overtakes any fun character bits that may have been going on before. And by the way, here come the spoilers. The crew makes it to Miranda to discover that it was – within their lifetimes, by the way – a healthy and prosperous planet, but everyone on it died when the Alliance tested a new sedative in the atmosphere that was designed to make everyone docile. It made them so docile they just laid down and starved to death. Except for the ones who had a bad reaction – and they became the Reavers.
Ignoring the fact that the planet was somehow kept secret (well, let’s not fully ignore it. It seems that this is like Ohio completely disappearing off the map and no one noticing – unlikely, to say the least), the whole idea of this being the origin of the Reavers struck me completely wrong. It’s silly. It’s the sort of reveal I could have bought after a season or so of stories slowly teasing out the truth, and that was apparently Joss’ plan for the show. But here it just feels way too – well, way too TV. Whedon’s TV shows were great in that they didn’t always wrap things up at the end, leaving threads to dangle throughout and across seasons. Here, though, he has our heroes (all of them for some reason) quickly stumble upon the good old fashioned Last Known Recording (in a real strike on his permanent record, Whedon uses the Dying Character Giving Just Enough Information device not just here, not just twice, but three goddamned times in this film. He knows better – and he shows it, by making one of those times sort of funny) and have the whole thing just spilled to them.
This info does two things – one, it sort of instantly cures River (I never quite figured that out) and it rallies our heroes into a political force. If it’s the last thing they’ll ever do, the crew of the Serenity will make this information known to the galaxy at large.
Firefly was better when it backgrounded the politics. The universe of the show was essentially the post-Civil War American West, with Mal and his crew a band of Confederates wandering the sands. That’s a venerable western genre concept, but it was always given some weight by even the most cursory knowledge of why the Civil War was fought. The Civil War that Mal and friends were in doesn’t seem to have something like slavery hanging over it, making things complicated. In fact it doesn’t seem to have much to it beyond a desire for “freedom.” Whedon never makes the Alliance so bad that you understand why there was a rebellion (some people will say that River’s treatment was enough. I contend that the Blue Sun corporation, absent from this film, muddied those waters). In fact, it isn’t until Miranda that I ever had a real concept of the Alliance as being all that much worse than your average government (although to be cynical, I believe our own government has its own Mirandas in its past). Firefly and Serenity end up being really vague libertarian stories, where government is bad mostly just because. I didn’t mind the vagueness in Firefly because it was never important, any more than the basic mechanics of how spaceships work. But Serenity suddenly puts this up front. The idea of a band of hardcrabble rogues having a political awakening is an incredibly cool one, but it never means anything.
I wish Whedon had just given his characters a little story. We didn’t need to have the Reavers fully explained, it would have been cool to just get a lot of them (we got none on the show). What makes so many westerns great isn’t that the characters are taking part in these huge events – it’s that they’re doing small things that have larger resonances. The Searchers or The Wild Bunch are great examples of how that genre allows a storyteller to talk about bigger things in a small setting. And by the way, so is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon has taken away the veneer of metaphor in Serenity, but hasn’t replaced it with any kind of specificity (which is what metaphor keeps you from having to deal with). Freedom is good, huh? The government shouldn’t lie? Thanks.
[Note: In an unprecedented move, I have rethought some aspects of my review. The following two paragraphs are new.]
Of course part of what I could be reacting to here is a political view that’s actually sweetly naive and not vague. The plot of the film has our heroes attempting to speak truth to power, surely as worthwhile an assignment as has been undertaken in any recent film (see the upcoming Goodnight, And Good Luck for perhaps the definitive statement on that), and where I think I may have gotten clouded is simply where the film ends. I walked out of the theater – and spent the last month since seeing the film – believing that the truth spoken to power meant something. But then I realized that Whedon never makes that assertion. He never shows us the ramifications of the broadcast Mal makes – unless we are to read The Operative as a stand in for the rest of the Alliance. Are we meant to? I don’t know. I am going back and forth on it as I write this. The Operative is the ultimate pro-Alliance fanatic, so having his spirit and loyalty broken by the footage from Miranda would indicate that the people who saw it might react even more strongly, as they probably aren’t as partisan. But Whedon never answers that, allowing another interpretation – one I will run with for now – which is that this is essentially the WMD in Iraq of the Alliance. Some people will get pissed off, but it will essentially go nowhere.
Now, I wish that was shown. It would render the sacrifices made by the crew of the Serenity deeper. In reality it isn’t enough to tell people the truth, but that doesn’t mean you should ever stop trying to do so. That’s a message worthy of the Whedon whose TV shows I watched religiously.
Thankfully Whedon gets us through his political shakiness with some fine moments and a good final battle. No one is better at creating an aura of hopelessness (and then getting out of it without feeling like a cop out) than Whedon, and it’s helped by the fact that he is willing to kill characters. He also wisely takes Mal away from the rest of the crew for a very satisfying, if utterly over the top, man to man fight with The Operative.
Serenity ends up being a gentle misfire in that it doesn’t live up to its own potential. To me that can be the most frustrating thing. Whedon’s a damn good writer, and he has assembled, for the most part, a damn good cast and created damn fine characters. The problems I have with the film are more than nitpicks and less than deal breakers – they’re part of a concentrated aspect of the end of the second act that left me very, very cold. There’s plenty in the rest of the film worth watching – anything featuring Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal Reynolds is worth your money, the guy is that good.
The film didn’t disappoint me – there are too many great lines and nice little moments to make the film a disappointment – but it did underwhelm me. Folks looking for just a sci-fi film will be wonderfully surprised by Whedon’s whip crack dialogue and his cast’s superb delivery of it, and hardcore fans will be just happy to see these people back.
Here’s the thing: the emperor has clothes. This is a funny, enjoyable film, and I give it credit for doing right the many things it does right. But the emperor’s clothes are maybe just a little less flashy than you might believe.