It’s like the battle of Serenity Valley all over again. The numbers are in and the Browncoats lost – Joss Whedon’s Serenity underperformed at the box office this weekend in a pretty big way, making it incredibly unlikely that there will ever be a sequel.
Across America something under 1 million fans are scratching their heads, having believed that their base was bigger and their voice was louder. In the following days they’ll begin assigning blame, trying to figure out why the movie didn’t make enough money. In the end they should just be happy that they got the film, and more than slightly ashamed that they conferred a weird group identity upon themselves.
I had long said that the film wouldn’t open. I wanted to be wrong – while Serenity isn’t one of my favorite movies of the year, and I think it’s guilty of some very lazy writing from a usually un-lazy writer, it’s the kind of movie that deserves to do well. I never connected to the whole Firefly universe the way I did to the Buffy universe, but I could appreciate the characters and some of the weird snippets that made it special. And Whedon is a guy who should get some mainstream success one of these days.
But I was right, and I think the film didn’t open for a number of reasons, and Universal, who is sure to get most of the Browncoat scorn, was the least of the movie’s problems. First of all, the name of the film is terrible. Serenity carries no meaning and evokes no imagery for the casual filmgoer. I imagine most people thought that the character of River was Serenity, and I can’t blame them for that. What should the film have been called? Beats me, but Firefly wouldn’t have worked that much better in my opinion.
The ads did suck, that much is true. But I do believe that Universal poured money into their ad buys – I couldn’t escape Serenity ads this week, and I don’t watch a lot of TV. The film had full page ads in a number of my local major papers, including the Times. The problem with Universal’s campaign is that they tried to position Serenity as a cultural phenomenon, something where the underground was bubbling up to the mainstream. And the mainstream didn’t buy it – Serenity is a geek thing, and the mainstream is picky about what geek stuff it’ll take to.
Some fans will be mystified at how well the film was reviewed in comparison to its shoddy box office. Welcome to my life. I can’t tell you how many times I see films that are great, and that great reviews, only to have them sink upon release. The fact of the matter is that the audience isn’t looking for a good movie – God knows the continued success of Flightplan proves that. But that’s the story of the movies, and that’s the story even around here – many a weekend has made me sad as the discussion thread for a piece of shit blockbuster gets ten times the replies as the thread for a gem of a smaller film.
In the end, though, I just don’t think this should have ever been a movie. This concept, the world of Serenity and Firefly, was custom made for TV. With 9 leads and a potentially complicated main mystery, there was too much for a two hour film. At the Serenity junket in LA a few weeks back, Whedon said that this film brought the story where the TV show would have gone. I think that a TV given 5 seasons to tell this story would have made it work. As it stands, everything is too squished in. Whedon needed to either drop his original story and come up with something more suited to a two hour film, or he needed to not worry about that story at all and just tell a rollicking tale in the Serenity/Firefly universe.
Now what? It’s over, most likely. The movie was made largely because of DVD sales of the TV show box set. Even if the movie does gangbusters on DVD, no one is making that mistake twice. The film will, most likely, make some money overseas (although I tend to think not in non-English markets) and will definitely earn a bunch on DVD, but domestic box office is generally what it’s all about. As for a return to TV, I don’t know if Whedon and company would be willing to go back after taking their shot at the majors and missing.
At the end of this weekend, I wish the Browncoats would take a moment from their finger pointing and take a long hard look at themselves and ask if their in-your-face evangelizing didn’t hurt this film more than it helped. I believe there is a huge awareness of this movie, and I believe there are many people who are predisposed to seeing scifi films who stayed home this weekend. The question has to be, “Why?” I think that more and more the actions of small, hardcore fanbases – like Trekkies and the increasingly marginalized Star Wars fruitcakes – are becoming distasteful to the more mainstream genre audience.