Remember a time when you went to the movies and cared about the
characters up there on the silver screen? When all the hype and
hoopla turned out to be worth it? Back then, when the characters
were in peril your hand was in your mouth, you were sure that
they just might not make it, and you left the cinema afterwards
with the buzz of excitement. For me that time was seeing Star
Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and the Indiana
Jones trilogy; but since then movies seem to have got dumber
and I have got older and far more cynical. These days, it seems,
movies rarely make you care about the characters or deliver much
Joss Whedon, in his first movie as both director and writer,
delivers on both counts. Serenity puts the thrill back
onto the silver screen.
Serenity is the movie that fans of Firefly —
the television series that Whedon made after he finished
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel —
have been clamouring for since 20th Century Fox cancelled the
show after airing just 11 episodes. Having found a home at Universal
Pictures, Whedon wrote and directed Serenity as a sequel
to the television series, set in the same milieu, with the same
characters and cast, and the same ship — Serenity
of the title.
In the months leading up to the film’s release, the buzz
for Serenity has been high and the word good.
If you managed to miss the whole Firefly brouhaha
— not a difficult thing to do, since not every cult show
surfaces in the mainstream — it's a western in space,
with the feel of America’s frontier following the Civil
War. Here the conflict was the Unification War, fought between
the Independents of the outer worlds and the central planets
of the Alliance Government, as the latter tried to bring the
rim colonies under control. In the years since the war, many
of the former Independent forces, known as Browncoats, try to
make their living by avoiding the Alliance’s reach.
One such is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the captain
and owner of Serenity, a Firefly-class transport ship.
He and his crew move from one job to the next, carrying cargo
and passengers and even taking on the occasional piece of criminal
work to make ends meet. Amongst Serenity’s passengers
are Doctor Simon Tam and his sister, River (Sean Maher and Summer
Glau), fugitives from the Alliance after he rescued her from
the clutches of a secret government project that was experimenting
upon her brain. Naturally, the Alliance wants her back —
very badly. Their efforts to recapture River and the reasons
why they want her lie at the heart of the film.
For fans of the television series, Serenity is everything
they have come to expect and more, all on a bigger budget. From
the opening tracking shot that takes the audience on a tour
of the ship and introduces the main cast, Firefly fans
will be back on familiar territory. But after that the film
takes an increasingly dark path, a terrific roller coaster ride
to the film’s climax.
Along the way, the dialogue fair sparkles with Whedon’s
witty touch, often leavening tense moments with laugh-out-loud
humour. The writing also serves the cast well, in particular
the assassin pursuing River. The Operative, played by Chiwetel
Ejiofor, is more than sympathetic despite the nature of his
job, because he understands both his task’s necessity
and its evil nature. His presence emphasises the fact that the
'Verse as depicted in both Firefly and Serenity
is anything other than Roddenberry-esque utopia.
For the uninitiated, Serenity may come across at first
as just another sci-fi action movie, but this it is not. It
is better written, for one thing, and the story has obvious
depth. And non-fans won't miss the show's hours of back-story;
certainly neither of the Firefly neophytes with me
at a preview did.
Non-fans might be confounded by the absence of some elements
common to sci-fi — there are no bug-eyed aliens, no blasters.
But stunning sequences such as a giant space battle, which is
all the more amazing when you realise that the heroes' ship
is completely unarmed, leave no time to miss them. In one or
two places sci-fi action movie clichés do raise their
heads, but even these are well handled, and by the time you
reach them you are too enthralled to really worry.
On the down side, in places the film does feel a little rushed,
packing a great deal of action into two hours, which weakens
the roles of some of the characters. And whilst the opening
prologue will answer a question or two for the fans, it is perhaps
over too quickly for anyone else.
Still, Serenity is a fine example of that rare breed,
the sci-fi action flick that's intelligent and mature, emphasising
rounded characterisation and good storytelling. It will wow
you with a story that runs the emotional gamut, in turns exciting,
gripping, sad, shocking, and funny.
If this is Firefly's swansong, Joss Whedon, I thank
But I really hope it is not.