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Poetry of the 'verse
A film review of SERENITY by Camus
 
"As different as painting and poetry..."
Joss Whedon on the comparison between TV and movies
"And the demands of a movie are so different to those of a weekly TV show. Joss
Whedon is extraordinary and I will be in line for Serenity the movie but the 14
episodes (all 10 hours of it) have a different life and rhythm of their own…"
Camus

 

That's what I said about Firefly in May last year, Joss Whedon's cancelled (after half a season) TV series.

Serenity the movie is Firefly.zip, or Firefly.sit depending on your choice of compression program, the programme itself mercilessly compressed (smothered at birth actually) well before its time. The resulting movie is a compacted epic romp and I find it impossible to divorce myself from the glorious ten hours of Whedon's original TV series and remain detached to take in Serenity cold. That said, I loved every gorramn minute of it and could have joyfully watched many, many more. Just spending time with these people is a comfortable pleasure regardless of the story being told. And this one's a doozy. That's not to say that the genre staples aren't click-clicked in place (it's a fairly big movie and Universal want their money back and then some). The film makers have had such fun subverting cliché, giving the gift of sight to well trod blind alleys and just putting the 'give-a-shit'ity back into space operas after Lucas's giant toy commercials had made a vacuum of his audience's sympathies.

In a, granted, silly inset poll taken in Hotdog magazine, Han Solo goes up against Serenity's Captain Mal Reynolds and Mal comes out the winner. For a magazine having to keep the masses suckling on endless Star Wars news and articles (come on guys, it's over now), it was a brave slap in the face to deliver (albeit on a quarter of a page). The magazine was smart enough to add the word 'Controversial!' as the result came in. The press are generally being kind to Serenity - what it needs now are warm bodies in those cinemas if we're ever to see this crew again…

Writer/director Joss Whedon's future universe (or 'verse) is a very familiar place despite the cities' vigorous nods to Blade Runner, the amalgam of American and Chinese cultures and the all pervasive frontier aspects (those details that meant that the lovingly crafted TV series cancelled before its time was referred to as a 'western in space'). This concept has a perverse logic. Frontier. New worlds. Being 'free'. Hell, Gene Roddenberry pitched the original Star Trek as 'Wagon Train To The Stars…' Why is it familiar? Because it is populated with the universe's most persistent and enduring pests, always arguing, always fighting, always staking lives on superstitions, making life difficult for everyone. Human people. That would be us. There's them (I may drop a few Western-speak examples in this review, pay them no mind) and then at the other end of the scale, there are the Reavers. The only alien glimpsed in the TV series was an upside down cow foetus at a carnival. Human (including Reaver) - that's your lot when it comes to species in Serenity. If you want a compliment of alien species (whom you give nary a shit about) lovingly rendered in CG, then off you go back to George Lucas. Serenity is for grown ups. Yes, I do know how patronising that sounds. I'm sorry. Let's move on. Back to the raping, flesh eating Reavers. Jar Jar? Say hullo to a Reaver, you monstrous CG abomination. Sorry, sorry…

Hmmmmm.

The Reavers were a never seen, apparent throwaway sub-strata of humanity gone bad in the TV series (if Firefly had been allowed to develop, so the Reavers would have developed in tandem). They are the ultimate, horrific monster men but they serve a vital purpose in Serenity and as stories go, Serenity's is a corker. To summarise: 500 years in the future. Mankind has colonised another solar system (yes, we've not blown ourselves up just yet). But the rich, cosy, educated, cosseted, enlightened ones (ha!) stayed on two central planets and formed 'The Alliance'. All the rest decided that freedom was something they valued and broke off from the safe and ready-made lives to be 'free' on the outer worlds. The Alliance wanted to envelop them (smothering control over their mouths and nostrils) and so started a mighty war - the Alliance verses the Independents. Capt. Malcolm Reynolds fought on the losing side but still on, as he often maintains, the right side. His belief in a man's freedom to choose has overridden any kind of intellectual logic and at the battle of Serenity, he lost faith in what should have been right (the Alliance kicked the Independents' ass) and subsequently Mal went straight, straight into Alliance-irritating thievery and misbehaving in a down and dirty but noble fashion.

So Mal now ferries passengers and commits petty crimes to eke out a living on the fringes in Serenity, a ship that looks like a duck gene-spliced with a couple of Rolls Royce Boeing engines. But it still manages to be awfully endearing and it's clear from his almost sensual in-space direction that Joss Whedon really loves this ship. Her captain is a good, bad-man with a very strong moral sense. His second in command is the unswervingly loyal and hard when needed ex-soldier Zoe. Zoe is married to Serenity's pilot, and resident smart-ass, (Whedon's self-confessed alter-ego) Wash. The muscle is provided by Jayne, a wonderful name for a brute of a man none too blessed in the thinking department. The fifth of the crew is the decidedly ultra-cute female engineer, Kaylee. To say this group has an on screen chemistry is doing it a disservice. You feel they've been on that boat for years. It's a tribute to Whedon and his remarkable cast that he can fly through the interior of that lovely ship with a steadicam, introduce these characters as if it's a normal slice of Firefly pie when what he's really doing is giving all newcomers to his 'verse (greenhorns?) what they need to get up to speed. It's a dazzling opening (after a pre-credit introduction to the main character and principal villain in the tale he's telling).

As for the passengers… River Tam is a child prodigy. Her precocious nature alienates her instructors but it soon becomes apparent that she is gifted in other ways. She has telepathic abilities and sees the world in a very different way. Of course, the military become involved and carry out tortuous experiments on this slender seventeen year old, sitting her wired up in a cold, clean lab. She is set free by her brother, Simon. He has sacrificed a medical career on the central planets just to get River away from her tormentors. So the Alliance is after brain damaged but recovering River - who knows something she shouldn't but is unaware of this - and Dr. Simon Tam. They take refuge on Serenity. The ship's other two (now ex-) crew members are Shepherd Book (a man of God) and Inara, a 'companion' or as actress Morena Baccarin was scared to bill her; a 'cosmic hooker'. Talk about wonderful extremes. The holy man lives on one of Mal's hideout worlds from where he personifies the strong moral belief in Mal (not religious belief which Mal lost at the battle of Serenity hence the ship's moniker). The love of Mal's life, Inara, (who decides to leave the ship but never got a chance to in the series) is settled on the companion training planet. After a visit from the Operative, she understands all too well the nature of the danger Mal and his crew are in housing River and Simon. She chooses to return to Serenity.

Oh, and I was a little confused by Whedon's enthusiasm for Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced CHEW-eh-tel EDGE-if-or or 'Chewy' for short). I'd not seen Dirty Pretty Things and only knew him as Keira Knightley's husband in Love, Actually. Well, I'm not confused anymore. As the Alliance's dirty tricks Operative, he's chilling. He is also unfailing in his belief that his terrible actions will actually bring about a better 'verse.

A payroll heist goes belly up as Reavers descend to snack on the townsfolk. Just to establish these are uncouth gentlemen, Zoe tells us in the TV series episode 'Serenity' (the pilot) that "…if they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing and if we're very, very lucky they'll do it in that order…" The Serenity crew escape by the seat of Jayne's pants and some fancy flying but the real mystery kicks off (literally in River's case) after she is triggered by a visual and aural signal from a bar screen. She becomes… well. She becomes the most graceful fighting machine you're likely to see outside of The Matrix's Trinity. We all knew River was special but this display, glimpsed in the trailer, is pure ballet and suitably violent. This incident, recorded as everything is, gets back to Alliance central and begins the Operator's search and Mal and his crew have to stay one step ahead of his murderous intent.

Serenity is a science fiction western with three-dimensional characters. That's a first right there. It's so obviously a labour of love from all concerned (I mean this movie looks better than most $100 million pictures and cost under half that) and the direction is assured and at times, downright cheeky. The three dimensional space effects (a close brother to those on the TV show) are absent of sound effects (just as it was in Kubrick's epic). They are also trying to keep up with the way the ships are moving. Serenity herself is covered in a dizzying series of swoops and catch ups and it's almost as if Whedon's direction is imbuing the ship with its insect spirit. The effects themselves (all CG ships, not a practical model in sight) are quite superb. But then this is to be expected as the norm these days.
 
The only aspect of the movie (OK, OK, it's two hours verses ten and a half hours) not to register is its score. I was aware of underscore in the film and of course only too well aware of the TV series' theme being woven into the end titles (that made me smile wide) but Serenity the movie lacked a musical identity. It could have been the mix (I am willing to grant any Joss related production aspect a huge benefit of the doubt). It's just that the TV series had such a powerful musical identity, I had expected the same of its movie brethren. Never mind. I'm buying the CD regardless.

But Firefly fans beware (who am I talking to? You folks have already seen it. Twice). Don't read the track names on the back of the soundtrack CD (it reveals a casualty) and try not to find out too much about the movie because there are some genuine shocks, some real drama, some tears and some laughs. In short, it's a romp you can care about and I have been waiting many summers for one of those.

Go, Browncoats...

Serenity

USA 2005
119 mins
director
Joss Whedon
producer.
Barry Mendel
screenplay.

Joss Whedon

cinematography.
Jack N. Green
editor.
Lisa Lassek
music.
David Newman
production design .
Barry Chusid
starring.
Nathan Fillion
Gina Torres
Alan Tudyk
Morena Baccarin
Adam Baldwin
Jewel Staite
Sean Mather
review posted
11 October 2005