"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…"
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.