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Volume 24, Number 1, Fall 2005

Can’t Stop the Signal

Serenity

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Starring Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Universal, September 30, 2005
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

Writer/director Joss Whedon is best known for his other TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off, Angel. I confess that I was a fan of neither, and when Firefly debuted on the small screen in 2002, I probably contributed to the show’s demise, as prejudiced by my disregard of Whedon, I did not watch a single episode. The Fox network abruptly cancelled Firefly after less than a dozen episodes.

TV is a poor medium for narrative sf, in my opinion. Run a series long enough, and desperate writers will wring every possible option and angle out of the show, just to keep the audience guessing and interested. There’s maybe one or two exceptions out there, Babylon 5 being the best of these. That show was written predominantly by one person (94 out of 110 episodes of the five seasons), J. Michael Straczynski, with pre-determined story arcs and a five-year lifetime. Yet even Babylon 5 could not escape the other reason TV shows in general fail—life exists only year to year on TV, and often far less—and while Babylon 5 lived its planned five years, the last one was never assured, and it showed. Deviate from what network execs think sell—sex and action—and you’re gone. Firefly never really fell into line with the network, I guess, because while it combined two known genres, the Western and science fiction, it did so in ways that defied both.

The basis for Serenity’s universe is one where a strong government (the Alliance) manages most of the core planets, with the edges often left to less-civilized people, some who just want to be left alone, others who ravage space and feast on other humans. The crew of the spaceship Serenity includes Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a cynical foe of the Alliance who inspires great loyalty in his crew; first mate Zoë Warren (Gina Torres), tough as nails and married to ace pilot, Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk), seemingly out of place among this often violent crew. The main violent guy is Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary not afraid to challenge Mal’s authority. The ship is held together by a sweet engineer, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), also in love with the aloof doctor, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who also is the brother of River, and both fugitives from the Alliance. Former shipmates include Inara (Morena Baccarin), a geisha-like companion, and Book (Ron Glass), a preacher and spiritual guide.

Whedon has chosen to focus primarily on the 17-year old River (Summer Glau), the gifted, psychotic/psychic young girl liberated from the Alliance scientists by her brother. As the movie opens we see a recording of the rescue scene, setting the stage for the Operative, who is tasked with killing River. For, as we learn, River carries a dark secret that cannot be exposed. Meanwhile, Mal takes River along on a job, perhaps part of the process of integrating her into the crew. Inara and Book have left, and the Alliance presses ever harder around Mal, sending him further and further toward the edges of space and legality in search of jobs.

During the job with River, the savage and cannibalistic Reavers attack, bringing to the fore another story thread. What caused humans to become Reavers? Were they unable to face “vasty” space, or could some calamity be at the root? As the Operative closes in on Mal and the crew of Serenity, something triggers River’s latent combat abilities, marking them on security cameras. A deeper memory also surfaces, one that leads them all to a horrific—and in some regards final—battle after uncovering the terrible secret that River bears.

Serenity, as a movie, succeeds on virtually every level. Due to the scale, it’s far grander than anything the TV screen could offer. You can hear and feel the ship shake and groan through atmosphere. The light is sharper, and the depths of colors more vibrant, the sounds and silences more menacing. The actors seem unaffected by the change to the bigger medium, and put in strong performances. Newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the Operative with no name, lends great depth to the story, contrasting his utter faith in his job to Mal’s complete lack of faith.

Whedon blends genres with ease, mixing in tropes from science fiction, westerns, horror, siege movies, and others. Showing the true face of the Reavers might not have been possible on TV, yet while the Reavers receive more visual attention in the movie, most are glimpses and brief cuts, not long enough to gross out viewers. The element of fear is conveyed mostly off-screen and in reactions from the characters. Some critics might consider the Western a dead genre, but certain visuals and behaviors from that kind of movie work quite well in the context of Serenity.

This movie is important in many ways. First, it’s brilliantly filmed science fiction with few gimmicks, born through superb writing that contains both humor and heart wrenching tragedy. Whedon manages to involve the audience, which laughed at times, and applauded at the end. The effects do not disappoint, but unlike many other sf movies, they overwhelm neither the dialog not the plot. At heart lies a strong plot, that of uncovering government secrets, and what lies at the heart of this particular secret: the desire for control, for “a better world,” as the Operative states, and the result of such attempted control. At what cost one asks? Good intentions often result in horrific consequences, and here we see the root of all government, the idea that some people think they know what’s best for others, and will do anything in their power to enforce that behavior.

Adam Baldwin, who plays Jayne in the series and movie, described in interviews the feeling of being able to go back and tell the story on the big screen as “redemption time.” It’s not often a cancelled TV show that lasted half a season manages to live again with a $40 million budget and almost total control for the director. Much like the original Star Trek, the fans of Firefly pushed this movie into creation. In creating this show, Whedon has tapped into something beyond himself, even writing a libertarian character and world view positively, which contrasts with his own more liberal views.

In an interview, Joss Whedon relates how the studios initially turned down Ejiofor as the Operative, as the wanted a “bigger name.” Universal eventually relented and went with the best actor for that role, showing more faith in the director than Fox. With nary a big name in the entire production, the movie’s focus instead becomes one of characterization and plot.

Whedon is a noted master of dialog, often shading several meanings in a phrase or statement. When Zoë responds to a question about the ship after a particularly hard battle with the words, “She’s torn up but she’ll fly true,” we know that’s as much about Zoë as Serenity. The Operative at one point tries to shame Mal by talking about many innocents dying in a space battle through some action by Mal, he tells the Operative, “You don’t know how true that is.” Mal refers to something else, drawing upon a recent truth he’s just discovered. There are many other gems like this. Good writing tends to die at the hands of people who wants snappy one-liners or simple clichés, but in this movie the writing shines.

Serenity stands as one of the most entertaining, thoughtful, and best written movies in many years. I hope one day we’ll see more of Serenity’s crew, but if this is the end of Whedon’s special ‘Verse, well, no other movie made a better showing of what it had. Serenity gives no quarter, and pulls no punches.

This review originally appeared in early draft form on Anders Monsen’s personal blog, firebringer.blogspot.com

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