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Friday, June 24, 2005

Serenity (***1/2)

June 24, 2005

You Can't Stop The Signal

When Serenity started, I tried to put aside all of my previous knowledge about Firefly and mentally approach the material as if I were seeing it for the first time. If this thing can’t stand on its on as a movie, it’s dead on arrival. I liked the opening scenes – the voice over narration establishing the futuristic concept, and I really liked the Alice in Wonderland reality within reality of opening in a flashback, which was a dream of River’s, which was then revealed as a hologram recording of how Simon freed River from the Alliance. That was a question I never really thought about before – how did Simon free her? – but I was pleasantly surprised we got the answer.

I really liked the Assassin (there were no credits at this advanced free screening so I don’t know his character name, if any.) I expected that the concept of Blue Sun and the hands of blue would be swept aside and it was the right move since there’s already more than enough to explain to a general audience. But in this opening we ran into my first complaint, which is I can’t understand why that girl who played young River was cast. She looks nothing like Summer Glau and her performance and that entire scene were overly contrived. Bad casting that took me right out of the movie moments after it started.

The first act felt like another episode but that’s not a negative comment. It was clear from the very beginning that this was Joss Whedon writing and directing, that the characters were indeed back, that this was Firefly. It seemed like there was never a 3 year gap from when we saw them last. It’s rare to see such a pure recreation of something thought to be lost for good, but unlike say, the ECW One Night Stand pay per view, which was purely a recreation, this was much more of an organic continuation.

The character reveals, the arcs established, the interpersonal conflicts were generally clear and well done, as were the simultaneous camera reveals of the layout and rooms of Serenity herself, which is also a character and as important as the human characters. There was a lot of dialogue here and all throughout the picture, which is Whedon’s greatest strength and one of the biggest drawbacks in finding a mass audience. There are few movies in the action or sci-fi genre where characters talk as much as they do here. For those not familiar or fond of Whedon’s style, it will be a lot to process. But fuck them for now; for me, it was great to see everyone again. The desire to see these characters we love as we remember them was instantly met and that was the first gratification of the movie. The early set up of Simon’s Dramatic Need, to keep River out of harm’s way, was prominent and worked very well. His desire to keep his sister safe is the strongest idea in this part and the one easiest to relate to.

Seeing the dreaded, cannibalistic Reavers at long last didn’t disappoint, nor did the first major action sequence involving Mal, Zoe, Jayne and River escaping from the Reavers. Jayne’s leg being speared also worked as the litmus test for the level of violence Joss was going for, which would be considerable and quite shocking in volume and veracity as the movie continued. Once we got to the planet where River and Simon were supposed to leave the ship, we hit my second major complaint: Kung Fu River.

See, I never equated River Tam with Buffy Summers. River is River, she has next to nothing in common with Buffy, and she shouldn’t be Buffy. River is a tortured genius psychic and while she has displayed amazing acrobatic prowess, turning her into a kung fu fighting machine was not something I necessarily wanted to see out of her character. To me, Kung Fu River was more disappointing than exciting because while I understand the need from a conceptual and an action viewpoint for her to fight, River doing acrobatic martial arts is too derivative. A young girl with superpowered kung fu has been done, by Whedon on TV, and by many others in movies. It’s not unique and it’s not new.

I also don’t like the circumstances for River’s first fight scene. River wanders into the bar, is drawn by the subliminal message cartoon the Alliance planted and is triggered to reveal herself and her fighting prowess is activated. I got that. What I didn’t understand is why the people River was fighting were suddenly doing so. What was the motivation of all those people to attack River one-by-one black ninja style? When she walked into the bar, they were all sitting, drinking, and minding their own business. Suddenly, they were all on their feet attacking her.

The fact that River is psychic and a mind reader was what made her a threat to the Alliance. Her telepathy was used early when she, Mal, Jayne and Zoe broke into the cash vault before the Reavers arrived, but it was never used effectively again. When River turned into Bruce Lee, that became the focus of why she was dangerous. While there is a level of coolness to River being a fighting machine, it doesn’t make sense. She’s a tiny, skinny girl. How strong could she be? How does her psychic power translate into her being able to hit men twice her size hard enough to knock them out? Sarah Michelle Gellar is also tiny but Buffy has magical super strength so there is an outlet to explain how she can fight. It doesn’t make as much sense for River, although Summer Glau, who was a prima ballerina in real life, moves more fluidly and gracefully than Sarah Gellar ever could. River’s fight scenes have an appropriate ballet quality, but vicious and intense.

When Inara sent Mal a wave and Mal decided to take Serenity and come get her, I immediately cried a mental foul since Inara would never betray Mal and the others, even if an eloquent black space assassin was leaning on her. I was enormously pleased when Mal and the entire crew clearly saw it was a trap – that’s smart writing and it makes the audience and the characters share in being equally smart. I did note that only a fleeting reference was made to Inara being a Companion, and what that is, and whatnot was assiduously avoided. I can understand that – the concept of legal and respectable prostitution, even in deep space in the future, is a hard sell to the general public. Establishing Inara as a prostitute would instantly turn a mass audience against her. As such, she was just a woman who used to be on the ship and Mal and Inara clearly love each other, but there’s too much going on already so it’s right the Companion stuff had to go. Still, it reduces Inara to just being a beautiful woman who lacks a function and reason for being beyond a love interest for Mal that’s never consummated.

I really liked the visit with Shepherd Book on Haven where the last word was spoken on whether we’ll ever find out what Book’s mysterious secret past is: No. We’ll never find out. And that’s okay with me, I understand why and it’ll be more fun to imagine the answer from here on in. (Just like how I never, ever want to know what became of Angel in that alley - unless there is an Angel movie.) I didn’t like how Mal told Book he always sought counsel from him; that’s not quite the way it went. Mal never wanted to hear Book’s advice, so that rang a bit false.

The big mystery solved, what River knew that the Alliance wanted silenced, and the secret origin of the Reavers was just terrific. Again, like how Simon saved River, a question I never even knew I wanted answered was, and that was awesome. I thought it was a really good pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; it was different, and it was a big deal given what was established throughout the movie.

The villainous Assassin hunting River was a tremendous character. I also liked the clear philosophical differences established between Mal and the Assassin. All that stuff that they talked about in between and during their slugfests: faith, loyalty, love, what kind of world is ideal and what the costs and worth of creating such a world would be. Genuine ideas that drive the characters’ motivations, complicates them, challenges them, forces them to question themselves and reaffirm who they are. We just don’t see such things in today’s genre movies. To its credit, Serenity had a lot more on its mind.

The third act was shockingly violent. Again, I draw parallels to the ECW pay per view, the unlikeliest thing Serenity could be related to but they have more in common than it seems. Both Serenity and ECW are led by charismatic, balding geniuses within their entertainment genres (Whedon and Paul Heyman) who are indebted to multi-million-dollar mega conglomerates. Both had their pet franchise projects, which in their own ways turned their genres on their sides, ended before their time. Both have legions of loyal, cult followers who bemoan the state of their genres and cry out for a return of the brand of their genre they love. Both are comprised of performers who feel passionately about their characters, product, and the fans, and yearned to return. Both Serenity and ECW received phoenix-like resurrections this year to reward all those loyal, emotional, grateful fans, with the possibility of a continuation based on the performance of the resurrected franchise.

Given the stakes established and the dangers they faced, the third act was more violent than I could have imagined. The last sci-fi movie I can remember that was as bloody and unrelentingly, unapologetically violent was Robocop. There hasn’t been any sci-fi at this level of violence in many years, and because the characters are so talkative and funny, the violence blindsides you because you never expect it, even though the rules of the universe are plainly established. The desperation and the ferocity of the fighting for survival by every character was palpable. It’s funny that Joss may never be known as an action director, because he’s a very good one and he plays for keeps with his characters. They are never safe, there is no feeling that everything will turn out all right in the end, that only the bad people will be punished and perish. He pushed this as far as I think he can push and I admire his resolve. Mal getting skewered in the gut, Simon getting shot and Zoe getting her back sliced open were effective red herrings.

The deus ex machina of River killing the Reavers was held off a bit too long when it was apparent from her first kung fu fight scene that killing those monster men was what she was made for. It brings her fighting ability into justification – she’s a weapon, so of course, what else but the Reavers could River have been made a weapon to fight against? It worked overall and River looked cool fighting and posed in victory over the Reavers’ corpses, but again, it’s derivative and obvious. A more interesting resolution would be her psychic ability coming into play somehow – I don’t know how but it's too Buffyesque that a young girl kung fu fighting can solve all your monster problems. Joss has mined that to death already.

Wash and Book dying. Book’s death was not unexpected and it was sad but he went out in a brave, heroic way. No one could have expected he wouldn’t be the only one to go. Book’s death was the right move; on an ongoing series he has a place as a moral center, but in the movie he was an extraneous character. Book’s death was more than enough sadness but it was only a decoy. The death of Wash was one of the ballsiest moves I’ve ever seen from something in this genre. The fact that it comes out of nowhere, the speed, impact and the permanence of it, the fact that there is no resuscitation, no magical coming back to life, not even any parting words as he died was unbelievable. I'm not sure if I like that it was done but Joss killing Wash off was a hell of a move. Overall, I think it was a good move because of all of the Serenity crewmembers, he was always the one least cut out for a life of crime (one can argue Simon is as well, but Simon is still learning and growing while Wash was set and stagnant). Wash was the funny comic relief, everyone loved him and he served a specific purpose as the pilot. With his sudden death the perception that because Wash was the pilot and he usually doesn't leave Serenity that he’s “safe” was instantly shattered.

Another problem created by Wash's death is Zoe's behavior. Zoe’s lack of any reaction to her husband dying was awkward at best. I understand she is a soldier, they had a job to do and odds are they were all moments away from joining Wash in death when the Reavers arrive, but she took Wash’s death far better than anyone in the audience did. Some sort of reaction, of release, would have been more appropriate, at least from the standpoint of emotional completeness. Charging headlong at the Reavers and nearly getting her back sliced in half isn't enough. However, I did note that the movie did not clearly define that they were in fact husband and wife – obviously as fans of the show we know but the general audience may not have been significantly clued in, and thus Joss has some wriggle room to explain Zoe’s lack of emotion to her husband dying.

One of the major storylines, carried over from Firefly and re-established by Kaylee in act one when she admonished Mal for never making Simon and River feel like a part of the family, came full circle. In Serenity, Simon and River finally and truly became part of Mal's crew, the family, but room had to be made for them and Wash had to be the one to go. Simon as the doctor had a function on the ship, but River needed one. Taking Wash’s role as the person who flies Serenity was the logical choice. It was established in “Objects In Space” and fleetingly touched upon in scenes where River would be intimately pressed against parts of the ship that she has a tactile relationship with Serenity. With Wash gone and Serenity finally truly becoming her home, it’s fitting that River becomes the one to fly her.

My issues aside, I loved Serenity. It was a joy being with these characters again and going on one more ride with them. When the screening let out, I wanted to turn around, buy another ticket and immediately see it again, if only that were possible. It is instantly one of my favorite movies. Not “of the year”. I mean period. I have no idea how it will do theatrically upon its release. I just can’t conjecture. There is more than enough action, humor and fun that a general audience might enjoy the movie. It has many unique yet familiar qualities and it has the benefit of being quite unlike anything else out there. On the other hand, there are so many things that could turn off a general audience.

My feeling is if you have an affinity for science fiction action movies, there is enough here to engage you even if you’ve never heard of Firefly. But it’s also very easy to anticipate people being turned off or uninterested. It will be interesting to see how Universal markets it at the end of the summer. The ball is really in their court to get asses into the seats and sell this thing to the general audience. I can’t wait to see it again, especially when the effects are done, the final sound is mixed, and the picture is cut down a bit and tightened. I didn’t have any issues with the sound, edits and effects as they were – it was enough to convey what was needed, but I’ll be very excited to see Serenity’s final cut. Whether or not the box office exceeds $40 million domestically, which is a reasonable estimate, Serenity will do gangbuster DVD business. It will ultimately be determined more by the DVD sales than by its theatrical numbers whether Serenity will ever fly again.

I can’t hope for more, especially since we never should have had this movie to begin with, but as a final chapter, it’s a beautiful way to go out. And if by some second stroke of unbelievable fate there is another movie or something else that brings Joss and these actors back together, Serenity is still the last time we will ever see Firefly again as we knew it and loved it from the show. Firefly-That-Was will never be again. Anything more will be very different by design.