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Serenity

dir: Joss Whedon
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There’s something immensely satisfying about being able to review this film. Not the fact that I got to watch it, I mean just the very fact that it got made.

Firefly was a series that deserved to live and breath for at least a few seasons. Many found the premise somewhat outlandish, and I admit watching those first few episodes on DVD I thought “Jeez, I can see why this got shitcanned”. But the show grew on me, the actors grew into their roles, and the writing stopped trying so damn hard and started to set up some interesting plot lines and character dynamics for future shows that were never to be.

A tv show set in space is nothing new, and a sci-fi film is hardly anything novel in itself. Firefly, and therefore Serenity, had as their novelty factor a premise set on a ship in the future which looks awfully like frontier times in the Wild West. People wear those hats and dusters, and shoot bullets from shiny guns, and speak a mishmash of old slang, new slang, Mandarin insults and that hyper-aware, pop culture speak that Whedon is either renowned or loathed for, dependent on your tastes.

I can’t really see people who hated the show or never watched it giving a good god damn about the film, or really getting it, or caring about this review.

I imagine them sitting there reading this desperately trying to think up new ways to express their contempt for me by pointing out what a fool I am for being a fan of Joss Whedon’s work. Yet they’re happy to watch those interminable CSI: Dubbo, Law N’ Order: Ticket Inspectors of Death and other equally creatively-bereft timewasters. Or even better yet, The Bill. Honest to god, the freaking Bill.

So, for my money, which was very little, it worked and it made me happy, for Joss and for all the actors and other people who worked on the show, that this looked so good on the big screen and told a rip roaring, bloody entertaining story. It is a vindication.

It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pretty good sci-fi action film. In a year of super-expensive sci-fi hi-fi CGI extravaganzas, this is the film that I’ve enjoyed the most, even when it was probably the cheapest out of all of them, and looks it. Suffice to say that for me this was a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the last 3 Star Wars films.

Though it’s not like it’s something deeply profound. The difference is that here I actually like the characters, the dialogue doesn’t make me either laugh inappropriately or spasm internally (and definitely made me laugh), and it had a decent story to tell.

Enough preamble, I am guilty again of more preamble than review.

Serenity is the name of Captain Malcolm Reynold’s (Nathan Fillion) ship. Onboard are a ragtag crew of wildly disparate people who fulfil the different kinds of roles that Whedon requires for his particular brand of humour. They don’t all get much to do, but what they do, they do well.

Of all of them, River (Summer Glau) is the least knowable and most quixotic. Whedon has exploited this in order to introduce elements to her character non-existent in the original series. Which is okay, since it mostly works.

She is the product of government experimentation gone wrong, or right, I guess, depending on your viewpoint. She is essentially a schizophrenic, but can read people’s minds and then kick their heads in.

The government, known as the Alliance, wants her dead. To whack her they send an operative who is so committed to the ideals of the Alliance that he has no name and only wants to be known as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and is happy to kill as many people as possible, and quite artfully, in order to get it done.

He believes in the “light on the hill”, the idea of utopia within reach, and is happy to be the one to perpetrate acts of evil in the name of the greater good. Hmm, that sounds awfully familiar, but I can’t quite put my amygdala on it.

His mission therefore brings him into conflict with the crew of the Serenity, who have the temerity to want to keep living. Some people, they’re all about the selfishness, they are.

The people on board don’t function as a Trekkian kind of Stepford crew: most of them are outlaws doing outlaw stuff, so there’s no notion of chains of command or hierarchy. There’s what Mal says, there’s lots of bitching, and then Mal threatens to kill people if they don’t do what he wants. And sometimes he does just for the fuck of it.

It sounds barbaric, but Mal is a much more believable and entertaining Captain than we’re usually privy to on the big screen. Usually they’re too goddamn noble for my liking. Mal is far more believable considering the universe these characters live in, though he does have both his lighter and darker moments.

River’s brother Simon (Sean Maher), who sacrificed everything to save her from the Alliance, keeps desperately trying to protect her from the big bad universe. He’s the token hoity-toity do-gooder as well. Watching him try to have fistfights with Mal is inherently funny.

Look, everyone from the tv show is there in one form or another, but as in the show they don’t always have much to do. That’s the problem when you have too many characters and not enough time to allow them to do their pet tricks for the audience.

Still, it’s Mal and River’s story anyway, so the rest should just be bloody grateful.

As an added spice to the mix, a rampaging hoard of crazy people, who look like the cross-pollination of the Marilyn Manson and Rammstein stage shows, called the Reavers, occasionally put in appearances just to scare the Marmite out of people.

Present from the series, they also serve a deeper function playing into the overall story which is bigger than the Operative plot, and add to it as well. To avoid spoiler territory I won’t go into the overarching storyline: suffice to say it is simultaneously Whedon’s way of tying up a multitude of plot points from the tv show in a mostly satisfying way, and also acts as a subtext allegory regarding a certain governmental mentality prevalent in the world at the moment.

It’s essentially the “peace at any price” idea that some governments since the days of the Roman Empire have believed can be used to justify pretty much anything to the populace. And there might be some governments around at the moment that think passive, pacified or dead citizens are preferable to noisy, questioning ones. I don’t know, I might have read something about it on the internet.

That’s the great thing about subtext, if you don’t notice it or don’t care, it doesn’t matter. And so too, here. It does give the resolution something more of a kick than you’d expect, and it did maintain a mystery until almost the very end.

The CGI stuff is adequately adequate, not too flashy, and works as best it needs to. It didn’t to me really look that much more expensive than the tv episodes. The fighting stuff is taken to another level, and looks the better for it. Whedon’s love of watching slender women beating the crap out of men is probably some deep-seated childhood thing, and maybe he does need some therapy, or some time in Mistress Illsa’s Dungeon, but hey, I’m not complaining.

The Operative is just a wonderfully well-realised character. Chiwetel is a top actor, having done superlative work in Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things a few year’s ago, and the recent Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda. Here he goes to town, being all charming and lethal at the same time. He is a consummate warrior, a thinker, a philosopher even, and far more implacable that any Californian cyborg Governor. I really commend him for taking on such a role. He really raises the film to another level, and I wish he’d been in it for longer.

Without Mal, however, none of this would work at all. He has to balance being likable, funny and ruthless often in the same sentence of dialogue. Nathan Fillion has the presence and charisma of an old Hollywood star, and is a fine captain. It’s fitting that everything rests on his manly shoulders, and it’s also fitting that he gets the last word.

Those words, spoken to another character, were all the more beautiful because they were so unexpected.

I think Whedon may have a future ahead of him as a writer of decent dialogue and as a director, I just hope the kid sticks at it. If nothing else, Serenity is an entertaining valentine for the fans of a show that died before its time. It looked great on the big screen, it chugged along at a hefty pace, and I was never bored.

8 times I had to resist the usage of the term “Serenity now, Serenity Now!” whilst writing this review.

--
“Hell, I'll kill a man in a fair fight, or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight, or if he bothers me, or if there's a woman, or if I'm gettin’ paid; mostly only when I'm gettin’ paid. But eating people alive, when does that get fun?” – the pithy wisdom of Jayne Cobb, Serenity.

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