Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle


Grade : A+ Year : 2005 Director : Joss Whedon Running Time : 1hr 59min Genre : ,
Movie review score

Author’s Note: This review was begun after watching an incomplete print of the film (seen June 23 at one of 35 screenings nationwide in a third set of special advanced screenings held by Universal Pictures), meaning the content wasn’t locked, the effects weren’t polished, and the music was a temp track. None of these things effected the grade given above. It was continued after watching the final version of “Serenity” on September 30.

One of the unique pleasures that came out of watching Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” in the form I did June 23- my first time watching an in-progress cut of a film- was that I could focus on specific things. Instead of having to focus attention on the visual effects (which still looked very nearly completed and impressive; more so after seeing the final cut, Loni Peristere and the boys at Zoic have done themselves proud in their big-screen debut) and the music (the well-selected temp track made it even more intriguing as to what David Newman- a good composer, but not as revered as brother Thomas and cousin Randy- would do in the final score; what he did was craft a creatively and musically exciting score- one of the year’s best- that did justice to not only Joss’ film but also prove a worthy follow-up to Greg Edmonson’s diverse work for “Firefly”), I could focus on the film from the two most important areas- story and storytelling, and performances. Just focused in on those two things, “Serenity” is a masterpiece. No, this is not a misprint. Hell, even in its’ incomplete version, it has surplanted “Star Wars: Episode III” as my favorite film of 2005 (the final cut only strengthened that position). Folks, that’s saying something.

What is “Serenity?” That question will be answered in depth here and elsewhere. The quick answer is that it is the movie “sequel” to “Firefly,” Whedon’s hugely entertaining sci-fi/western TV show that was sacked after 11 of its’ 14 episodes aired, but has found a second life on DVD and through the loyalty of fans when the show was on the air, who have introduced others into the show, and are responsible- through their loyalty- for the existance of “Serenity” the movie. In other words, as Whedon (who also created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”) stated in a hilarious pre-recorded introduction to the movie that played at the advanced screenings, “So if the movie sucks, it’s your fault.” Oh Joss, you’re so funny you mad brilliant genius.

Suppose you guys need a summary of this, don’t ya? So be it. “Firefly” and “Serenity” are the story of Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who fought on the side of the Independence (aka Browncoats) in a brutal Civil War with the power-hungry Alliance, which was formed out of the two remaining superpowers from “Earth-That-Was,” the United States and China. The Independence’s loss in the war- which left Reynolds with only his friend Zoe (Gina Torres) and he alive from their squadron at the Battle of Serenity Valley (which is where the war turned for the Alliance)- has left the Alliance in absolute control of the galaxy, which has long since expanded to several terraformed planets and moons that have been turned into worlds as close to Earth as possible. Hardened and cynical after the war, Mal and Zoe buy a Firefly-class spaceship- which Mal ironically calls Serenity- and gather a crew- including goofy pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); ace mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); brutish hired muscle Jayne (Adam Baldwin); and a prostitute- or Companion- to bring legitimacy to the ship named Inara (Morena Baccarin)- that survives under the radar by taking any job- legal or otherwise- that’ll pay the bills and keep the ship flying. But a bit of a complication arises when Mal takes on tourists for some extra money on one of their stops, picking up Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher back in the world, wanting to get the walk of the land; a bumbling quiet guy (Carlos Jalcott) who turns out to be Alliance; and Simon Tam (Sean Mahar), a doctor who plays it close to the chest until it’s revealed he’s on the run from the Alliance with his sister River (Summer Glau), who was a brilliant hamster in a mind-altering experiment by a secret government organization

Now, trying to explain all of this so that people who haven’t seen “Firefly” wouldn’t feel left out could be deadly, and was my biggest storytelling concern going in. But Whedon- one of the best writers in Hollywood- is nothing if not fearless, and he tackles this issue with some of his most innovative storytelling ever- and that’s saying something when you consider his best TV episodes on his three shows (“Buffy’s” Holy Whedon trilogy of “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling,” “Angel’s” “Spin the Bottle,” and “Firefly’s” “Objects in Space”). It’s one of the best expositional prologues in the history of cinema (NOT an exaggeration folks), along the lines of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and yet it feels completely natural in the narrative of the story. The prologue it resembles closest is “Kane,” when Welles used a newsreel about Charles Foster Kane to give us critical information that will reveal its’ importance later while at the same time subverting our expectations about how such information could be revealed by ending it with the reveal of the reporters watching the newsreel in a darkened screening house. Whedon’s genius in this section is that same subversion, which is even more subtle than Welles’ in the way he not only introduces the characters in this sequence (including the film’s heavy, an Alliance-sponsored assassin known only as The Operative (Chitwetel Ejiofar in a star-making turn that’s as focused and charismatic as his performances in “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Melinda and Melinda”- respectively- but unlike either)) but advances the plot, and lays out the basic story at hand. It sets the tone for the entire film in its’ inventiveness and tight pacing. Folks, meet the real Joss Whedon on the big screen for the first time, ’cause if you’ve seen his previous ventures on the big screen (apart from being Oscar-nominated for co-writing “Toy Story” and doing uncredited rewrites on “Speed,” “Waterworld,” and “X-Men” (a particularly bitter experience), his only credits include the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie and “Alien Resurrection”), and have resisted his work on television (despite my over-the-top “worshipping at the alter” of it), you haven’t yet.

Whedon needs to be at the top of his game in this movie- his first as a director- as he’s given himself quite a task- make a film to please fans, yet wrangle in newcomers to his unique universe, as well as tell a story that stands away from the conventions of traditional space operas yet can stand alongside the best offerings of those two most beloved of sci-fi franchises, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” Do I need to tell you that he succeeds? Granted, if the movie is problematic in any area, it’s the fact that Whedon has created a universe so vast in characters and story some details are skimped and given little “shout-outs” when one would like to see them better developed (the marriage of Wash and Zoe is acknowledged but little featured, Shepherd Book’s connection to the crew could be unclear, the underused Inara’s true profession might still be a mystery to non-fans as the credits roll (her and Mal’s romantic longing for the other- one of the best subplots on “Firefly”- will not be), and though it’s given its’ due, the dysfunctional courtship between Simon and Kaylee is not as developed for nonfans as its’ payoff wants us to believe). But can that (that being too much story to tell) really be held against a movie- especially one based on a TV show, a format that allows breathing room that film doesn’t- at a time when many blockbusters veer towards simplicity in both story and character and just go through the motions of convention?

The story of “Serenity” is basically a continuation of “Firefly’s” underlying arc (which surfaced in not many of the show’s episodes, but was always on the back of your mind watching each episode), which is the Alliance’s hunt for River and Simon. In the film’s prologue we learn not only of River’s inquisitive nature, but also witness the rescue Simon staged in getting his sister out of the secret government lab where her brain was cut into and enhanced to turn her into a psychic. Problem is, the experiment was witnessed by several top ranking officials in the Alliance, a visit in which River has read a secret the brass have gone to lengths to hide. This does not sit well with the Alliance, resulting in the dispatching of The Operative- a villain of single-minded determination and no view of himself as doing right, just what is necessary (he’s the best the genre’s given us since the days of Darth Vader and Khan)- to hunt down the Tams and the crew of Serenity. What did River see that is so dangerous to the Alliance? I’ll never tell. As I mentioned in my recent “Firefly” review- the link is at the bottom of this review- it was always better to let Joss catch you off guard than read spoilers regarding “Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” and that element of surprise serves “Serenity” as well as it did Whedon’s TV offerings. What starts as a high-energy (and high intellect) chase thriller turns into a swipe at government corruption aimed towards hiding the truth from the people it wants to govern. Political satire has rarely been this subtle, and never this entertaining.

Have I mentioned that “Serenity” is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year? No. Then let’s talk about that then, shall we? Yes, it is sad that out of 90-plus films I’ve seen this year- roughly 20 of which considering themselves “comedies”- a sci-fi adventure drama- where the drama and feeling is palpable and earned- has more genuine laughs than any of them. But if you’ve seen any of Whedon’s shows, you know he’s a master of the funny. How does he do it? By playing straight with who the characters are, and also by hard-wiring dry wit and irony into their personalities like a mad scientist with a pen. The two headliners are the sarcastic Wash- whose response when asked to define interesting by Mal is, “Oh God Oh God we’re all gonna die?”- and Jayne, who is more of the badass fighter you expect from him in the movie, but not completely devoid of the oafish, thoughtless one-liners that made him surprisingly appealing on “Firefly.” Then there’s Mal, whose humor is subtle and of-the-moment reactions make for priceless moments of classic movie star heroism a la Harrison Ford’s greatest characters (Han Solo and Indiana Jones). It isn’t quite Mal unleashed- the show has his best moments- but Mal comes to full-blooded life as not only an action hero but as a dry wit that is close to Whedon’s- and Fillion’s- heart. The surprise here is little Kaylee, the cutest mechanic the ‘verse has ever seen. She doesn’t get to often, but her most surprising moment in the movie involves her continuing sexual frustration with not getting together with Simon (that they never kissed on “Firefly” was one of the biggest frustrations with fans themselves), and makes for the film’s most shockingly hilarious line. If you haven’t seen it yet, you deserve the right to hear it from Kaylee herself. This is the kind of honest and disarming humor we haven’t seen in the sci-fi genre since the original “Star Wars” trilogy and the “Planet of the Apes” series. Even if the film falls flat at the box-office and the universe of “Firefly” ends here (sadly, the film hasn’t caught on with audiences like us Browncoats- deep down- had hoped, though the A grade from Cinemascope is encouraging), this movie will stand- I believe- as one of the most entertaining and rewarding of genre films in recent memory.

Though the film sometimes turns towards a sort of absurd comedy (no sci-fi film has had quirkier dialogue since “Men in Black”), the drama pulsates with energy and emotion. It helps that even in the film’s scant 119 minute running time (no movie this year has been better edited; “Firefly” editor Lisa Lassek deserves more than a look from the Academy), the most important storyline in “Serenity”- that of Simon and River’s eluding of the Alliance and Mal’s moral dilemma of his responsibility to his crew, and the risks his choices bring to them- is given the weight and warmth it was through the show’s 14 episodes. The bond between the Tams, the deep-down compassion of Mal towards River, Jayne’s antagonism towards Simon- all were essential elements of the storyline in the series, all are given their proper respect by Whedon the filmmaker and the cast that is thriving in bringing these roles to life. One of my favorite moments in the film- evocatively shot with a grittiness and singular flavor by Eastwood’s veteran cinematographer Jack N. Green (“Serenity’s” behind-the-scenes MVP)- comes during the film’s action-laden climax, when the bond between Simon and River- and the reason fans loved it- is brought full-circle in one single exchange that not only sets up one of the most satisfying moments in the history of “Firefly”/”Serenity,” but brings the epic action back to the human level. Set pieces abound in “Serenity” (an early breakneck chase with Reavers- men turned into mindless cannibals- and the hand-to-hand battles involving River (at a Cantina-esque bar) and Mal and the Operative are as smartly crafted as we’ve seen in recent years), but like the best escapist fare, they propel the plot- not stand outside of it- and reveal the nuances that define character. I won’t say whether anyone dies or not. I will say that it’s a Joss Whedon story. Those familiar with his work will know what that means, and know that he earns his risks as he always did, with intelligence and brutal honesty for knowing the score in the situations he puts his characters into. No filmmaker has earned their stripes without being able to achieve compassion through merciless storytelling. Few filmmakers understand that better than Whedon.

The dirty little secret of “Serenity”- and the show that spawned it- was that despite their sometimes ambiguous motives/professions, you love this crew. Whedon and his “Firefly” writers relished at every chance they could to just sit this crew down, explore surprising dynamics and emotional depths (who knew Book and Jayne would ever spot for one another while doing bench presses?), discover tensions where a lesser writer would see none (Jayne and Mal’s conflicting points-of-view- and both character’s reasonable reasons for them- on Simon and River gives “Serenity” heft, just as Wash and Zoe’s marriage on the show was not one of “shiny”- to use a popular “Firefly”-verse saying- marital bliss). Whedon cast “Firefly” to perfection, and one look at “Serenity” and you see why he would never do a feature without a one of them. Staite is as charming as Kaylee as she ever was; she proves Whedon’s assertion on the pilot commentary of “Firefly” that if Kaylee believes it, we believe it, with a sort of rough grace. Baldwin- a character actor in blockbusters past (he was in “The Patriot,” “Independence Day,” and “Predator 2”) before Whedon made him the “Hero of Canton” (see “Jaynestown”)- isn’t shy at looking beyond Jayne’s macho demeanor to display the character’s fear and- dare I say it- compassion. Torres (the resident woman-of-action, though not without a soft spot) and Tudyk (the resident insecure comic relief player in the story) make these polar opposites click, and make it easy to see their affection for one another in their brief time together onscreen. Baccarin (as the elegant and wise hooker with a heart of gold) and Glass (as a man of God who offers more worldly insight than preachy Bible-thumping) bring a unique quality to their all-too-brief scenes that quickly define who their character’s are. Maher has developed Simon over 17 hours of TV and film into a character who’s certain of his choices when it comes to River, not confident enough when it comes to his non-relationship with Kaylee, but completely capable of bumping heads believably with Mal and Jayne; he’s not your average “stick up the butt” priss like his character started out with. As River (whose musical theme by Newman in the film is as rich and moving as any I’ve heard), Glau has created an unforgettable character- as strong of will as her mind is fragile, as kooky in her personality as she is graceful in her every movement (Whedon’s obvious foot fetish with the actress is on display big time), River is a character as easily characterized as she is difficult to predict. That Glau portrays her so completely in body, soul, and mannerism is a credit to both actress and writer-director, as is the fact that for such an obvious archetype, few characters are more surprising in the way they capture our hearts.

In the end, though, Mal is “Serenity’s” beating heart, both the ship and the movie. As much as this character looks and acts like Harrison Ford’s iconic space smuggler in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Malcolm Reynolds is no Han Solo. Mal is a battle-hardened soldier whose optimism about humanity was killed at the Battle of Serenity Valley. Like Solo, the bottom-line is more important than the glory of victory over a corrupt and monolithic government, though he’s a man of action capable of great heroism when the opportunity presents itself. Both are living examples of actions speaking louder than words, but whereas Han hid his true nature through sometimes-brittle sarcasm, Mal’s words reveal his. War may have destroyed his optimism, but Serenity- the ship- gave him back his humanity. Sometimes that single-minded, mission-over-man mentality comes through, but in the end, he’s a romantic who would choose his crew’s lives over his own any day of the week. That this quality comes through is a credit to Fillion, who deserves stardom after his charismatic and distinctly quirky performance here. Like his writer-director, Fillion- and his character- is a misfit who wants nothing more than to live his life his way (you can hear Whedon’s voice as distinctly when Mal says, “I aim to misbehave” as you can Fillion’s); if that means fighting some wars along the way, he’ll do it. He may never run his own piece of the larger world around him, but he’ll carve out a piece of his own to share with his nearest and dearest. For Mal, that’s his crew. For Whedon, that’s his cast, his crew, and his fans. It’s a small personal touch that shines bright for those who are willing to look for it. If you doubt Whedon’s passion for his art, here’s a quote from “Serenity”- and Mal himself- about what makes a ship fly.

Mal: “Love. You can know all the math in the ‘Verse, but take a boat in the air you don’t love, she ain’t keepin’ up just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her up when she ought to fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens, makes her home.”

For Whedon, his cast, his crew, and his fans (both the ones he had before the lights go down in the theatre, and the ones he gained by the time the credits rolled), that love comes through every frame of “Serenity.” The love of his fans for “Firefly” kept it up when it should’ve fallen down. The battles he fought for the show- as sure a sign of love for an artist as you can find in Hollywood- told fans their show was hurtin’ before it left the airwaves, and inspired them to act in ways that come as close to heroism as pop culture can inspire (Whedon is right that without the fans, “Serenity” wouldn’t exist). And the love for both for this particular boat (on both the big-screen and small-screen), and everyone aboard it, is what made it home for all of us who rode on it.

Check out my review of “Firefly” here.

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