Movie Review: Serenity (Includes SPOILERS!)

A cinematic masterpiece about rogue adventurers in "the black" (outer space) is currently, alas, in the red. Though I find this unfathomable given the quality of the film, the dedication of the fan base and the outstanding reviews, Joss Whedon's Serenity premiered this weekend to distinctly lackluster box office. The film version of the TV series Firefly grossed only slightly over ten million dollars, and on a budget of over 40 million, that just isn't...shiny.

Frankly, I'm devastated.

Because when I came home from the theater on Saturday night, I was on a high, convinced that I had witnessed the birth of a new franchise, one on the scale of The Matrix. Perhaps that was just wishful, grandiose thinking, a result of the fact that my wife and I had just finished a marathon of the TV series and were thus totally immersed in the world of Mal Reynolds, Firefly class ships, The Alliance and Reavers.

But more likely, I felt so strongly for a very good reason: because Serenity is, hands-down, the best space adventure movie I've seen since at least 1996 (and Star Trek: First Contact). Simply stated, Serenity deftly blends the heart, pace and swashbuckling excitement of the best Star Wars films with the character thrills, pathos and social commentary of the best Star Trek films. This is an incredible accomplishment, combining the nature of those two great franchises in a manner nearly flawless, and so I had hoped that this would be THE NEXT BIG THING. After all, Star Trek and Star Wars are both in a bad spot now -- prequels finished; TV series cancelled. So I was doubly delighted that Serenity looked poised to bring space adventure back to cinemas in a mainstream way.

Many experts will have (and express...) opinions about why the film has not proved a draw to audiences beyond those who enjoyed the TV series (reportedly, 44% of the opening weekend take was from self-acknowledged "fans" of Firefly.) We'll hear all kinds of cockamie theories, but I suspect that none will have anything to do with the product itself, an artful film that at times borders on the downright poetic. Is the film fast-paced? You betcha. Well-written and funny? Check! Deeply thoughtful and relevant in these times of Big Brother Government and The Patriot Act? Absolutely. What's not to love here?

Whenever I view work by Joss Whedon, I'm impressed by the artist's capacity to surprise audiences, and guide the whole enterprise in shocking directions. This film is no exception. In Serenity - somewhere in the middle - a main character from the TV series dies. It's a sad, but noble death, and one that drives the action forward and helps to establish the real power and reach of the villain. It's a necessary death, not unlike Obi-Wan's in Star Wars, or even Spock's in The Wrath of Khan.

Good, you can hear the audience mutter after the sad scene is finished, we're sorry to lose this great character, but at least that's out of the way. We're safe.

But then Whedon does something truly innovative and rather nasty. He kills another of his main characters. Senselessly. Brutally. Unexpectedly. Right before the big battle. Fans will complain, and indeed my wife is still in a state of shock (and mourning...), because that doomed character was her favorite. But the fact of the matter is this: never in a sci-fi movie has there been a more brilliantly timed "murder" of a beloved character. When this character dies, the audience freezes, emotionally walloped. Joss Whedon's message is this: no one is safe.

All bets are off.

Consequently, the finale of the film is about a hundred times more effective than it would have been without the diversion (the first death) and the surprise (the second death). When the Serenity crew subsequently stands and fights in the climax - hopelessly outnumbered - and the remainder of the beloved crew members begin dropping like flies, the movie rocks. People in the theater gasped. When Zoe took a hit to the back, my wife literally shrieked. This is the most intense, heart-wrenching climax of any sci-fi movie franchise since Aliens (when we lost great characters like Hudson and Vasquez...), and certainly doubly so for a TV-turned-movie franchise. By contrast, I think of Data's death in Star Trek: Nemesis. Yes, it was sad (and hey, I cried!) but the producers didn't want you to feel so bad when you left the theater, so they had a replacement named B-4 all lined up. In other words, you knew everything would be okay. Not so in Serenity, and Whedon is some kind of twisted (and frickin' sadistic!) genius for the timing and effect of this second death.

Alfred Hitchcock used to state that he enjoyed playing audiences "like a piano," and Joss Whedon has mastered that talent too. We all mourn the deaths of these beloved characters, but they serve the movie incredibly well. The deaths of these characters (particularly the second death...) rocket the finale into white-knuckle territory. Because of the deaths, the film stops being a "TV-show-turned movie" and it ascends to another level. It becomes a riveting cinematic experience.

Joss Whedon is also a good, solid visualist. People always complain about TV directors and their transition to movies, but Whedon is not hindered at all by his small-screen beginnings. On the contrary, he understands how to use the frame and how to compose beautiful and meaningful shots. The opening sequence, which moves from outer space, into Serenity's bridge, down the hall, down the stairs, into the cargo-bay and then up onto a ledge is practically Brian De Palma-worthy. It's an unbroken shot with tons of dialogue, and Whedon (and the cast) bring it off brilliantly. It's an important early shot too, because it flawlessly establishes the reality of the ship Serenity. You feel as though you are aboard the craft, having walked the length of it. You couldn't achieve this with lots of cuts; it would feel stagey.

As I've stated here before, I interviewed Joss Whedon for my book about musicals last September. I was told he was busy making Serenity, and that I should expect no more than a half hour with him. I wrapped up my questions for Mr. Whedon in thirty minutes, because I wanted to be mindful of his time after he granted me the courtesy of the interview. But he stayed on the phone with me for another 90 minutes to discuss movie musicals, and his love of them. During this time, he was shooting Serenity's fight sequences, and we discussed, among other things, how fight sequences resemble dances. And for Whedon, he made it clear it was important to him to see the entire body of a fighter (or dancer...) in an action/musical scene. So it was with great delight that I watched Serenity and saw how Whedon directed the fight scenes with River, particularly the first one in a bar. Go see the film and see it for yourself, but it's important to note here how Whedon lets the camera stand back, so you can see the full-breadth of the choreography, so you can see River (Summer Glau) fully engaged in lethal motion. There are few cuts in the fight, and consequently the scene boasts an unusually strong rhythm. It was the right choice, because the notion of River as a "living weapon" is transmitted beautifully. We see for ourselves (without insert shots of kicks or punches...) what she is capable of achieving. Much like the opening shot, Whedon's selection here to limit cuts and show entire bodies (rather than frantic, jerky quick cuts like in Batman Begins), informs the film,

And the form of the film tells us much about the content.

Storywise, Joss Whedon is long-established, in my book anyway, as a maestro, and his tale has a terrific surprise in the last act, one that puts the entire universe of Firefly in a new light. I thought it was a great plot twist, and furthermore, one that makes absolute perfect sense. Characterwise, Joss Whedon is also to be commended because his script adequately serviced a large cast of more than 10 main players (if you include The Operative and Mr. Universe). Inara is my favorite character, and I would have liked to see more of the Mal/Inara romance, but the very fact that the crew must go to rescue her maintains the importance of her role in this 'verse. Otherwise, I'd say that Kaylee and Jayne served as great comic-relief, andthat Zoe was the most touching of all the dramatis personae, and that Mal - my God - is a space captain for the ages.

Beyond the spaceships and the fight scenes, Serenity is really a film about love. Simon loves his sister, River. Mal loves his crew. And Mal delivers a great speech at the close of the film about how love keeps his ship flying. It was in that beautifull directed-and-performed climactic moment that I realized Whedon had given the genre a great film, and more to the point, a classic character in Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He truly rivals - if not surpasses - other space captains, ones with names like Solo or Kirk. He's a pragmatic sort, but also one of essential decency. And he likes to fight battles he can't win. The only way Mal does win, actually, is through the loyalty he inspires in his crew. He'd be nothing without them, and I think he knows that. More than ever, Mal reminded me of Rick in Casablanca, a comparison I believe other writers have also suggested.

If you're looking at the genre films of 2005, I'd place Serenity light years ahead of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a disaster...), far past Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, and in the same ballpark as Romero's Land of the Dead. I saw reviews last Friday favorably compare the film to Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back and The Matrix in terms of quality. And there was also one other film it was mentioned in the same breath as: Blade Runner.

Lest we forget, Blade Runner was not a success in its original theatrical run either. In fact, it was a critical and box office bomb. Serenity received better reviews, and hopefully will find its legs at the box office. But beyond that, I believe it will age well. Audiences may discover - better late than never - that this is one of the genre greats.

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