The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Serenity: Reaver Madness*

Joss Whedon must be a student of the spaghetti western (and specifically The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). Even in his various "vampire shows" the snappy one-liner, preferably delivered in the midst of deadly combat, was a staple. Those moments of quick wit kept Buffy and Angel light and breezy where they would have been dark and depressing. Whedon shines in these moments, and they are by far the most enjoyable parts of Serenity, his first feature length movie based on his failed (but beloved by a strong cult following) "Firefly" series.

Whedon repeatedly turns conventional sci-fi on its head. In one scene, the ship's Captain is going on a dangerous mission alone and gives his crew the following message just before he leaves:

Captain: If I'm not back in an hour, take the ship...and rescue me.

Crew member: What? But the ship...

Captain: Yeah. Come and get me. I don't want to be left behind.

I have never seen an episode of Firefly before, so I went into the theatre with no knowledge about any of the characters or overarching plot of the story, but aside from missing a few inside jokes I don't think it matters that much with regard to understanding the story (as for appreciating the story, that's another matter entirely).

Serenity is a small, perpetually damaged ship commanded by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, who played the woman-hating priest Caleb on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). At some point in the past the ship rescued a doctor named Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau in a genuinely annoying performance). River is sort of a Goth version of Milla Jovovich's character in The 5th Element. She's been brainwashed by the evil communistic "Alliance" and occasionally goes crazy and beats everyone to a bloody pulp. She is a psychic, and she knows something important, although she doesn't know what it is.

Rounding out the Serenity crew is the first officer Zoe (Gina Torres), Malcolm's old flame Inara (Morena Baccarin), alpha-mail soldier/weapons guy Jayne (Adam Baldwin, often a scene-stealer), and engineer/mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) who is perpetually horny and likely exists to provide fantasy material for nerds everywhere. Rounding out the cast is Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot, who has some of the best lines in the movie, and is clearly the film's best actor.

The Serenity world consists of "civilized" areas under the control of the aforementioned Alliance, and outpost planets that used to be independent, but lost a war at some point and are now occupied territories. The Serenity crew members are (at least partially) veterans of this war, on the losing end. The outpost planets have an old west feel, and natives speak with (sometimes unfortunate) old west accents, and tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

Complicating matters for everyone are the Reavers; cannibalistic barbarians who can somehow fly spaceships. No one knows where they came from...

The Alliance wants River back and to get her they dispatch a very civilized assassin with no name (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who savagely murders anyone who gets in his way. Most of the movie consists of Serenity dodging Alliance forces while occasionally pulling a job (they are smugglers/robbers by trade) for someone. Whedon keeps the action moving along, which is good because a few of the "emotional scenes" are eye-rollers, although they are still not as bad as similar scenes in Star Wars.

Serenity is pretty entertaining. Other than a few overly hammy soliloquies the plot managed to hold my attention, and I laughed a lot. More than I thought I would. I also felt like I was watching a TV show. I guess that's not entirely a bad thing, especially since I saw the movie for free, but it was a little strange to be in a theatre while having the genuine impression that I was at home watching TV.

The main reason for this is that Whedon's transitions from scene to scene feel as if there should be a commercial break. Whenever two people are having a conversation and they finish it up, one will walk off screen while the other says a few last words that only the audience and that character can hear. At one point Simon asks River if he thinks it is a good idea to leave Serenity and she responds "yes, it's dangerous." He agrees and walks out of the scene at which point she adds "for them" to no one in particular.

However, these are minor complaints if they are complaints at all. Firefly was, after all, a TV show, and Serenity uses all of the same actors and same writers. Star Trek has been making mad cash off of this formula for eons and Serenity is certainly more entertaining than any of those movies.

I should also mention that Nathan Fillion is very good in the lead and really carries the movie.

While Serenity isn't a great movie, it's a good popcorn flick probably worth a rental, but I'm glad I didn't have to fork over ten bucks to see it.

Serenity is also a very libertarian movie. Dan Drezner has more on that, as well as a solid review from the perspective of a Firefly fan.

*Title for post chosen due to possible blogospheric overuse of the title "Serenity Now!"


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