Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Serenity (DVD)

I never managed to get into Buffy. (Oo-er!) Never saw a single episode of Angel. In fact, until last year, I didn’t really know who Joss Whedon was. I know, I’m a philistine of colossal proportions, but hey, I’ve been busy. Then, just by chance I came across an article (I think it was in Empire, my favourite movie magazine) talking about a fab sf tv series called Firefly which was famously cancelled after fourteen episodes, but was doing great business in DVD sales. The article urged all sci-fi fans to buy it. Now I don’t know why I listened to that particular piece of advice as I’ve been monumentally underwhelmed by sf tv shows of recent times (e.g. Farscape, Babylon 5, Andromeda, and all the Star Trek spin-offs,) but there was something about Firefly that promised something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So I bought it, and found out what that thing was.
It was the sf show I always wanted to see.
It was cool, it was funny, it was well-written, the characters were strong and engaging, and it wasn’t ‘safe’ - it had a dark edge to it that kept you wondering what was going to happen next. It was the best thing I’d seen on tv in years. So why was it cancelled? No idea. And I’m not going to spend any more time trying to explain it, because it’s basically something that was decided by tv studio execs and trying to understand them is impossible. But cancelled it was and now we have a movie. Serenity. (Personal aside here: I think they should have called the tv series Serenity - sounds a bit cooler than Firefly, but what do I know?)
And the big question here is: is it any good?
Well, that all depends on whether or not you saw the tv series. I have, so I can only really give an opinion from that perspective. If you haven’t, I do think the movie stands alone as a good space western adventure. The only drawback is that newcomers might find the opening of the movie a little muddled - we are introduced to River Tam (Summer Glau) and it’s natural to assume that she is the main character, but it’s actually Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) who takes centre stage for the rest of the movie. In the director’s commentary, Whedon explains that test audiences were confused about who the main character was so he added a sequence just before the payroll-robbery sequence in which she subtly “hands the movie over to Mal”. After the first action sequence the movie really sets out its stall. We know we’re in for a good time. We’ve got laughs (“faster would be better!”), we’ve got cool lines (“let’s be bad guys”), and we’ve got proper ‘threat and menace’, supplied by the Reavers, (barbarian self-mutilating cannibal rapists), and some amazing SFX sequences achieved on a very small budget (the scene where Serenity leads the Reaver armada through the ion cloud has to be one of the great show-stopping moments).
Thematically, Serenity is about the search for peace, happiness, utopia. Capt Reynolds is a man being slowly eaten up inside by his past, and at the start of the movie he is “in a bad place”, both morally and spiritually. By the end, he has found a certain peace. The great secret buried by the Alliance strengthens this through-line (but I won’t give it away). Two of the main characters die during the movie (again I won’t divulge) but their deaths add dramatic weight to the story and create a subconscious but menacing sense of doom - who’s next? - and Whedon confirms his deliberate placing of these deaths in the commentary. “I want the audience to be thinking ‘Is this going to be the Wild Bunch?’” he says. I know that I was on the edge of my seat, so it worked for me.
All in all, I loved it. I haven’t enjoyed a movie as much as this since the Lord of the Rings. The parallel there I think is that in both cases I was invested in the characters. I cared about them. I feared for them as they faced up to the greatest challenge of all: trying to do the right thing against almost insurmountable odds.
Like getting a movie made out of a cancelled tv show…

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