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FireflyFirefly - "Serenity" Movie - Relevantmagazine.com Review - Spoilers
Friday 14 October 2005, by Webmaster
The last time a failed science-fiction television show was made into a big-budget studio film, we got Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a load of self-aggrandizing dreck that traded the original series’ goofy progressive charm for pseudo-epic self-importance. But when the series dropped the lugubrious pretensions of the original in favor of a streamlined, personal story rife with vengeance, violence and loss, the result was the stellar sequel The Wrath of Khan, which is still the series’ benchmark.
With Serenity, the big-screen follow-up to the short-lived TV show Firefly, series creator Joss Whedon seems to have learned Star Trek’s lessons without necessitating a failed trial run. This may be due in part to the fact that Serenity arrives in theaters only a few short years after its initial televised run, as well as to Whedon’s dominating obsession with the genre, which keeps his work grounded firmly in dramatically pointed, violent B-movie tropes. Whatever the reason, Serenity is a dazzling, nimble science-fiction tale that both elevates and deconstructs its genre origins, but always remembers to use those origins to bolster compelling characters and story.
Whedon’s screenwriting skills were honed on 42-minute television shows, and he brings the same effortless narrative economy to this longer format. Harnessing the sort of efficiency that would make George Lucas choke on his Campbell, he establishes both character and milieu without derailing his story. Serenity takes place in a far future that actively resembles the old West, where overcrowding has led settlers to populate new worlds at the galaxy’s outer rim. There, on the edge of civilization, the crew of the spaceship Serenity operates in dubious-at-best legal standing, acting as thieves and couriers while staying a half step ahead of the Alliance, an interplanetary government always on their tail.
Whedon’s large cast of characters (there are nine principals) doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the narrower confines of a self-contained film, but, as on the show, he juggles the ragtag crew with surprising dexterity. There’s Mal (Nathan Fillion), the scowling captain whose curmudgeonly ways occasionally slip to reveal a small hint of decency. Married couple Zoe and Wash are the ship’s first mate and pilot, respectively, and, in a nice reversal, it’s Wash who’s always telling headstrong Zoe to stay out of trouble. There’s the sweetly brilliant engineer Kaylee, who keeps the ship running, and her preppy love interest Simon, a doctor trained by the Alliance who is now being chased for hiding his government-modified secret-weapon sister, River-and that’s not even the whole crew.
It may seem complicated, but Whedon’s confident, clever dialogue never fails to concisely sketch the character conflicts while keeping the tone airy and self-deprecating. Serenity never descends into camp, but neither can it be accused of taking itself too seriously.
If this sounds like a fairly familiar setup-the outcast but good-natured thieves struggling against a monolithic authority figure-that’s because it is. From Han Solo in Star Wars to John Connor and the T-101 in Terminator 2, the history of science-fiction film is brimming over with examples of little guys taking on oppressive systems. But instead of using genre as a crutch, Whedon demonstrates that the best genre traditions exist because they’re genuinely useful narrative devices.
Thus, we get all the familiar genre scenes: the quick-draw showdown, the sappy revelations of love in the midst of gunfire, the nerdy communications geek, the captain who-in a moment of exasperation-rhetorically asks his crew if they’d rather lead the ship. But instead of stringing these bits together for their own sake, Whedon expands on them, letting them build the characters and drive the narrative toward dramatically satisfying conclusions.
Serenity works because it doesn’t strive to be anything more than it is: a gussied up B-movie that pays tribute to both sci-fi and Western clichés. Unassuming and unpretentious, it bests blockbusters with three times its budget, all while keeping both its brains and its cool; in fact, you might just call it serene.