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Firefly - ’Serenity’ Movie - Aintitcool.com Review 3 (spoilers)

By Alexandra DuPont

Tuesday 10 May 2005, by Webmaster

It’s a transitional time for fandom.

Most of the major geek franchises are rolling flaming across their finish lines. "Star Trek" just lolled off the air. "Star Wars" is migrating to TV. The Wachowskis reduced the "Matrix" audience to - what? - the Venn-diagram intersection of philosophy undergrads, S&M aficionados, wuxia geeks and wankers in denial? And the rights to "The Hobbit" are currently being pried apart by the jackals of finance.

Sure, there’s hope. "Star Trek" could return as an era-spanning anthology series (with John Saxon finally cast as the starship captain he was born to play). Lucas’ throat pouch, fattened with home-video revenue, could produce some exciting new experimental films. And, if there’s a God, the "Hobbit" rights will be freed in time for Martin Freeman to play young Bilbo. But still: The geek landscape is about to change. And people, and also studio executives, are mildly curious about what the Next Big Thing is going to be.

And so I’ve been following "Serenity" test-screening reviews with great interest. And I’ve noticed that everyone keeps asking variations on the same questions:

Will Joss Whedon’s "Unique Vision of the Future"™ be the next big franchise? Can a sequel to a cancelled TV series bring Joe and Jane Sixpack into the theater? Will toy and DVD sales bury Mr. Whedon in a mound of mainstream success and cocaine?

Well, now that I’ve seen an unfinished version of the film with an audience full of rabid "Firefly" fans, I have an answer to those questions:

Who cares?

Really. I could give two gerbil poops about whether this film has "mainstream appeal" or not. Allow me to quote "True and False," David Mamet’s excellent guide to surviving show business: "Do you desire the good opinion of these people? Are not these the same people you told me yesterday were fools and charlatans? Do you then desire the good opinion of fools and charlatans? That is the question asked by Epictetus."

Last I checked, "Serenity" wasn’t a pop song. Worrying about its popularity is antithetical to the founding precepts of geekery. The key to "Serenity"’s future doesn’t lie in appealing to non-fans, but rather in creating new fans. I want the film to succeed, so I’ll be showing the "Firefly" DVDs to as many people as possible in the next five months.

Because "Serenity" - if the studio doesn’t royally pooch it in the coming weeks - works as a loving, slightly flawed "Firefly" season finale. And it emotionally slays anyone invested in these characters.

Q. So you’re not a prequel apologist - you’re a "Firefly" apologist!

A. Oh, God, yes.

Q. Why?

A. I loved the show. "Firefly" didn’t give a shit about landing struts, manufactured cool or the preciousness of its own "mythology." It was, first and foremost, a story about people. If "Revenge of the Sith" is about the elites in a galactic society, then "Firefly" - like "The Fifth Element" or "Red Dwarf" - was about the working-class stiffs who take out their trash. To me, that was interesting. And funny.

Q. Let’s pretend I’ve never seen the show and can put aside my knee-jerk snark for a moment. Explain "Firefly"’s appeal in pithy sentences.

A. Well, you can read this very fine summary at Wikipedia, or scroll down if you just want to read about "Serenity." But here goes:

"Firefly" follows the smugglers and passengers on a Millennium Falcon-like cargo ship named Serenity. Humanity is re-living the days of the Old West (if the Old West had belly-dancers and hover-cars) as it settles a new solar system.

Serenity’s captain, Malcolm Reynolds - played by Nathan Fillon (whom my life partner calls "Jason Boxleitner" for reasons that become obvious if you’ve seen Fillion’s hair) - was one of the losers in an interplanetary civil war. Now he’s an outlaw - robbing trains, smuggling cattle and damn well shooting Greedo first.

He’s helped (and occasionally betrayed) by his large, bickering crew. This includes a wisecracking pilot (Alan Tudyk); the pilot’s "warrior woman" wife (Gina Torres); a two-fisted hick (Adam Baldwin) with a t-shirt collection you can buy online; an adorable mechanic (Jewel Staite); a preacher with a past (Ron Glass); a courtesan (Morena Baccarin); and a doctor (Sean Maher) who rescued his psychic sister (Summer Glau) from a government program that turned her into a lethal schizophrenic.

Q. It sounds like an overstuffed "Cowboy Bebop."

A. You’re in the ballpark. Take "Bebop"’s crazy East-West blend. Add the shaggy adventure of ’70s-era "Battlestar Galactica" and "Buck Rogers." Remove every scrap of idiocy those last two additions imply. Stir in a hearty dose of classic Westerns and Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels. And you’re starting to get an idea of the show’s vibe.

Q. That sounds ... dense. A. Even Whedon jokes about how it’s impossible to boil the "Firefly" pitch down for Hollywood suits. But the cast was usually smeared with grime and dripping with sweat, and dear Lord it may have been the most across-the-board sexy ensemble I’ve ever seen on television. Even Ron Glass was buffed-out.

Q. So who was the "Firefly" equivalent of Willow? I must crush on her immediately!

A. While Baccarin was the show’s official "hottie," I gather that male geeks hold a special reverence for Staite’s mechanic, Kaylee - a total sweetheart of vague ethnicity who was about 15 pounds heavier than the stick-figures passing for "sensual" on TV. I was also personally blown away by the unlikely hotness of Tudyk and Torres, who played the ship’s married couple; what looked at first glance like an unholy mating of Howdy Doody and FloJo quickly became one of my favorite television couplings ever.

Oh, and the show was funny. My favorite "Firefly" scenes were, I kid you not, the ones where everyone laughed and argued around the ship’s dinner table. There were also a lot of weird little grace notes: For example, everyone spoke in this quaint Asian-cowboy patois where they’d say stuff like, "This place gives me an uncomfortableness," then curse in Chinese.

Q. That sounds stupid.

A. It was, truth be told, a sticking point for some viewers. But the actors pulled it off with panache. To me, "Firefly"’s love of language was its greatest joy.

Q. Well, then, it sounds like a total chick show.

A. No. It’s more that "Firefly" was aimed at actual grown-ups. (Judging from last week’s 10 p.m. screening, Browncoats tend to be college-age and older, though there were a surprising number of female geeks on hand. Lonely young men might consider converting now.) And, as with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Angel," all the grown-up stuff was liberally sprinkled with arse-kicking.

Give it a chance. You won’t be sorry.

Q. Fine. I’m a convert. How’s "Serenity," already?

A. Well, writer-director Whedon takes all of the above and vacuum-packs it into 130 minutes - only with better lighting (by Eastwood cinematographer Jack Green), and, oddly, what felt like slightly clunkier action photography.

I really, really want to praise the film’s opening 10 minutes. Whedon manages to explain the backstory of the "Firefly" universe in the form of a school lesson. Then he flash-forwards to Simon Tam’s (Maher’s) rescue of his sister River (Glau). Then he introduces The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the nameless assassin who finally explains why the government wants River back so very badly. And then - in an absolutely splendid bit of filmmaking - he introduces the Serenity, Capt. Reynolds and his entire crew in a single, witty tracking shot that takes us through the entire ship as it buckles on re-entry. These first 10 mins. are mostly artful and succinct, and were probably murderously hard to write.

Q. So why is the government so anxious to get River back?

A. This comes to light almost immediately, so I guess there’s no harm in sharing: It turns out the doctor experimenting on River was showing her off to key members of Parliament. Apparently, the government is worried that River may have read the minds of those visiting officials - men who knew some very alarming state secrets.

Q. What are the very alarming state secrets?

A. To borrow a phrase from my dear colleague Hercules: That would be telling. And you’ll never guess what they are. But once they’re revealed, Whedon blows his TV universe wide open. - finally giving the disillusioned Mal something to believe in - as the film ....

(a) more or less resolves the whole lethal-schizophrenic-sister storyline;

(b) tackles this new (and sort of out-of-the-blue) conspiracy; and

(c) spends quite a bit of time with the "Reavers," spacefaring rapist cannibals who string bodies to the sides of their ships and howl like the zombies in "28 Days Later" (which leads me to wonder how they can get it together long enough to build and fly spaceships, but still).

It’s a very generous movie. When the film ended, everyone sort of blinked, clapped and gushed about how far the film had traveled - a feeling I relish after any well-told adventure story. Serious fans were literally shaking with emotion. There were, in many quarters, tears. The story would have played wonderfully (maybe even better than "Serenity" does, frankly) as a multi-episode TV-series arc - which I’m sure is what Whedon originally had in mind.

Q. There was crying? Oh, God - does someone die?

A. Again, that would be telling. But anyone familiar with the Buffyverse knows that Mr. Whedon can be a bit cavalier with the human life.

Q. SERIOUS "FIREFLY" GEEK QUESTION No. 1: Which episode of the series does "Serenity" most resemble?

A. The first half plays quite a bit like the two-hour pilot - also titled "Serenity" - only faster-moving. Any scene where The Operative is chasing (or roundly kicking the collective fanny of) the crew feels a little like "Objects in Space" - though Ejiofor is playing a character who’s saner, cooler, smarter and far more dangerous than Jubal Early.

The middle - with its crucial revelations about River and its unfamiliar environs - bears the faint whiff of "Ariel," my personal favorite episode. Any bits with the Reavers are logical extensions of "Bushwhacked." And the final showdown plays like a cranked-up version of the space-station siege in "War Stories," only crossed with one of those highly caffeinated modern zombie movies.

Q. SERIOUS "FIREFLY" GEEK QUESTION No. 2: Who in the cast gets short-shrift?

A. It was, of course, a profound pleasure to see everyone onscreen again - though both Maher and Fillion take darker, crankier approaches to their characters this time around.

But, as with any nine-person group that isn’t a jury, someone was bound to get ignored.

Tudyk, Maher and Staite all get off some good lines, but they also tend to recede into the background in favor of Fillion, Torres, Glau and Baldwin. (Glass and Baccarin aren’t even on the ship when the film begins - Glass in particular is almost a "special guest star" in "Serenity" - and Baccarin all but disappears in the over-edited final siege, during which she wears a very cute top.) Also, the Tudyk/Torres marriage is reduced to a couple of "honey"s and "Yes, dear"s, though this is hardly unexpected.

Q. SERIOUS "FIREFLY" GEEK QUESTION 3: Is there sound in space?

A. In the print I saw last week? Sometimes there was and sometimes there wasn’t. Universal appears to be testing it both ways. With the right music, I’d personally prefer the final, largish space battle to play out in scientifically correct silence; it might be a little less geographically confusing that way. That said, I’m not holding my breath (as it were).

Q. What else is good?

A. (1) River is considerably less annoying than she could occasionally be on the series - there’s a focus to the way she’s written here that I personally appreciated. She also does some nice damage with her weird, silly brand of ballet-fu; someone should drag Kurt Thomas out of retirement and cast Glau against him in "Gymkata 2: Dancekata!" post haste.

(2) The scene where Mal and the Operative first face off at Inara’s Companion school is terrific - filled with comedy, cool menace, and some very amusing beatings of Captain Tightpants, who takes his whole "Han shoots first" ethos to ridiculous extremes throughout the film, God bless him.

(3) The "Firefly" wisecracks? They’re here. Some might say they sound "a little too TV"; I say they sound "funny." Baldwin in particular delivers some smashing one-liners as the vaguely mutinous Jayne Cobb - even with a spear through his leg. He’s just hilariously tough and stupid, and there’s a great scene where he chews out Mal in the dining room during which I swear to God I thought he was going to get shot for lipping off.

(4) The show’s essential humanity is intact. This was, by far, my biggest concern.

Q. What’s not so good?

A. Now, before I get into this, I want to say that the movie works overall, and that this 10 p.m. "Serenity" sneak-peek screening will stand as one of the finest moviegoing experiences of my relatively young life. There was singing. There was bonhomie. There was a touch of that good-natured Southern courtliness that was such an infectious part of "Firefly," only tinged with the light Asperger’s of the serious fan - qualities I find passionate and real in controlled doses. There was, in short, an utter minimum of jackassery, and being in that auditorium summed up all the best reasons I’ve written for AICN off and on for over half a decade.

This was especially true given that Joss Whedon had filmed a rather lengthy, hilarious and emotional monologue - specifically addressed to us - that was shown before the movie (and if it isn’t on the "Serenity" DVD, I fear pitchforks). "In Hollywood, they call people like you and me unrealistic and quixotic," he said, more or less. "In my world, they’re called Browncoats."

This was, of course, met with cheers and maybe even a light collective choking-up.

"In an unprecedented way, it’s your movie," he continued. "And if it sucks, it’s your fault."

"Serenity" doesn’t suck. Not by a long shot. But there are a few spoiler-y and occasionally nit-picky problems I want to point out, because I’m of the hope that they can be at least partially addressed over the next few months:

(1) As mentioned earlier, the Reavers don’t entirely make sense as spacefaring zombie idiots. Their ability to rappel and plan attacks and, presumably, maintain and navigate largish spacecraft seems at odds with the howling, face-carving, suicidal-throwing-yourselves-at-bullets tendencies exhibited late in the film. This could be fixed if I witnessed one Reaver saying or doing something vaguely intelligible - just once - that didn’t involve the throwing of spears. Pushing a button on the bridge of their ship, even.

(2) Along those lines: It’s kind of a shame that the offbeat, quirky charm of the first four-fifths of "Serenity" gives way to the sort of armed standoff we’ve seen in genre pieces before - up to and including, without getting into too much detail, an obstacle-course showdown between hero and villain that includes dangling and leaping in a massive technological Macguffin Resolution Device that is, inexplicably, abandoned and well-lit, a la the climax of "I, Robot." This may be an unavoidable casualty of both budget and subject matter, but there it is. All this was mitigated by my concern for the characters, but still.

(3) There is a character in "Serenity" named "Mr. Universe." Mr. Universe apparently lives with his lifelike sex-doll in a vast telecommunications complex manned by him and him alone. He is surrounded by artfully arranged monitors, and he is a silly, silly character in ways that break down under even the slightest analysis. How does he afford all this equipment? Why is he alone? Who mops all those floors? Why is he on an obnoxiously first-name basis with the crew of the Serenity? He seems at odds with the realistic desperation of other characters in the "Firefly" universe. There are a few ways to tone him down - chiefly by making exterior shots of the complex in which he resides a little less vast and slick, or by offering a one-sentence explanation that he’s a deeply eccentric billionaire, or something. He’s not a story-killer by any stretch, but he doesn’t work.

(4) A certain crucial information-revealing hologram was just a little too cleanly shot and composed for my tastes. The person revealing the crucial info is under siege, angry, remorseful, alone and desperate - and yet here this person stands in clean, tidy clothes, framed in a perfect camera view, as well-postured and bland as if she were a character in a "Phantom Menace" hologram. Please.

(5) Some of the action editing could be a bit more geographically sound. I was disappointed, for example, that the final space battle and Reaver siege were a jumble of quick-cuts that seemed, to me, less impressive that the solid action geography on "Firefly" and the Buffyverse shows. Again, not a buzz-killer. But nevertheless.

(6) More crucially: Something unspeakably surprising and awful happens to one or more persons you love during the course of this film. I have absolutely no objection to this. What I do object to is the utter lack of catharsis that the editing currently affords the audience after it happens. A couple of fans were complaining that it hamstrung their ability to laugh and thrill joyfully for the remainder of the film, and I can’t say I blame them. This could be fixable with a single close-up, or a private moment of grief. I’ll leave it at that.

(7) And finally, and very vaguely for those who weren’t there Thursday: An ending dialogue exchange in the cargo bay where Gina Torres is wearing this ridiculously high-collared shirt needs to be re-written and re-shot. For one thing, the emotions expressed during said moment are nowhere near up to the events that preceded it - wells of anger and resentment go unmarked, regrets are unexpressed, and it just emotionally short-shrifts several characters at once in ways that made me feel like I was being slapped about the face and neck with a large salmon.

But even worse, that ridiculously high collar looked incredibly stupid on Torres.

(BTW, Ms. Torres would make an absolutely merciless Wonder Woman, if Whedon and Joel Silver have the courage.)

And, on that note, I retire.

Warmest, Alexandra DuPont