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Firefly

Firefly - "Serenity" Movie - Chud.com Review

Sunday 8 January 2006, by Webmaster

Let me get the obvious out of the way first - I am a “Browncoat”...

A name given to fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series Firefly, the Browncoats were ecstatic when Universal announced their plans to produce a motion picture spin-off. Despite the few episodes commissioned by Fox, Firefly had somehow managed to amass a sizeable cult following, which didn’t save it from cancellation, but made sure the show would become an instant best-seller on DVD. This snared the interest of producer Barry Mendel, who saw the potential in Whedon’s unique blend of sci-fi and western. A battle was won - or, to put it bluntly, a finger was raised to the executives at Fox. The Buffy creator’s ragamuffin crew of space pirates would take flight once again, stronger than ever, and to the tune of a $40 million budget. That’s small by Hollywood standards, but Serenity would see the Firefly crew rise phoenix-like from the ashes. Only two shows have achieved such a feat; the first being Star Trek.

While I was utterly thrilled to see these characters again, Whedon’s victory has proven bittersweet. Despite its overall appeal, solid action and the most loveable rogues this side of Star Wars, Serenity failed to make a dent at the US box office. Blame it on the poor marketing campaign, the tough competition that weekend, or even on the Browncoats (some have stated that their/our over-zealous praise of Firefly turned-off the mainstream public). Or perhaps the universe of Firefly was always best-suited to a cult audience. Who knows? It doesn’t change the quality of the finished product - a well-crafted, well-written and well-performed slice of pulp fiction, that plays like an expensive season finale to the show we never got. A convert from the start, I have no idea if Serenity will play well to those unfamiliar with the Firefly mythos, but with a plot and cast this much fun, I’d be surprised if the picture doesn’t gain a wider following on home video.

“Love keeps her in the air, when she ought to fall down...”
— Mal

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the owner of Serenity, a Firefly-class ship that specialises in criminal jobs; often landing him in a great deal of trouble. In Firefly’s premiere, the crew accepted two new recruits - the mysterious River (Summer Glau) and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who were on the run from the Alliance; a totalitarian regime that governs much of the galaxy. River was very important to them - a psychic with extraordinary intelligence and physicality, she carries a dark secret that the Alliance wish to keep buried. Such details are recounted in the wonderful prologue, which is more than a simple way of relaying exposition for the uninformed. Whedon is quite clever, using a voice-over, nightmare sequence and flashback to draw the viewer into his complex universe. In 10 minutes, the writer/director establishes the dynamics of his futuristic setting, introduces two of the main characters (without boring the initiated), and reveals the villain of the piece; the enigmatic “Operative” (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The Operative is one of the Alliance’s top hombres, and seeks to reclaim River by any means necessary. That includes opening fire on Serenity, and killing Mal and his crew in the process. As the opening credits kick-in, Whedon’s film truly comes to life, re-introducing the characters in one continuous tracking shot (well, it’s actually two, but a crafty bit of editing hides the cut). There’s Wash (Alan Tudyk) the ships trusty pilot, his wife ZoŽ (Gina Torres), sexually-frustrated engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and dim-witted heavy Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Together, they continue to dodge the Alliance, while accepting dangerous jobs on outer-rim “frontier” planets. However, Simon and River have thrown a spanner into the works, and soon the lives of Serenity’s passengers are placed in jeopardy...

All things considered, Firefly was a blast of fresh air in an increasingly stale genre. Over 14 episodes (reviewed comprehensively by James Gray), the series had presented a wonderfully diverse solar system, and characters that were instantly likeable (not to mention layered). Whedon has always possessed a talent for acute characterisation - Buffy and Angel thrived on the interactions of their cast members, and the universe was teaming with detail. He brought the same quality to Firefly; his vision of the future taking its cue from many a sci-fi yarn, while giving it the typical Whedon polish. As soon as the Universal logo fades away, the opening carefully sums-up the universe - a series of colonised planets, terror firmed to support human life, that were either ruled by the Alliance, or resided over by “The Independents”. They resisted Alliance control, and a bloody war ensued. Whedon developed a rather interesting social commentary too, showcasing a space dominated by two cultures - America and China. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine these superpowers spreading into the cosmos, and it gave the show a distinctive visual and aural flavour. Seeing the crew traipse through a backwater, western-tinged town, only to curse in Mandarin, was both original and startling. The show resisted the temptation to include alien life as well, and the closest approximation was a group called “The Reavers” - a horrifying breed of man, that loves to maim and kill, and eat human flesh.

While some of the concepts won’t hold much weight for the casual viewer, the multitude of narrative tics still give the film an offbeat pulse. It’s fairly obvious that Serenity will play better to seasoned fans of Firefly, but the British public have welcomed Whedon’s opus with open arms; calling it the best movie of the year in a Film 2005 poll. Like any spin-off, the film needs to stand on its own to be considered a success. Serenity does so admirably, and best of all, draws many of the series’ plot threads to a close.

After the film was announced, I had to wonder if Whedon was ready to direct a full-blown feature. His previous directorial work in television was assured and memorable (the Buffy instalment The Body, being the highlight). He might have cut his teeth writing blockbuster fare, but the mediums of film and television are radically different in terms of scope. Whedon was up to the task, although he was quick to acknowledge the challenge he faced when writing the script. It can’t have been easy to condense his creation into a two-hour film. While moments of Serenity reveal his relative inexpensive behind the lens, there’s no denying the overall quality of the craftsmanship in Whedon’s debut. There’s love oozing from every frame of this film - both the cast and crew seem committed in delivering the best movie possible. Such passion only makes the picture more endearing; this isn’t a lifeless, blatant cash-in. It was made purely to entertain, and provides proof that SF can be intelligent and witty, while still unleashing the pyrotechnics...

Providing much of the wit, is Captain Reynolds. An instant genre favourite, Fillion is Whedon’s greatest asset throughout Serenity. During the television series, Mal really grew on the viewer. He was a troubled sole - a veteran of the war between the Alliance and the Independents, Mal was constantly coloured in shades of grey. One minute he was willing to ditch a member of the crew to ensure a successful deal, the next he was putting his life on the line to come to their aid. He’s a complex and interesting creation, that is played with a great deal of charm by Fillion. Some have compared him to Han Solo - an obvious point, that has some truth, but isn’t entirely accurate. There’s a moment in Serenity, when an imperilled bystander begs Mal to take him along, when the Reavers come calling. Not wanting to ditch their cargo, Mal leaves him to face the music, before shooting him in an act of mercy, as the Reavers close in. It’s a dark moment for Mal, and something Harrsion Ford would never have done in the Holy Trilogy. It’s a testament to both Whedon’s writing and Fillion’s careful performance that we don’t hate Mal. He’s a realistic character, with motivations that the audience can understand - he merely wants to stay alive, and the constant struggle to get by is forcing him to make difficult decisions.

As the villain, Ejiofor perfectly compliments Fillion. Like Mal, the sinister Operative is a man with many sides; capable of the most horrifying acts, but he also carries a sense of honour and grace. He isn’t evil - the Operative believes that killing River is the right thing to do, feeling justified by the Alliance’s grand scheme of “making better worlds”. The actor creates a role both hateful and sympathetic, providing the best nemesis in years. In some respects, he is similar to the character of Jubal Early, who made an impact during Objects in Space - the last Firefly episode. Despite the comparisons, Ejiofor settles into the universe with aplomb. His inclusion does lessen the importance of other characters, however. Kaylee, Jayne, Wash and ZoŽ all play memorable roles in the film, but their screen time is limited, and they never get to impact the story. This was always going to be the case, yet Whedon gives them their moments to shine. Baldwin in particular, is clearly loving the chance to play Jayne again, and gets the lion’s share of the one-liners. Only Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) get short shrift out of the original cast; their characters having left the ship during the gap between Firefly and Serenity.

But they aren’t the main thrust of the plotline - the film is largely about Mal, River and the Operative. It’s their story arcs that get resolution, and each of them end in a satisfying manner. River’s importance was never made clear on the show. Whedon had a master plan in mind; no doubt one that would have took several seasons to play out. Therefore, River was largely a cipher, and her crazed antics began to grow tiresome. The tide was beginning to change at the end of Objects in Space, but by that point, Whedon’s plan lay in tatters. The character grows in leaps and bounds during Serenity, and Glau really impresses as an action heroine. Her background as a ballerina (put to good use in the Angel episode Waiting in the Wings), was clearly good preparation for the rigorous stunt work on show here. The intriguing blend of street fighting and martial arts provided no challenge for the nimble Glau, although her acting skills are also commendable. Her chemistry with Maher, who portrays her brother, was an emotional anchor on the series, and works just as well here. Ultimately, the ensemble works brilliantly. You’d be hard pushed to find a better cast in a “popcorn” movie...

So what of Whedon’s direction? It’s good, if not eye-opening. Lest we forget that he had a limited budget to work with, and the lack of feature experience. Still, his effort here is impressive - he makes a good fist of the proceedings, and with help from legendary cinematographer Jack Green (Unforgiven), the film always looks good. Green’s lighting is somewhat irksome, with high contrasts and stark colours, but his composition is vivid. The production design is made all the better by his hand-held camerawork, and the locations maintain the dusty, washed-out look of the series (fans should be happy to note that Carey Meyer’s original Serenity design is faithfully recreated). In fact, the photography merely helps to reinforce the western aesthetic, that is kept to a minimum in Whedon’s script. While he has plenty to learn as a director, I find it hard to pick faults in his writing. The dialogue is filled with wit and playful banter, and the progression of the narrative is thoughtful. Only a few moments caused groans from this fan. The creator decided to kill off two of the main characters - a brave move, that I certainly agree with. However, the time-honoured “last words” between a dying comrade and his friend, is too much of a clichť to ignore. Those familiar with the characters will no doubt weep though. I certainly did.

Surprisingly, Whedon turns out to be very competent as an action filmmaker. While the set pieces won’t blow you away like the typical summer blockbuster, they’re very effective. The reason for this is simple - the more you care about the characters, the more you care about their plight. Whedon sprinkles the action sparingly throughout the script, and none of it is pointless; always remaining relevant to the story at hand. Mal’s heist early in the film is a good example, allowing Whedon to establish the relationship between the crew members, and provide a great introduction to those devilish Reavers. The high-speed chase across the planet surface is thrilling, as is the bar fight, in which River takes out the clientele in bone-crunching fashion. But the highlight is left for the conclusion - a space battle between Serenity, the Alliance and the Reavers. Filled with danger, explosions and mid-air collisions, Whedon provides an exciting finale that leads to a hopeful and sombre conclusion.

The battles and special effects may cause excitement, but it is the path taken by the characters that allows Serenity to soar higher than the average SF picture. Mal could have taken his comrades out of harms way at any point, but he didn’t. Circumstance gave them the opportunity to do something noble and important. The secrets that were burning up River Tam’s brain are finally released, and the truth was worth the sacrifices they made - it’s a potent allegory about fighting the good fight, no matter how extreme the situation gets. Whedon did the same with Serenity. He fought to give Firefly a new home, and he achieved that goal in superlative fashion. We might not get another flight with Mal and his crew, but Serenity stands tall as superior science fiction.

If you aim to misbehave, you could do a lot worse...

The “Shiny” Disc

I guess it’s telling that Serenity died a goramn death at the box office. Why? The DVD has arrived a few months later, and just in time for Christmas. Yet, to science fiction buffs and Whedon devotees, this is a cause for celebration - Serenity is one of 2005’s hidden gems, and hopefully, Universal’s disc will reach a wider audience. Luckily, the disc isn’t bare-bones at all, and the studio were nice enough to treat the film with a great transfer, and several worthwhile extras. It isn’t the uber “Special Edition” we were hoping for, but Serenity’s debut is a highly enjoyable companion piece to the Firefly universe...

The Look and Sound

Serenity is presented in an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, that is flawed, but better than most. Whedon experimented with a lot of different lighting techniques, and the video does justice to Jack Green’s photography. Many shots are overexposed on purpose, revealing a consistent level of grain, which was evident during the theatrical run too. Detail is very good, with a great deal of clarity to the image. Background elements can appear soft, but the picture is sharp and deeply-rendered from beginning to end, despite the high contrast levels. Colours are lush, especially on the planet surfaces, or during action sequences, and the blacks during the frequent space shots are solid. Skin tones appear to be transferred poorly, but it’s obviously the lighting, which gives characters a golden hue. Despite some electronic noise on the transfer here and there, I was more or less satisfied by Universal’s effort.

I was disappointed with the way Serenity sounded in theatres; seeming rather flat and reserved, when it should be loud and aggressive. Thankfully, such problems are swept aside with this impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (presented in English or French). It’s a fully-active mix from the opening titles onward - helping to draw the audience into Whedon’s world. Incidental effects sound great, especially the ambience of the ship itself, or the futuristic weaponry. That all-important dialogue is crisp and transfers well, with only a few minor instances of distortion from the other elements. The score is subtle, and never overpowers the rest of the mix, although it sounds great during those emotional moments. Sonically, the audio for Serenity won’t trounce a blockbuster film, but for a modestly budgeted picture, the soundtrack is excellent.

Universal also provides English, French and Spanish subtitles. And before you ask, no, the Mandarin has not been translated.

The Menus

The DVD producers have given the menus a cool sepia tone, that certainly fits the style of the film. The animation is simple, but understated; resembling a ship control panel, with a great interplanetary backdrop. Anamorphic and mixed with some of David Newman’s music, the menus are aesthetically pleasing and functional.

On a side note, there has been some furore surrounding the box art for this release. At one point, there was even an online petition to get Universal to change the artwork, but to no avail. Surprisingly, the cover is better than those online scans would lead you to believe, with a shiny veneer that is eye-catching. However, the marketing ploy of calling it “the ultimate action adventure” is laughable - perhaps my favourite bit of hyperbole this year...

Bonus Material

A quick glance of the special features doesn’t promise a lot, but the disc for Serenity turns out to be a very enjoyable collection of supplements.

Audio Commentary by Joss Whedon

Anyone familiar with the Great Creator’s past audio commentaries, will know what to expect from this feature-length discussion. Articulate and well-spoken, Whedon comes prepared, and his commentary for Serenity is one of the best I’ve heard all year. It was a personal project for the writer/director, and he highlights the challenge he encountered when turning Firefly into a motion picture. He provides us with a great deal of information regarding his stylistic choices; his decisions with the characters, and how he adapted to cinema fare. As you’d expect, Whedon’s entire track is filled with his trademark humour, making it an easy and very entertaining listen. Fans shouldn’t need convincing to give this a spin.

Deleted Scenes/Outtakes

Around 9 cut scenes are presented, amounting to 14-minutes of footage. All of it was rightly cut, although the chance to see more of the characters is always worth it. There are several sequences featuring Inara and The Operative, that added more to their story arcs, but would have spoiled the pacing completely. There’s even a quiet moment between Mal and Inara, that fans should appreciate. Whedon provides optional commentary for the footage, explaining his choices.

There’s also a brief blooper reel, which is not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but pretty amusing. Those who saw the outtakes on the Firefly disc, will know that Nathan Fillion is usually the cause for any flubs. His goofball humour is the highlight here.

Featurettes

Three very short featurettes are presented, all of which are worth a look at least once. “Future History: The Story of Earth That Was” (4:31) includes Whedon explaining how he created the universe, and how his ideas were implemented in the finished film. There’s a good look at the production design, although it’s far too short. “What’s in a Firefly?” (6:32) documents some of the key special effects sequences, which were created by ZOIC. Finally, “Re-Lighting the Firefly” (9:40) is the highlight. A valid account of how a failed TV show can become a movie, it follows Whedon and the cast as they visit the San Diego Comic-Con to rapturous applause. It was a labour of love for both Whedon and his performers; a sentiment that is made clear during this vignette.

Joss Whedon Introduction

This might seem like a bit of promotional filler, but it’s actually the introduction Whedon recorded for those test screenings at the start of the year. His love of the film is evident, noting that Serenity, by rights, shouldn’t exist, and that it’s a personal victory for both him and the fans that a film received the green light. It’s a wonderful prelude to the movie, but for some reason, there isn’t an option to view it with the feature.

There’s also an Easter Egg, which I won’t spoil for any hunters out there.

The Bottom Line

I adore this film.

As a spin-off to Firefly, the film is a major success; managing to satisfy the legion of fans that made the movie possible in the first place. Will it appeal to everyone else? Tough to say, but fans of intelligent science fiction are definitely in for a treat.

Serenity’s DVD debut is a real pleasure, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Universal release a grander edition in the near future.