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Firefly - "Serenity" Movie DVD - Ign.com Review Part 1

Matt Casamassina

Tuesday 13 December 2005, by Webmaster


A space opera with more heart than the last three Star Wars movies combined.

December 12, 2005 - Like outer space, Hollywood can be a completely unforgiving place. Just ask writer/director Joss Whedon, whose science-fiction television show, Firefly, was cancelled after just a season, and despite unanimously rave reviews. The series, which married space operas and westerns, chronicled the often misguided travels of a gruff captain and his unlikely crew of thieves. The FOX network aired some 11 (out of order) episodes of Firefly in 2002 before it dismissed the show altogether, but fans couldn’t let it go so easily.

Unfortunately, despite their dedicated efforts, nobody in the cold depths of Hollywood took notice - that is, until the fans put their money where their mouths were and bought up more than 500,000 copies of the show on DVD. Serenity, which can accurately be described as a feature film continuation of the cancelled show, is the result.

Whedon himself prefers to think of Serenity as a standalone movie that anybody can enjoy, regardless of their familiarity with Firefly. And we agree. The budget may be dramatically smaller, but there are more refined story curves and hard-earned emotional ties to characters than in the last three Star Wars movies combined, and it’s topped off with some beautifully orchestrated action scenes. Serenity is very good science fiction with real heart, which is something that can be neither bought nor meticulously rendered; you either have it or you don’t, and any viewer, old or new, can appreciate that.

However, to say that Serenity is not a movie for the fans would be inaccurate, since in our experience watchers who followed Firefly will get much more out of the film than those who haven’t. For fans, Serenity elevates the show into much more than just a robust space opera; it becomes the well-crafted farewell to the characters and universe that Whedon was unable realize on television.

Serenity could be called the ultimate modern western. Although it takes place more than 500 years in the future during a space-traveling era when men have found and terraformed entire planets, its heroes still carry futuristic pistols and live by codes of honor that would make any cowboy proud. It’s not an easy configuration to swallow because these are two genres that don’t seem to have anything in common - and, in fact, directly contrast one another; perhaps needless to say, spaceships and horses simply don’t mix. And yet, the same complaint could be leveled against Star Wars, whose Jedi heroes were inspired by Japanese samurai movies (most notably Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s a testament to Whedon’s skill that he has overcome any preconceived notions about what does and doesn’t belong and created with Serenity a breathtakingly original universe that defies sci-fi clichés.

The movie strikes a successfully careful balance between catering to fans and making sure that newcomers know exactly what’s going on. Whedon covers with a new light material that was implied or glossed over in the television show. The story follows the crew of Serenity as it sneaks through the galaxy, taking menial thief work and avoiding the deadly Alliance government, which is on its tail. The Alliance has enlisted the help of a methodical assassin to find and kill a seemingly helpless 17-year-old girl named River Tam, who has taken refuge on Serenity. We don’t want to give away spoilers, but the film evolves from there.

Serenity’s characters are rich and multifaceted, which makes them both more realistic than the sci-fi norm and in turn easier to identify with. Captain Mal Reynolds is a likable, humorous hero and he is generally good, but he isn’t perfect. There is a scene in which, faced with the task of either rescuing a civilian from certain death or getting away with some stolen money, he chooses the loot. In contrast, the movie’s main villain is anything but the evil caricatures found in so many lesser projects. He is a thoughtful pursuer who genuinely believes that when he kills his enemies he is making "better worlds" for people to live in. Audiences will actually find themselves liking the killer, who has no problems engaging in genocide if he thinks it is for the greater good.

These are characters with more depth and realism than George Lucas could conjure up with a team of 400 digital animators and a limitless budget. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker changes from all-good to all-bad in the span of a single, completely unrealistic scene. Lucas cannot seem to grasp the idea that real beings are never so cut and dry, and as a result it becomes a struggle in dedication to keep disbelief suspended. Whedon’s heroes and villains by comparison never suffer these conventionalisms or short cuts. They draw and maintain emotion from beginning to end.

The storyline is intensified through smart pacing and Whedon’s unwillingness to pull any punches in order to appease fans. The movie does not provide a happy ending for each of the main characters. This truth is shocking because sci-fi fans have been groomed to believe that their heroes will usually walk out alive and well. When the opposite happens in Serenity, it’s jolting, and it makes the action that follows that much more engrossing simply because viewers really won’t have any idea what to expect.

That’s not to suggest that Whedon has nailed everything. While most of the writing in the movie is witty and may even draw chuckles, it is occasionally overcooked and unrealistic. Meanwhile, Firefly’s "preacher" character has been misused in Serenity, thrown in as a quasi-cameo and without any real story merit. He could have just as easily been cut entirely and it would have made no difference, particularly to new audiences with no emotional ties to him.

Serenity, however, is not all simply about the characters. Those looking to this movie to deliver big action and room-shaking explosions will not be disappointed. The film takes viewers to multiple believable worlds, into intense space battles, through speedy chases, and along for some gorgeously choreographed fights. These sequences are extremely well done, brought to life with both excellent pacing and some very respectable computer graphics - maybe not Star Wars quality, but pretty damned believable all the same. The final 20 minutes of the movie in particular are nothing short of outstanding and we think any action guru will cherish them.

Serenity arrives as a mixed blessing. Not because it falls short of greatness, but because it doesn’t: although it is a fantastic sci-fi work and a fabulous follow-up to the Firefly television show, it bombed at the box office and isn’t likely to see a sequel. And that’s a real shame, because we’d love nothing more than to take another ride on Whedon’s unconventional ship.

Score: 9 out of 10