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Firefly - "Serenity" Movie - Orient.bowdoin.edu Review

Gabe Kornbluh

Sunday 23 October 2005, by Webmaster

Serenity a soothing sci-fi success

Nothing soothes the soul like a solid sci-fi flick. Serenity, Joss Whedon’s big screen foray and extension of his late TV show, "Firefly," is as soothing as can be. With special effects that hover slightly above shoddy, and a humbly remote vision of the future, Whedon’s pet project shirks the facetious expectations associated with the genre. By accomplishing this, Serenity achieves a humility that makes the film feel like a surprise rather than a bargain.

To clarify, Serenity is by no means a genre buster. With a ragtag group of intergalactic thieves, a divided universe, and an all-powerful government involved in shady dealings, the movie’s plot is far from innovative. The opening sequence, which involves a narrator spitting out the status of our future universe, feels a lot like the famous opening of cinema’s sci-fi saga, Star Wars, sans the towering yellow scroll. If, at the outset, this resemblance seems worrisome, have no fear. The closest similarity Serenity holds with George Lucas’s original is an asset unappreciated in current cinema: a cast of fresh and unknown faces.

Leading the pack of likable nobodies is Nathan Fillion, a soap star who plays the Captain of the ship Serenity. Reminiscent of a capable Brendan Frasier with a Neanderthal’s brow, Fillion brings both brawn and stoicism to the delightfully anti-heroic role of Mal. He’s a hardened warrior with a sordid past, and he guides his team with the heavy hand of practicality. A long lost son of Han Solo, Mal’s character must have a reserve of compassion somewhere, and Fillion’s career must break out big after this modest starring role.

The rest of the crew samples the catalogue of TV archetypes as well, which, in the gifted hands of Joss Whedon, is far from a bad thing. There’s Zoe, the level headed tough girl, Kaylee, the spunky mechanic, the comic pilot Wash, and Jayne, the muscle-bound simpleton. All are relatively straightforward; they work well alone, but even better together.

After skippering "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," two hugely successful TV fantasies, Whedon displays a particular skill here for making quick introductions and leaving lasting impressions. His characters have a snappy flair for dialogue and exude a potent self-assurance that gives each one a unique purpose. Complete with their own hooks and choruses, Serenity’s crew is a bunch to which we cannot help but hum along.

Mr. Whedon also makes it clear that he appreciates the value of a good villain. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a startlingly evil performance as the Operative, a cryptically named government hit man out to take down Serenity’s crew. When he faces off with Mal in different stages of the film, a genuinely gripping rivalry starts to form, thanks to the ease with which Whedon embroiders standard dramatic conflict with winks of humor and wit.

During an intense firefight, Mal asks his crew how much ammo they have left. Responds Jayne: "Three full mags, and my swinging cod!" It’s lines like this one, brought forth by the western lingo that Whedon has made natural to his space vagrants that make Serenity hilariously enjoyable.

One of the films greatest successes arrives in its neat blend of sci-fi awe and nostalgic reverence; Mal carries around a revolver, draws in shootouts, and announces his plans with the enchanting hard-headedness of the beefiest of cowboys. When Whedon silhouettes Mal in a shot of the ship’s elevator, it’s a space-age homage to John Wayne in The Searcher: the lonely prestige of manhood framed in metallic darkness.

Serenity’s plot and setting are nice, but not essential. Whedon’s characters could be sitting in a circle, furiously knitting winter caps for two hours, and the movie would still be enjoyable. For all that Serenity owes to Star Wars, Mr. George Lucas himself would be wise to inspect the elegant breeziness of Whedon’s characters. The joy of watching Serenity is seeing someone like Whedon take obvious pleasure in playing with big toys, but never allowing those toys to play him. Whedon has no qualms about presenting a piece that is simply and unabashedly character driven, however far, far away its galaxy resides.