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FireflySerenity is what good sci-fi is all about - When China Rules the Universe
By Bryan Preston
Saturday 8 October 2005, by Webmaster
I went into this film a blank slate. I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not once. I never watched Angel. And I never watched Firefly, the UPN cult series that more or less gave birth to Serenity. This is relevant because this movie was written and directed by Joss Whedon, the creative force behind all of those shows. His productions have earned him a loyal following on the Comicon circuit, as was evident by the high geek factor at the Serenity screening I attended. Even I felt undergeeked for the affair. So I went into Serenity only knowing what I had read in the synopsis and what I could see on the film’s web site. Based on the grungy post-industrial design, and the overly serious tone of the website, I expected a pretentious sci-fi film that would try to paper over the holes in its story with ponderous dialogue and clumsy character development, and make up for its lack of intelligence and soul with liberal doses of violence and digitally created set-piece battles. In other words, I expected quite a lot of what has become of the Star Wars franchise. But I went anyway.
And I’ve never been more wrong. Serenity is nothing like my expectations. The film takes place 500 years from now, and judging from the art design, no, we still haven’t conquered rust. Though the film never spells it out explicitly, it’s clear from the kanji characters on viewscreens and in advertisements everywhere that at some point China surpassed the United States on the way to dominating the Alliance, a space-borne empire cobbled together from hundreds of worlds humans terraformed and colonized once Earth became a little too crowded. Though the Alliance claims to want nothing more than to create worlds without sin, its rule is ruthless. It is Mao’s dream realized among the stars. Billions choose not to live within its embrace, and instead inhabit worlds along the empire’s fringes. But that choice comes with its own perils - in the form of crime and raiding Reavers.
Across this Red Chinese-dominated empire flies the Serenity, a funky chicken of a spacecraft that makes the Millennium Falcon look like a sleek and well-kept Ferrari. The flying deathtrap’s captain is Malcolm Reynolds (played well, for the most part, by Nathan Fillon), late of the losing side of a civil war that established the Alliance’s unchallenged rule. He and his crew have become outlaws living by their wits and their mutual loyalty, dodging Alliance police and cannibalistic Reavers while robbing banks to pay the bills. The Serenity’s crew encounter and harbor a pair of fugitives from the Alliance, which sends a deadly nameless operative (played with effective menace by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to hunt down and capture them. The operative’s writ includes a license to kill, and in exercising that license he makes the worst James Bond villain look like angelic. He is, as he describes himself midway through the film, “a monster.” One of the fugitives, a young psychic named River (Summer Glau), turns out to be the most dangerous seventeen-year-old girl in the universe. In emergencies, her lithe, lanky form becomes a weapon from the top of her stringy-haired head to the tips of her toes.
The heart of this film is a tale of crime, punishment, and redemption worthy of Dostoyevsky. But where one might expect the heavy tones of Revenge of the Sith with its clumsy attempt at Shakespearean tragedy, you are instead treated to a interstellar spaghetti Western. Through humor mixed with danger and a dash of fright, the dross is melted away and the gold of the characters shines through. And lots of stuff blows up along the way.
To describe the plot in much more detail would spoil it, but I will say that this film is at turns as dark as any horror film, as freewheeling as any Indiana Jones film, and as funny as any comedy. The latter came almost as a shock to me; having never watched any of Whedon’s other work I just didn’t see the pacing, timing, and deadpan humor coming at all. Serenity is everything good science fiction should be - swaggering, a little absurd, unpredictable, and wildly entertaining. In crafting the score, composer David Newman eschewed the usual blaring trumpets in favor of a mostly guitar and folk-based sound. It’s a brilliant if risky choice, lending the production a fittingly plucky, down-home sound.
Serenity wraps its wild tale around a she-devil in a green cocktail dress with unstoppable ninja skills, a too-cute ship’s mechanic with an eye for a handsome (if frigid) doctor, a married couple that fights together against Reavers and their own captain, a jarhead fighting man named Jayne, a fetching if sarcastic “companion,” and the captain himself - along with his temperamental ship. Serenity is an unexpectedly quirky and entertaining film. It captures the camaraderie and energy of more famous sci-fi films while never falling into any of the usual traps inherent to the genre. If you like wit, thrills, heart, and space battles, you’ll just love Serenity.