Saturday, December 24, 2005

Film Review - Serenity

Success is not without its fair share of pitfalls as perennial cult-favorite Joss Whedon knows all too well. Following the fruition of his horror/drama television series on the WB network, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its eventual spin-off, Angel, Whedon set to work on a new drama for FOX entitled Firefly, a science-fiction series blended with a nostalgic western style to its storylines. The series however was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Although it did manage to successfully recruit a loyal fan base during its short run in the United States, a group which would more commonly be referred to later on as the Brown Coats, low ratings led executives at the FOX television network to cancel the show after only eleven episodes. Reasons for its early cancellation are attributed to its late-Friday evening timeslot, in which it was often preempted by sporting events, FOX’s inability to properly promote the program as a character-based drama, and the airing of the series’ episodes out of chronological order. Fans of the program quickly assembled the Firefly Immediate Assistance Campaign to revive the series, perhaps on another network, but were unable to do so. However, the remarkable profitability of the complete series’ DVD sales prompted series creator Joss Whedon to team-up with Universal Pictures to spawn a full-length feature film based on the now-defunct series entitled Serenity in an effort to revive the once thought dead cult-classic.

The story for Serenity is truly one of the most originative and flat-out awe-inspiring scripts to grace domestic movie theatres with its presence in the last few years, let alone this year. The dialogue is especially crisp and brilliantly crafted with each of the characters and their actions onscreen. At first glance the specific word usage would conceivably fall flat in regards to the demographic with which the feature film is aimed toward, this being young adults, but surprisingly it never once feels out of place or awkwardly constructed. Instead it flows genially throughout the picture. The one downside it has however is the amount of confusion the film may cause for those unfamiliar with the now-defunct television series, Firefly, which now appears in a DVD box set. This is not necessarily the fault of series creator Joss Whedon who took it upon himself to attempt the daunting task of having to balance within his own script – (a) a certain proportion of the viewing audience which needs to be brought up to date, at the very least minimally, on the individual character storylines and (b) appealing to the loyal following of Browncoats, the nickname given to fans of the short-lives series, without pissing off or demeaning either side off. That being said, it is not recommended that anyone unfamiliar with the series go into this film without at least some basic concept as to what the characters are all about. This would go so far as to suggest watching a few episodes of Firefly now playing on the Sci-Fi television network or renting the series on DVD and taking in a few episodes before viewing the movie.

Many, if not all, of the recurring characters of the Firefly television series return to their respective role in the feature film adaptation. While their performances are pretty much the same as they were on the small screen, not a complaint in the least, each performer seems to take their role up a notch in the transition to the silver screen. Nathan Fillion is one of the major stars of the picture and the one likely to benefit the most from Serenity’s critical acclaim. Comparisons to Star Wars’ Han Solo are expected to be made toward Fillion’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds whose ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude often gets him over his head. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the perfect adversary to Captain Malcolm Reynolds, an avowed atheist, in the role of The Operative simply because unlike Reynolds he believes adamantly in what he is fighting for. Surprisingly he is not the villain audiences might expect. He is perfectly admirable, relinquishing his ‘sword’ so to speak at the end when the cause he has fought valiantly for has been defeated. It is only his cause that is immoral but because he believes in it, again, unlike Reynolds, we have to respect him for it. And Summer Glau is wonderful in the role of River Tam. There are moments, in particular a scene in which the crew returns from a heist and she delivers the line, “I swallowed a bug”, where she is perfectly adorable. Then you have scenes, especially near the end of the film, in which she able to show off her action skills. Hopefully she will have more opportunities to work in feature films thanks to this film.

Overall, Serenity, whether it is viewed by certified Brown Coats or green horns, is an innovative motion-picture event, a true rarity in a year overflowing with lifeless big-budget action flicks and extraneous sequels, with something for nearly everyone, from breathtaking special effects and solid performances to splashes of well-timed dark humor and inspiration religious message every audience member no matter what their religious affiliation can take to heart. Series creator and film director Joss Whedon, a man quite familiar with using theological subtexts within his works, designed Serenity specifically as a means in which to answer the question his now-defunct science-fiction series attempted to ask. The driving force behind the power of belief is that we as human beings conceptualize of a greater power in the universe, greater then ourselves, which controls every aspect of our lives down to our very actions. We however still retain the ability to decide for ourselves whether we should follow the right or the wrong path in life and the level at which we are willing, or unwilling, to give up a part of ourselves to a higher purpose in life will help us in making that decision. Serenity does not pull for one particular faith over another. Although Shepard Book is Christian, audiences would only know of this if they were to watch the television series. However, atheism, a concept to which Captain Malcolm Reynolds applies himself toward for a majority of the picture, is strongly condemned in the film. Mal has a moral code but because he does not belief in anything, let alone God, he can not comprehend what it fully means. This causes him to do stupid thing and risk the safety of his crew as he does. According to Serenity, it does not matter what religion we affiliate ourselves with as long as we believe in something. It may be a tad naïve to say the least but, on the other hand, it isn’t preachy with its message which is often hard to find, especially in Hollywood. The Joss Whedon helmed picture does have other things besides a motivating message going for it. As low-budget as this action adventure is, roughly thirty-nine million dollars according to studio estimates, the special effects, in particular the stunning aerial acrobatic chase sequence near the end of the film, are positively stunning. Furthermore, Serenity’s musical score, a wonderful blending of nostalgic western ballads and mysterious futuristic accompaniments, is brilliantly composed by David Newman. Serenity benefits substantially from a brilliantly witty and charming script from series creator Joss Whedon. Its effective combination of humor, action, and heart make it a must see for any fan of science-fiction, whether they be Trekies or Jedis in training, or movies in general.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)