Saturday, July 30, 2005

Firefly the movie. Serenity now? Not so much.

Since it's a few months before Serenity hits theaters, I thought I would post my thoughts on the movie in the hopes of saving the film from itself and writer-director Joss Whedon's legion of fans (unlikely considering this is just a blog no one but me reads, but a man can hope). At no point in the run up to this film's release have I heard a dissenting opinion from the online community, and I'd like to take this moment to point out how disasterously bad an idea that is. When people operate in a vacuum, they tend not to see even the most glaringly obvious flaws because everyone around them says, "What you're doing is perfect!"

Which is the thing Serenity is furthest from, let me assure you. Also, consider this the lone voice of dissention on the internet until the critical responses hit in September where, I assure you, the response will be all over the map. For the record, the version my friends and I saw was pretty much locked except for music and color-timing. All of the effects work looked finished, and if there was more editing left to do, I would be surprised. I just hope someway, somehow, Joss Whedon finds his way to this corner of the internet and finds someone who liked the show, but strongly disagrees with "his vision of the future."

It’s been a little while since I watched Serenity, the movie based on the cancelled TV show Firefly, and I’m still pissed. But first, a quick explanation of my history with the show.

When Firefly debuted on FOX in the Friday-night death slot once owned by The X-Files, I immediately thought of it as average with a strange concept and an awful theme song. As the show progressed and we leapt around the galaxy with this motley crew of misfits who hated each other, I actually found myself kind of interested in where it was going. Then FOX killed it, and I put it out of my mind.

Once the show hit DVD and sales went through the roof, I became curious again. I borrowed it from a friend of mine and over a few days sat down and watched all 13 episodes of the show in the order they were intended. It wasn’t until the half-way point with the episode Ariel that my interest really piqued. It culminated with Objects in Space, which is justifiably hailed as one of the better hours television has seen. My friends and everyone on the internet are crazy and drunk in love with Firefly while I still maintain that it was a solid show with promise.

Then I watched the Universal-funded movie and I have only one thing to say: I’m done with Joss Whedon for a while.

In Serenity, I found myself not recalling the characters as being this unlikable, specifically Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Simon Tam (Sean Maher). These two comprise two thirds of the movie’s focus and both are consistent only in the sense they’re angry with each other. Does Malcolm want to shoot everyone on his crew if they won’t hop to his orders or will he go to the ends of the universe to save them? Is Simon a shy medic who is protective of his sister, or an angry snot that’s reached the end of his rope? Which is it, Joss?

If you’re going to have the story focus on three people, two of which spend more time angry at each other than not, then having the third be a crazed loose canon named River (Summer Glau), who was always the weakest link on the show, might not be the best way to go. Oh, and the best of your supporting characters shouldn’t be thrown to the background as much as they are.

Next to River, Zoe (Gina Torres) was the second-weakest link on the show because the extent of her character was as a stoic bad-ass of a soldier that had Mal’s back. That’s her character, start to finish, and this is what passes for a strongly written character in the Whedonverse? Come on. Look at the rest of the cast: Alan Tudyk’s pilot Wash, Jewel Staite’s mechanic Kaylee, Ron Glass’s pseudo-preacher Book, Adam Baldwin’s thug Jayne, and Monica Baccarain’s call girl Inara, were the collective heart and soul of the show, as much as Mal was the Han Solo poster child for it. These were the actors and characters who brought the Firefly universe to believable and, more importantly, human levels for the mass audience. Short shifting them in the big screen movie is flat-out stupid, which makes it all the more maddening and surprising that Whedon would do something like this. He typically knows where his strongest characters are and plays them up to the hilt, frequently too much for their own good (witness Spike in the last two years of Buffy).

For all the bitching I’m doing, let me say that Serenity starts off brilliantly. The first third of the film is outstanding and moves at a breakneck pace. Then we start focusing on the wacky visions of River, and the film grinds to a screeching halt. Then we crash to another halt as the movie introduces a silly character named Mr. Universe, since Mr. Plot Contrivance might have tipped off the audience a little early. Try though it might, and River’s final stand against an endless tide of Reavers should instantly be added to any action fan’s highlight reel, Serenity just rolls along to its fairly predictable ending, something I never thought I’d say regarding a Whedon story.

My friends and other fans online argue that "the big character death" towards the end is essential in creating dramatic tension, because after that point anyone can die. Or so they said to me. I counter with this: nothing changes after the character dies. Nothing. To be more specific, the character dies, and the most we get is "Person X isn’t coming" and then we’re on to another big action scene. This I expect out of a typical Hollywood movie where, to be honest, lesser characters have warranted more tears and shock than this did. This was a person so near and dear and vital to the show and the crew, and no one at all freaks out or expresses remorse or sorrow? Not even at the end when everyone left is safe? Am I alone in finding this strange?

In short, the biggest surprise of Serenity is how utterly familiar and clich├ęd it is. After watching the fifth season of Angel a few weeks back, and comparing certain Whedon-directed episodes of that to Serenity, I became even more surprised. When Whedon is firing on all cylinders, he becomes a force capable of making you laugh through anguished tears and I love him for it. The most powerful episodes of Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Firefly brought high comedy, powerful drama, and epic romance all into one package. Serenity brings the comedy and the drama, but somewhere along the way it forgot the formula for magic and settled on the formula for average.

Make no mistake, you will laugh heartily during Serenity. But when you sit back and think about what you’ve just seen, you’ll realize exactly where Whedon abandoned creativity and went for the easy out. Take away the names and this is the exact same action-adventure film we’ve seen for the last 40 years, right down to the character types who don’t make it to the end. I guess that is what left me so utterly disappointed in Serenity. That after going through everything he went through to make this film, it feels like Whedon just turned out a run-of-the-mill action flick with above-average acting and sharper one-liners. He can now make Firefly-based movies until he’s blue in the face, and I won’t care a lick. The only two characters I was emotionally invested in didn’t survive, ergo I find myself with no one to care about anymore.

So were there any truly inspired characters in the movie? Chiwetel Ejiofor is downright scary as The Operative, a government assassin sent out to retrieve River and kill anyone in contact with her. His own code of ethics is terrifically contrasted with the missing code of the captain, and their battle of wills is vastly entertaining. Out of the entire cast, it is my sincere hope that Ejiofor goes on to bigger and better things because he’s simply outstanding.

Fans of the show may be chomping at the bit to see what the Reavers look and act like, and Serenity does not disappoint. Reavers were built up on the series as men who had ventured to the furthest reaches of space and gone mad from the emptiness. As a result, they slaughter anyone they encounter in ways few people can imagine. So you might wonder how it is that they not only work in teams together, but also how they manage to maintain and fly star ships. The trouble is, that line of thinking will only confuse you more once you see a video late in the movie that explains exactly what the Reavers are. Once I saw that, I immediately said to myself, "Wait a minute. That pretty much kills any means by which they would be on ships and flying out amongst the stars." We are never lead to believe, either in being shown or told, that Reavers are anything more than mindless savages, and this goes back to the show as well. Sooo… how are they flying ships and sometimes actually showing restraint?

One thing I will give Whedon a huge amount of credit for is the extensive, brutal, and frequently funny action scenes. As stupid as I think the Reavers wind up being late in the film, initially they’re scary, fast, and furious, and when they give chase, you can see the genuine terror in our heroes’ eyes. It’s also a good thing Summer Glau is an ex-dancer because the acrobatic nature of her fight scenes is breathtaking to watch. Whenever River decides to take out everything in sight, it’s downright awesome. The same can be said for the final space battle in which Whedon remembers something most science-fiction films forget: Space is an empty vacuum. As such, you can go in any direction you want, and with so many ships all duking it out in a frenzy of explosions and laser blasts it can lead to some hair raising moments. The effects team really did a wonderful job during the final sequences, and should be heartily commended.

Major plot holes and character beefs aside, Serenity is quite funny and the first third is terrific as is the final series of battles both in space and on the ground. If you really must see it in the theater, then I can’t stop the signal as the ads have repeatedly told me. But I can say that you’re wasting good money when you can just as easily wait five months and watch it cheaply on DVD.

Grade: D+

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