Fat Steve's Blatherings

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Serenity

        INSTALANCHE!  Thanks, Glenn.

        Visitors, I hope you'll look around, and enjoy what you find.  More on Serenity here, and the main page is here.

Summary:

        Joss Whedon's new movie Serenity opens Friday.  I saw it last night, and thought it was a very good film, four stars out of five.  I expect I'll pay to see it again Friday or Saturday.
  • Serenity is based on the late TV series, Firefly, and stars the original cast of the show.

  • Whedon employs the same mixture of strengths that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel two of the all-time great television series.  The film has action, humor, and mystery, all blended very well.  The technical aspects are excellent, with one exception noted below.

  • Alas, Whedon uses the idiotic shaking camera technique again, courting nausea among the audience.  People like me had better sit in the back.

  • The movie turns dark and bloody in the last third.  I found it that part very satisfactory, but be prepared for a large body count.

  • But Whedon never loses sight of the moral issues he dealt with in Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, and manages to deliver a message that's also crackling good entertainment.

  • Overall, this film "big hit" written all over it.  I think it deserves the success I expect.


        Note: My initial mispelling "reiver" has been corrected to "reaver."

At Length:

        Screenwriter/director Joss Whedon has had really bizarre luck with movies and TV shows.  In 1992, a film titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit the theatres.  BtVS was Whedon's idea, story, and screenplay, but the studio and/or the director insisted on messing up the execution, and the result was a mediocre film — though I must admit, I enjoyed it.

        Yet somehow, in 1996, Whedon persuaded the WB to turn that mediocre movie into a television series.  During the next five years, it was, in my arrogant opinion, the best show on television, indeed the best TV show EVER.  Buffy ran seven seasons, and spawned a high quality spin-off in Angel, which was very good and ran five seasons itself.

        The reason those shows were so good?  Excellent writing, Whedon's skill in developing season long story arcs while creating episodes that stood on their own, a nicely balanced mixture of comedy and drama, great action sequences, marvelous humor, great casts who always turned in fine performances, wonderful sets, lighting, and special effects, and uniquely, a willingness to tackle important subjects.  Buffy and Angel dealt with the nature of good and evil, duty, courage, sacrifice, loss, human weakness, human strength, betrayal, bigotry, and honor, all without being preachy, dull, or simplistic.

        One other special feature of Buffy and Angel should also be mentioned, though not everyone liked it.  Whedon wasn't afraid to kill sympathetic innocents and continuing characters, even series regulars.  At least three died in the first season of Buffy, and the fatalities continued throughout both series.  Any character could die, and it made both the fear and the courage of the heroes more pointed.

      In 1992 2002, Whedon persuaded the Fox network to air a new series of his, FireflyFirefly was to be a combination of science fiction, western, and thriller.  Considering Whedon's record, you'd have thought that Fox would have refrained from interfering with him, but NO!, they just had to muck it up — they refused to open with a two-hour pilot that was already shot (it ended up being the last show ever broadcast), showed the one-hour stories out of the order that Whedon had intended, pre-empted the show frequently, and never broadcast three already filmed episodes.  Then, having ensured a small audience, Fox cancelled it.

        But in 2003 the DVD of the series came out, with all the episodes available, and in the order Whedon had intended.  It made much more sense this way, and sales were very high.  And somehow, Whedon repeated the BtVS trick in reverse — he talked Universal studios into making a feature film out of his failed TV series, using the show's original cast.

        The film's title is Serenity.  I saw it last night, and really liked it.  So much so that I expect I'll see it again over the weekend, with my wife and some friends.

SOME BACKGROUND FROM THE SERIES
        Earth is no longer inhabited (why, Whedon never revealed, but planet Earth was invariably referred to as "Earth that was,").  Mankind managed to spread to the stars, and terraformed numerous planets and moons.  Some colonies ("the Core Worlds") became rich, powerful, and smugly certain of their superiority.  Other places were primitive and brutal, and there were all stages of development in between.  Eventually, the two biggest factions among the Core Worlds decided that, for its own good, humanity should be united under one government, and formed "the Alliance", intending to civilize the barbarians (the main powers in the Alliance apparently spoke English or Mandarin as their main language; the result is that both languages are seen and heard everywhere in the series, and the crew of Serenity curses in Chinese).  While many people and planetary governments thought the Alliance was a great idea, others fought unification, with the rebel troops being known as "Browncoats" (there are conscious parallels with the USAmerican Civil War here).  Two of the Browncoats were Sgt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds and Zoe Last-Name-and-Rank-Unknown.  They were among those who kept fighting long after defeat was certain, till the resistance on their planet was crushed at the Battle of Serenity Valley.

        After the War, Mal and Zoe stayed together as partners trying to scrape a living "out in the black," the fringe area of human colonization, where the Alliance's control is still weak, where the Alliances "civilizing mission" isn't doing much, and where violent psychotics called "Reavers" periodically raid frontier settlements (in the pilot, the Reavers are described as raping to death anyone they capture alive; eating the captives' flesh; and using the captives' skin for clothing -- but usually not in that order).  Somehow, Mal found the money to buy and repair a used, broken down freight hauling spaceship, a "Firefly" model, which he named Serenity as a token of his continuing defiance of the Alliance.  Mal and Zoe recruited Hoban "Wash" Washburne, a pilot whom Zoe ended up marrying; Kaywinnit Lee "Kaylee" Frye, a mechanic/engineer; and Jayne Cobb, a fairly tough and unscrupulous man who's an expert shot and all around crook.  Mal also rented one of the ship's two shuttles to Inara Serra, a member of the courtesan's guild, and thus a prosperous and highly respectable member of Alliance society (which brings up the question of why she'd want to go anywhere on a ship like Serenity, much less away from the Core Worlds and "into the black"; Whedon let it be known that she had a reason, but hadn't revealed it at series end).  When Serenity arrived somewhere, Inara would fly off her shuttle and conduct business.  Mal and Inara were highly attracted to each other, but they won't admit it to themselves act on it (Mal because he disapproves of Inara's profession, or at least her practicing it; Inara because of Mal's attitudes, rude behavior, and her desire to keep their relationship on a business footing).

        With Inara providing some steady income and respectability, Mal and crew set off to move freight, carry passengers, smuggle, hire out as gunmen, and heist things that weren't nailed down.  Mal and Zoe never were reconciled to the Alliance's victory, and operating outside the law appealed to Mal's continuing idealistic/romantic streak — though those same emotions sometimes led him to turn down profitable jobs, play Robin Hood, or otherwise get into trouble.  In the two hour pilot, they picked up three semi-passengers, semi-crew members: Book, a "Shepard," or traveling priest/monk who knows a suspicious amount about armaments; Simon Tam, a brilliant young surgeon; and River Tam, Simon's little sister, a super-genius seventeen-year-old psychotic.

        River was in some ways the key character of the series.  A child prodigy, the teenaged River was lured to a "school" where she could supposedly develop her talents to their full extent.  In reality, it was a secret Alliance research facility where surgery was performed on the "students'" brains, various horrible psychological conditioning was performed, and skills the Alliance would find useful were imparted.  In particular, the Alliance made River a super-humanly capable fighter and marksman.  They also managed to give her psychic abilities, or develop a pre-existing potential, something they may also have done with some or all of their other victims.  Why they were doing all this wasn't totally clear, but it did become obvious that River and the others were at least partly intended as covert agents, spies, and assassins.

        Fortunately for River, brother Simon grew suspicious.  He noticed that the phrasing in her letters home seemed wrong, that she referred to things that had never happened, and that words were misspelled (River had started correcting his spelling when she was three).  Convinced that his sister was trying to send him coded messages, he eventually managed to get intelligence on the "school" and mount a rescue operation.  As the pilot opened, he and River were on the run, and Alliance agents were both trying to recapture River, and killing people she and Simon had been in contact with.  Mal allowed the Tams on Serenity both because he hates the Alliance, and because his crew gets wounded often enough to need a surgeon aboard.  But as the series developed, there was increasing fear that River might be a danger to the others aboard ship.  Also, Inara finally admitted her feeling concerning Mal to herself, and decided to leave the Serenity.  For the rest of the series's events, watch the DVDs.

THE NEW FILM
        The movie opens with a flashback: River is in the experimental facility/prison, and Simon breaks her out.  An anonymous Operative of the Alliance Parliament shows up, and reviews the records of the escape.  It becomes clear that one of the reasons the Alliance government wants River so badly, and kills those she's talked to, is her psychic ability.  Various high level members of Parliament foolishly toured the facility while she was there.  They knew things that the Alliance is desperate to keep secret, and they fear River will reveal them.

        The Operative would have fit in well with Felix Dzerzhinsky's CheKA.  He is, in his own words, a monster, but a monster with a faith and a cause.  Someday, the Alliance will bring about a civilization without evil, and he will do anything to help that along.

        Meanwhile, out on the edge of the Alliance, Mel and his crew are pulling a payroll robbery.  When he involves River, Simon gets angry and decides he and his sister will leave Serenity, but no sooner do they split than River happens to look at a television in a bar, and becomes fixated.  She utters the word "Miranda," then suddenly attacks the patrons and staff indiscriminately, leaving almost everyone dead or unconscious before Simon manages to stop her.  Mal happens to be in the bar, and takes the Tams back to Serenity and tries to find out what happened.  He soon learns it was a trick — the Operative caused the television to display subliminal messages that triggered River's "lethal weapon" mode, but in places where there was a security camera.  Now the Operative knows who's been helping River and Simon.  The rest of the film is a fairly straightforward scifi/action plot, with the Operative doing anything he can to get River, and Mal and crew trying to dodge the Operative, figure out what's going on, and resolve the situation once and for all.  I thought it all worked very well.

        I won't give any more of the story, not wanting to spoil it for anyone, though I will mention we learn more about the Reavers, whose history and habitss turn out to be highly relevant.  As mentioned above the movie has Whedon's characteristic virtues.  The screeplay's well written, there's a good deal of verbal and physical humor (the audience frequently laughed out loud), the action sequences are exciting, the acting is first rate, and the design and lighting are excellent.  But Serenity also has Whedon's habit of knocking off good guys and innocents.  The film becomes somewhat dark in the last third, and horrible things happen to characters who don't deserve it.  The bodies really pile up.  I found the climax satisfying and fitting, but don't expect a Star Trek finish where everyone important either lives, or will be brought back to life in the next flick.  The characters who died in this movie are staying dead.

        Whedon also retains his strong moral commitments.  The Operative is fighting for his cause, and Serenity's crew end up fighting for against it.  It's clear which side Joss Whedon favors, but he doesn't make the Operative's side a caricature.  Instead, Whedon addresses basic questions of morality and human society, all while being marvelously entertaining.

        Well, that's what's right with Serenity.  What's wrong with it?  The camerawork.  Whedon is one of these people who believes that if you shoot with a handheld camera, and don't use the steadycam, it gives the work the feel of a documentary, or an improvisation, or something assembled from "found footage" taken by a non-professional.  He used the technique in the TV series, and he uses it here.

        Whedon is wrong.  The lighting, the camera angles, the seamless integration of story with shots, the costumes, the effects — there has never been a documentary, improvisation, or "found footage" work that looks like this, and there never will be.  What the film looks like is a highly professional, thoroughly scripted movie, made by a director with pretensions.

        Now, shaky camera work on the big screen can make me vomit, and I've walked out of more than one movie because of this nonsense.  I wish Whedon hadn't done it.  Fortunately, he didn't indulge in it too often or too violently, and I had a seat in the rear (a suggestion from my friend A., who has the same problem).  I managed to endure it fairly well, but if you're sensitive to this too, be warned.  And I hope you'll write the studio, producers, and directors of any similar film, and complain.  This idiocy needs to be stamped out.

        Having gotten that off my chest, I don't have much else in the way of complaints.  I was surprised that Shepard Book wasn't on the ship when the film started, since he was when the series ended.  There were a couple of places where someone did something slightly stupid as a plot requirement, but not often, and not terribly stupid (still, if [deleted] had made sure [deleted]was dead, things would have developed much more happily.  Overall, the film is excellent, and I give it four stars out of a possible five.  If Whedon had used a steadycam, I'd add the at least another half star.  I suspect that if you don't enjoy this flick, you dislike all action films.  I'm certain Serenity will do a big box office, and in my opinion, it deserves to.

        And I'm looking forward to Serenity Two.

THE HOUSE OF SAUD MUST BE DESTROYED — AND WILL BE!

11 Comments:

  • Nice review! I'll be there for the first showing Friday night.

    (One thing -- Firefly debuted on TV in 2002, not 1992.)

    By Anonymous Chris L., at 7:44 PM  

  • I understand your reaction to the shaking camera, but based on some of the commentaries on the DVD, Whedon is firmly convinced that this adds to the realism of the show (and movie). What I actually found effective was not the shaky cam exactly, but the way camera wouldn't always be in focus for the first fraction of a second it was pointed at a subject. I don't recall seeing that in the movie as much as in the TV show, though. My review of the movie is here

    By Blogger Ben Trovato, at 8:50 PM  

  • What is interesting is that I am convinced it is spelled "Reavers," but I can find no cite either way... and though it sounds like it should be a word (probably related to reaper), it actually isn't... so I have no proof that it is, in fact, spelled that way. Except that I think it is. :)

    By Blogger B. Durbin, at 8:52 PM  

  • Reaver isn't a made up word. It means someone who reaves:

    reave1 ( P ) Pronunciation Key (rv)
    v. Archaic reaved, or reft (rft) reav·ing, reaves
    v. tr.
    To seize and carry off forcibly.
    To deprive (one) of something; bereave.

    v. intr.
    To rob, plunder, or pillage.

    By Blogger Brent Michael Krupp, at 11:22 PM  

  • Chris L.:
            Thanks for pointing out my erroneous date.  It's been corrected.

    Ben Trovato:
            I know Whedon is convinced "the shaking camera . . .adds to the realism of the show (and movie)."  All I'm saying is: WRONG!

    B. Durbin:
            Dictionary.com is your friend.

    The House of Saud Must Be Destroyed!

    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 10:10 AM  

  • Great review. I saw the movie Tuesday and loved it, although I was saddened by certain characters leaving.

    As for Book not being on Serenity at the start of the movie, there is a three issue Serenity comic book that explains this. IN short, he felt the need to leave the ship and start sheparding for the sake of hsi sprirt and spirituality.

    By Anonymous Christian, at 10:33 AM  

  • Christian:

            Thanks, I didn't know about the comics.  I'll have to buy them.

            Glad you liked the review.


    The House of Saud Must Be Destroyed!

    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 4:34 PM  

  • I agree about the steady cam. My reaction to the first part of the movie was that it was made by someone writing for the small screen - bad use of closeups. The big screen needs fewer scenes with an entire bead in the frame and more with interacting people. I just wish I'd seen more people in the theater.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:14 PM  

  • Anonymous:

            I saw it again on Saturday, and while the theatre wasn't packed, it had a good crowd.

            The movie was number two for the weekend, it beat out the number one _Flightplan_ on a per-screen basis, and Ebert & Roeper gave it two thumbs up.  So, I'm optimistic.

    Stephen

    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 1:22 AM  

  • In the interest of full disclosure, I had seen one episode of "Firefly" ['Trash'] prior to seeing the movie.

    I find that I am much less aware of cinemagraphic effects ("The shaking camera") than I am of the story. The story and characters are everything. No characters: no story. No story: nothing.

    I really enjoyed this film.

    There are believable, well-drawn characters. The writing is first-rate. The action comes early and stays late. I may learn to curse in Chinese.

    This is a good film. I think that to denigrate this film is to really pick nits. IMHO, this will be the best film this year that no-one sees.

    Bon Voyage, Serenity

    By Anonymous BKIvey, at 6:54 AM  

  •         I really enjoyed Serenity too.  Having seen it once for free, I paid to see it again.  I'd pay to see sequels, too.  If the writing, story, characters, acting, or directing were bad, I wouldn't have enjoyed it.

            But I'd have enjoyed it LOTS more if I weren't nauseated in places.

            Once, after new dishwasher was installed, my wife said she hated to use it because of the terrible squeek when you opened or closed the door.  I said "What squeek?"  I hadn't really noticed the noise.

            Sometime later, when I complained about blinking computer cursors, she said "What squeek?"  I'm glad you don't notice the camera jiggle, but I do, and I'll continue to complain about it.

    The House of Saud Must Be Destroyed!

    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 4:40 AM  

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