Phy's _Serenity_ Review

Johne Cook johne.cook
Sat Oct 1 10:54:26 PDT 2005


Short review: WOW. Just? WOW.

Longer review: There is a very male word that means something along
the lines of "brash, reckless confidence".

Joss Whedon, writer and director of _Serenity_, has big, brass? confidence.

Perhaps you know the story behind the story. Joss Whedon,
script-doctor extraordinaire, manic genius behind Buffy, the
Vampire-Slayer (the series, not the film dumbed-down from his vision),
shopped around this idea of a horse opera in space ? you know, a space
opera ? where the good guys and the bad guys aren't just as clear cut
as all that. In _Star Wars_, you know who the good guys are and who
the bad guys are by the music. In _Serenity_, "good" and "bad" are
relative terms, but "manipulation" and "truth" are immutable, and thus
is the foundation laid for the smartest, most frenetic sci-fi picture
since _Aliens_.

The difference is that this picture is following on its own heels.

Joss wrote and directed a short-lived series named "Firefly," which
got it all right and then was handled all wrong. The two-hour pilot
was filmed but not shown until much later, other episodes were shown
out of order, three episodes were finished but never aired, and still
the series picked up critical mindshare and a diehard audience. The
show was a success.

Obviously, Fox canceled it.

However, in a move that showed he believed in his creation and his
fans, Whedon got the first season's episodes put together in the
proper order and released as a four-disc set. Then he sat back and

The series started small but the word-of-mouth grew, seemingly
exponentially. Before long, word got around the world that there was a
series out there with the wit of Joss Whedon, the pluck and humor of a
Han Solo, and the kind of dialogue that comes around once in a

    Mal: You know, they tell ya to never hit a man with a closed fist
but it is, on occasion, hilarious.

    Zo?: Shepard, isn't the Bible kind of specific about killing?
    Book: Very specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzy around the
area of kneecaps.

    Simon: I'm trying to put this as delicately as I can. How do I
know you won't kill me in my sleep?
    Captain Reynolds: You don't know me, son, so let me explain this
to you once. If I ever kill you you'll be awake. You'll be facing me.
And you'll be armed.

And so Joss Whedon got the green light, not to film another season for
the small screen, but to film another season for the big one. Taking
the core ideas for a second season, Joss wrapped them into one feature
film, _Serenity_, which opened today, September 30, 2005.

I mention the date because this film is kind of historic, a space
opera that is big, bad, bold, and brash.

Everybody's different this time around - the primary action takes
place a few months after the events of the series. Captain Mal
Reynolds, channeling Han Solo without the governing love of a princess
Leia, is harder, the mercenary Jayne is more vicious and
self-preserving, everyone else is skinnier, and the crew is two
members short - Inara, the companion, has been driven off to find
love, or perhaps because of it, and Shepherd Book has found a flock
where he is able to use the talents he can talk about rather than the
ones he can't. Zoe, the First Mate, is stone in love with her husband,
the kookie, vacillating pilot who is only calm when in the thick of
the worst action ("I am a leaf on the wind - watch how I soar").
Kaylee, the mechanic, silently pines for Simon, the Doctor, who is
still oblivious, and River, his possibly superhuman, possibly deranged
sister, is the key to a puzzle larger than the entire galaxy, a weight
that no one denies is too cruel to bear, but no one seems inclined to
help her with.

This will come back to haunt them. In fact, there are powerful forces
hunting her down for what she knows, or might.

Somehow, Joss has managed to keep the loyal Firefly fans happy while
introducing his franchise to a whole new audience, a neat trick. That,
alone, would be enough for most directors, but it turns out that
Whedon's just warming up. Like most mortal men, he cheerfully
assembles his characters, his universe, his franchise, and then he
plays in it. We nod and smile.

Then he gleefully dissembles it all, breaking every scriptwriting rule
in the process. The bad guys are the good guys, the good guys are the
bad guys, and the Reavers?

Well, let's just say that you never want to mess with the Reavers. Ever.

And yet it is the mystery of the implacable, ferocious Reavers that,
taken with Rivers prodigious talents that form a truly compelling
third act, ripe with moral implications that cause us to look at
ourselves, at our own times, and wonder about our own motives.

Unlike many lesser films, there are so many things that just cannot be
guessed in advance, such is the reckless fervor Whedon has with his
story. Nobody and nothing are safe. That kind of freedom is
liberating, and terrifying.

Another thing; this movie is funny. Really funny. The thing is that
the humor takes place in unguarded moments when you are most
terrified, or should be. The humor is so down-to-earth, so authentic,
that you can sense the zest and affection that Whedon has for these
deeply flawed characters. I dig that.

This movie is very dark and yet is so full of life ? and death ? that
it is positively crackles with ideas and plot twists. At one point,
First Mate Zoe says "It's a fair bet the Alliance is going to know
what's coming." Mal says "They aren't going to see /this/ coming", and
he's right, and it's the coolest ploy, actually not knowing where
Whedon is going next. I reveled in that novelty until Whedon busted me
in the mouth, and then broke my heart. By the time the film was over,
I felt like /I'd/ been in the war, and I was just in the audience.

This is smart, entertaining science fiction. It is also meant for the
grown-up audience, and nothing that you'd want to take your kids to.

I mean it.

The first Star Wars film was fun for the whole family. This, frankly,
is not. It is a brawnier, darker, more mature film, and is not for the
innocent. There is violence of ideas and situations here that is far,
far too strong for younger kids or people who thought Star Wars was
"edgy". You don't know the half of it. In this universe, Mal Reynolds
as Han Solo not only fires first, he fires last, and again just to
keep the chambers clean on his weapon. Yes, he is capable of love, but
that love compels him into a plan so daring, so foolhardy that? well,
you'll just have to see for yourself.

_Serenity_ is not a perfect picture, but it is jam-packed with ideas,
action, moral quandaries, and enough snappy dialogue to keep you
laughing while you're cringing, and hoping while you're despairing. It
is a major achievement and forever challenges those lesser directors
who caved into the fans who clamored to bring back Spock (Star Trek
III) and Han Solo (Star Wars IV). In this universe, nothing is safe,
little is sacred, and we are somehow better for it. If we survive.

    The Operative: "I'd like to solve this like civilized men. I'm not
threatening you, I'm unarmed?"

    Mal: "Good." Draws pistol and fires?
johne cook - wisconsin, usa
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