Title: Serenity (2005)
Dir.: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau
This review contains NO SPOILERS
Funny old thing about me and Joss Whedon. Every time I come across the guy, it's almost by accident.
It started in 2002. I was laid up in bed, and a friend literally showed up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 as a Christmas gift, and being unbelievably bored, I was only too pleased to have new entertainment. Obviously, I got hooked. When Buffy ended on TV less than a year later - to my mind, with a whimper - I crossed over to the infinitely more satisfying final season of Angel, and then worked my way back from the beginning with rented DVDs. Then, just earlier this year, another friend sent me the complete series of Firefly for my birthday, something I only just finished last week. And now - well, now I've seen Serenity, and I've seen it early, because of a free bloggers-only press screening. (Imagine my joy - a free press screening and a brand-new, untouched print of the film.) And although I'm not the diehard, he-can-do-no-wrong fan of Whedon's work the way some folks are, I think this finally cements him a place on my short list of Writers to Watch Out For. Whatever he does next, you'd better believe it won't take an accident, a fluke, or someone else's insistence to get me to give it a try.
What's particularly interesting about Firefly is that I actually saw it first - before Buffy, even - by watching one episode on broadcast in fall of 2002. It wasn't a strong episode ("Bushwacked"), and at the time I wrote it off for a number of reasons: the unusual western/sci-fi amalgamation, the somewhat acquired humor, and as I saw it, a overall scenario that took more than a page from the British sci-fi classic Blake's 7. Strangely, these are the same things I think of today as its strengths. Firefly is exciting because it is so unusual, and because it combines so many things you think shouldn't go together. Blake's 7 may be its natural precursor, but Firefly was more ambitious, with more potential to be a cultural impact. And even though was canceled, I think it's safe to say that impact is going to be had anyway - through Serenity, the follow-up film.
Every one of the even vaguely cinematic assets that Firefly had, Serenity has - turned up to about eleven on the dial. The space battles are bigger and grander, the fight sequences are louder and bolder, the cinematography lingers longer and farther, and the scenes in general are far more epic in scale. It's less talky than "Firefly" was, but that's a good thing, because the most dialogue-heavy sequences - chiefly, the first thirty minutes - tend to fly just under the radar, and a few lines that might or might not be important are lost under the sound effects or music. Where it succeeds best is in expanding the feel, the actual breathing space of Firefly's universe, while making it recognizably the same place. This is not a two-hour TV episode slammed on to a theatre screen. This is a film.
To say a lot about the plot would spoil it, but on the small scale, it's a standalone story. On the bigger scale, it flows fairly naturally from Firefly - for the most part, anyway. It naturally helps to have seen that series, and it will take new viewers a while to get a grasp on all of the characters and relationships, but even then it does feel a little like there's a missing piece. Two characters have moved on from Serenity's close-knit family group since the series ended, and only one of those departures is totally understood, even with the bridge of the recent three-issue Serenity comic book. (And make no mistake, all nine core characters are here - two of them simply aren't on Serenity at the start of the film.) Thankfully, every character gets their moment to shine, and you're never left with the feeling so many Star Trek films have that people are simply turning in token appearances. It's very hard to balance so many characters, and Whedon manages it very well.
In terms of the continuing story, fans may be surprised to see certain revelations, but they may be even more surprised that other threads are not followed up. From the trailers, it's clear that this is the story of what River has become thanks to her conditioning by the Alliance - a familiar theme from the series, and introduced very cleverly without a lot of unnecessary exposition. Almost every other thread is abandoned or at least unexplored, including at least one many fans will expect to see. One continuing question seems even to have been cut short, never to be answered even in sequel films (if, as I hope, there are sequels). How that's all handled is a long-term concern for fans and fans only; within the film itself the story is consistent and engaging. And yes, fandom aside, it's nice to see one solid plotline being followed through without a lot of extra baggage.
Perhaps the biggest surprise - and a good surprise, at that - is the strength of Joss Whedon's direction. I feared that this might end up another case of a perfectly good TV director going a bit sour on the cinema screen, but that's absolutely not the case. Whedon's direction shows patience and a great grasp of attractive shots and framing. He's certainly very into light - much of the film is spent in different areas with different types of light sources that present wildly differing atmospheres - one is dark, and heavily blue; one is dry and desert-like; another is almost overexposed. That could be really abrasive if it wasn't handled with care, but here they added to the film' even when I noticed the visual schemes, they didn't really bother me. And without going into great detail, their are several scenes shot in a way that really make you sit up and take notice. One is early on, when we see Simon Tam rescue his sister from the Alliance. Another comes much later, during a completely uneven fight. With these techniques, and some surprisingly good special effects, $40 million have really stretched a very long way.
Of course, as a fan, I can't say it's absolutely perfect. I was a little bit disappointed with one character's abrupt (though important) contribution to the plot, and there were a couple of shots that simply screamed "Look at me, I'm directing a movie now!" (One is a rotating tracking shot about two-thirds through the film. I hated it on Titanic, and I hate it now.) And yes, there were a couple things I expected to see elaborated upon that weren't brought up at all. Never mind. These are very minor nitpicks for what is, without a doubt, one of the very strongest franchise films I've ever seen, and a damn fine film in its own right. If enough people will just go to see it, I have little doubt it will be recognized for the quality work it is. And hopefully, it will lead on to another film, another TV series - heck, just about any continuation for this universe Whedon has created. Firefly was his strongest and most mature work yet, brought down by the idiotic minds of broadcasting schedulers and marketers. Had it continued, it would have given every other genre show on television a run for its money. Thankfully, Serenity picks up the gauntlet and offers the same challenge to mainstream entertainment as a whole.