Thursday 9 December 2010

Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz and Chiwetel Ejiofor
I caught the odd episode of Firefly back on its original run. I didn't have a TV at the time but I was flying over to the States a lot and every now and again I saw something other than That 70s Show, which never seemed to be off air. Firefly seemed like a pretty good drama but I didn't have the back story so couldn't really say. What I didn't realise until later is that nobody else did either. Fox have built something of a reputation for screwing up shows on their network but they really did a number on Firefly. They didn't just show the whole thing out of order, they refused to show the feature length pilot first. They interrupted its run for sporting events. They cancelled it before the end of the first season, though creator Joss Whedon had envisaged a seven season story arc. With an eye on the eventual DVD release, he also shot it in widescreen but Fox did a pan and scan job for broadcast. If there was something else they could have done wrong I can't think of it.

When I first saw Serenity, the feature length follow up to Firefly, shot three years later, I was hugely impressed. This was a real science fiction story, one that didn't just have an epic space battle and a cute chick kicking large amounts of ass but actually made us think too. I remember particularly loving the fact that all the technology looked used and reused, like it did in the original Star Wars movie, because back then George Lucas didn't have enough money to make everything artificial gleam that idiotic newer than new gleam that repels dirt and age and reality the way he insists on nowadays. Yet watching afresh, after spending a couple of weeks working through Firefly's entire run in the order Whedon planned, I found that Serenity does have flaws, but perhaps they're inherent. Now I know who these characters are, I wanted to see their story arcs but Whedon was forced to compress six unshot seasons of that into a mere two hours.

Needless to say it doesn't work as well as a single movie as it would over a more leisurely six season exploration, but Whedon does give it a really good try. In fact the way he introduces his universe and the characters that populate it is better than the pilot episode that Fox screwed up. The first scenes unfold to three layers, nothing if not ambitious, but they cover so much. They define the real focus too: River Tam, played by Whedon regular Summer Glau. In Firefly she was a broken character, one who has been experimented on by the Alliance, the people who run this universe, but one who was also rescued by her brother, a doctor named Simon. For those who haven't seen the show, Firefly is the class of ship that they join, initially as passengers but soon as crew. Serenity is the name of the ship and it's run by Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who fought for the Independents, the losing side in the galactic war that consolidated power for the Alliance.

There are many things that made Firefly special and this concept of building a series around the folk who lost a war rather than those who won it is the foundation of them all. Mal and his crew are our heroes because we watch them do good episode after episode, but they're outlaws by trade, people who bend and break plenty of rules every time out. Yet they're not anti-heroes as the setup makes us reevaluate our automatic bias that it's always the good guys that win wars. I love the ambiguity of this universe, where the Alliance are the bad guys but apparently do a lot of good too. Life always seems better on core Alliance planets than those out in the boonies. Yet the Independents have freedom on their side, the ability to go wherever they want and do whatever they like. There's security and stability on one side, freedom and risk on the other. It's fascinating to watch and try to decide where we would place ourselves in this universe.
River Tam was always going to grow as the seasons ran on but here she's thrust to the forefront as the heart of the story. The film begins with her under Alliance control, dreaming while being experimented on to harness her psychic powers and turn her into a weapon. Her dreams become her reality, but she's promptly rescued by her brother, only for us to realise that we're watching a recording that sets our new story in motion. The Alliance are defined here as the bad guys, as brutal and inhuman monsters, but once that's enforced we're thrown a curve by the character watching the recording of River's rescue. He's an unnamed Alliance assassin, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, always a deep actor to watch. Here he does evil deeds and he knows it but he believes in what will grow out of them. He's an idealist, a calm and very dedicated idealist, and the chase is on to bring River back to the Alliance from the ship she's hiding out on, Serenity.

Ejiofor is a heavyweight actor and he's superb here. His character has no name, rank or number. 'Like this facility, I don't exist,' he tells the doctor from whom River escaped, before making him fall on his sword. He's infuriatingly Zen and he's a gem of a character, set up well in a few short scenes. His opponents are the crew of the Serenity who had a whole season of Firefly to grow, but he's a worthy foil. I won't run through all the crew members but all of the regulars from the series are back, reprising their roles. All have a part to play in this story with nobody sidelined too much. We also get another new character, a hacker called Mr Universe, who lives in his own fortified metal castle with the lovebot that he married. Mr Universe is enticing, not least because he's played by David Krumholtz, the year he began as Charlie Eppes in Numb3rs, but he's gone far too quickly. He deserved to grow as a recurring character but doesn't get the opportunity.

The story that unfolds here is a timeless one, coincidentally one getting a lot of exposure on the news at present. There are secrets in this universe that the citizens of the Alliance are not privy to. We already know from the series about what they do to people like River Tam but the crew of the Serenity stumble onto an even bigger secret here that explains far more of the background to the series than it has any right to. A six season explanation wouldn't have had to tie it all up with just one bow. It's still a good secret though and its timeliness today is palpable. It also helps define why Mal and his crew are our heroes, because they show here what heroism is, putting a principle of freedom above their own safety. They make freedom ring too, making us proud of them and wanting to join in their fight. No wonder there are so many dedicated followers today of this mangled series: watching Serenity makes us want to join the Browncoats.
Joss Whedon originally came up with the concept for Firefly after reading Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the book about the battle of Gettysburg that was adapted to film in 1993. He liked the idea of people trying to find their identity after losing a war. It would be easy to compare the Independents like Mal Reynolds to American Confederates but there's a deliberate lack of moral background to allow that to go too far. The take is merely of Confederates during the age of reconstruction, a difficult time for the folks who lost, especially those who still believed in a cause. As expected in such a short running time, there are more obvious comparisons in Serenity to be drawn, like the Jews under the Nazis. It wouldn't be difficult to see the Alliance as Great Britain and Serenity as the American colonists, if they'd lost the war for independence, but what leapt out to me today was Serenity as Wikileaks and the Alliance as the US government.

That would make Capt Reynolds a version of Julian Assange but I doubt the Aussie would cut as dashing a stride as Nathan Fillion in the lead role of this movie. Fillion is an underrated talent, though I've only seen him in Firefly/Serenity and his more recent series Castle. He's not the only one either, his whole crew being populated by talented actors, many of whom have become Joss Whedon regulars, including Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau. Nobody lets the side down, though there's precious little screen time for any of the nine central characters in this film, eleven if you count the additions of Ejiofor and Krumholtz, especially as the story rides over them all with its dynamic message of freedom, as emphatic as Rorschach's final words in Watchmen, that being another obvious comparison to draw. Serenity is Rorschach, merely less black and white, while Ozymandias is both the Alliance and its unnamed assassin.

It's not unfair to reach for references as Joss Whedon filled the movie with them, but such detail is only one reason to watch and rewatch. The performances are worthy of that also, but most of all the story is one that resonates and seems to become more resonant over time. The ending is a tough one, but it's appropriate. You don't fight for nothing and you don't all come out intact, but hope says that there's always a future. Throughout Firefly, Whedon made tough choices that others would not, avoiding political correctness and artistic license. It made his universe more real than any other science fiction show I can think of and this feature is a worthy, if inherently flawed, addition to that. Anyone with an attachment to the characters, which is anyone who saw the whole series, will find parts of this film difficult, but that's the point. Firefly and Serenity are about life, all the bits we want to remember and the bits we don't. That's refreshing.


Mia Manns said...

Some very interesting comparisons are drawn here. I agree that while Mal is an outlaw, constantly breaking Alliance laws, he remains honourable for the most part. He makes his money by stealing, not by killing. What's wrong about stealing from your oppressor? It'd be nice if the crew would eventually do something bigger against the Alliance, but I guess that's just what we're missing with the show's cancellation. Serenity strikes a heavy blow against the Alliance, revealing the truth (You can't stop the signal!) and hitting them pretty hard, but the ending is just so much less complex and well-drawn then it could have been. Such a shame!

jervaise brooke hamster said...

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