Tuesday, September 27, 2005

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Serenity -- the review

Forget the clever marketing strategy -- is Serenity worth the coin? Does it soar like a leaf on the wind?

The answer partially depends on where you fit in the movie-going universe:

1) Joe and Jane Moviegoer. If you like action flicks with a dash of surprising levity, Serenity is definitely worth checking out. Writer/director Joss Whedon clearly knows his genres, and has no trouble mixing them -- in this case, sci-fi and westerns -- and has even less trouble subverting genre stereotypes. The best parts are the first and last 30 minutes of the film. There's a lot of backstory exposition, and if you go for opening weekend, you might notice a lot of oddly enthusiastic moviegoers, but I agree with Variety's Derek Elley in saying that, "Familiarity with the original episodes isn't necessary, as a tight opening effectively recaps the backstory." This is not Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me -- thank God.

[UPDATE: I'm glad to see this thumbs-up from someone illiterate in Whedon-speak.]

If geeks and fanboys scare you, do not see Serenity on opening weekend. Then go.

2) Firefly fans. Hmmm... how to put this.... hell yes, it's worth the coin. Whedon brought his "A" game and Universal gave him just enough money to make it very, very shiny. Whedon accomplishes in Serenity what he did so proficiently in his best work on TV -- he creates characters who stay true to their motivations, and then makes you realize that just because an actor is featured in the opening credits, there's no guarantee that they'll still be alive when the end credits run. It's that credible danger that makes the final half-hour of Serenity so intense for fanboys and fangirls alike. In Chiwetel Ejiofor, Whedon has found the perfect villain for this piece. Summer Glau and Nathan Fillion are equally good in the emoting and kickass fighting categories. The rest of the cast has their moments as well.

3) Aspiring movie auteurs: This take from Ken Tucker's New York magazine review should whet your appetite:

[Whedon] can write quick, gabby banter for an array of heroes and oddballs better than any auteur since Preston Sturges, and he can dramatize the camaraderie within an ensemble better than anyone since Howard Hawks.

My take: You wish you could do a tracking shot like the one Whedon serves up in the opening credits. Serenity is a nice exercise in demonstrating how special effects should serve the story and not vice versa. As for dialogue, one person who saw an earlier preview put it best: "Han Solo wishes he was this cool." Whedon betrays his TV past with some claustrophobic shots at some junctures, but this is a great big-screen directorial debut.

4) Libertarians: Back in August, I resisted posting on this debate on the politics of Firefly that had been going around the blogosphere. Having seen Serenity, I think I'll weigh in.

To recap: Tyler Cowen argued that the "implicit politics" of the show imply it's "actually Burkean conservative."

Sara T. Hinson thought the show sounded libertarian themes -- like all sci-fi:

At its best, science fiction advocates liberty. While Star Trek lamentably supported a "Federation knows best" mentality, other works like Star Wars and Robert Heinlein's novels have promoted the dissolution of central rule and the triumph of the individual. For the science fiction writer, space means one thing: freedom. Like the Wild West where men made their own rules and property rights were enforced at the end of a landowner's shotgun, space has afforded the hope that one day man can move beyond the reach of any government's oppressive hand.

Having seen Serenity, I have to side with Hinson. While I thought the television show had both libertarian and modern liberal themes, the movie is actually more libertarian . Indeed, without giving Serenity's plot away, the information you discover about the Reavers negates one of the anti-libertarian critiques present in Firefly.

So go see the goram movie.

UPDATE: Jacob Levy saw the same screening I did, and blogs an excellent review. This paragraph captures the film well:

This is not a genre-buster like Matrix or even a genre-redefiner like Blade Runner. It's more of an ante-raiser like Alien: "See? This thing that we've gotten used to seeing done badly can be done really, really well." For Alien, it was making a monster movie genuinely suspenseful, scary, and visually compelling. For Serenity, it's making space opera morally serious and centered on complete characters with convincing relationships and first-rate dialogue. I predict that it will make watching Star Wars or Star Trek movies harder to do without cringing.

Matthew Yglesias also liked it -- though I don't agree with Yglesias' assertion that Whedon painted "the Alliance as a cartoonishly evil empire."

[Dude, don't you and everyone else are overreading a sci-fli flick?--ed. You don't know Whedon. From the Toronto Star's Marlene Arpe:

Whedon's work is studied in universities, it's the subject of academic conferences and about a dozen books in print.

[Whedon says,] "Who's gonna feel bad about that? I've worked enormously hard on every episode of every show I've ever done, not just to have it be interesting, but to have a very specific reason to put it on ... And so there's been, with my writers, a great deal of discussion about philosophy and politics and message and structure, so to have it be a field of study, feels like we actually communicated.... Language is my drug."

So there.]

ANOTHER UPDATE: In Reason, Julian Sanchez has a link-rich, spoiler-rich essay on the philosophical roots of Serenity -- and makes a persuasive case for the role of Camus as well as Hayek. In Slate, Seth Stevenson likes Serenity but thinks Joss Whedon's comparative advantage is in the long narrative arcs of episodic television. Salon's Stephanie Zacharek agrees:

I still feel some anxiety that "Serenity" will be viewed by audiences unfamiliar with Whedon's work as just another sci-fi-geek enthusiasm. My problem, I think, is that "Serenity" dredges up some of the same feelings I have when a movie adaptation of a book I love just doesn't measure up. I'm so used to "reading" Whedon in the long form -- so used to riding the rhythms of his television series, rhythms he sustains beautifully week after week, season after season -- that "Serenity," as carefully worked out as it is, feels a bit too compact, truncated. That's less a failing on Whedon's part than a recognition of the way TV, done right, can re-create for us the luxury of sinking into a good, long novel. I hope Whedon makes many more movies (and there's the enticing possibility that "Serenity," if it does well, will be the beginning of a franchise). Faced with a big screen, Whedon knows exactly what to do with it. But the small one needs him, too. Of all the pleasures TV watching has to offer, he has perhaps tapped the greatest one: that of waiting on the docks, anxious to find out what happens next.

posted by Dan on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM


I was at the DC screening tonight and really loved the movie, but it was a very different experience from viewing an episode of Firefly. Of course, a film should be much more than an extended TV episode, but part of me just wanted to see more episodes of Firefly. Serenity is definitely not the same experience. The story is too big and the events too intense for that. Without giving too much away, it's almost like Joss Whedon decided to take these characters he (and millions of fans) have grown so fond of, and see how much hell he can put them through. The humor is still there and is very well done, but the warmth of the TV show isn't quite there simply because there is more action and exposition and less character interaction. That's to be expected when you have an involved story to tell in a short amount of time, but it's still somewhat regrettable. That being said, the movie is great, go see it!

posted by: Ricky Barnhart on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

How about for a Whedon fan who hasn't seen _Firefly_ yet? Will the movie be improved by marathon watching the series DVDs first, or is that irrelevant?

posted by: dave on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Dave, I think it's still pretty good if you haven't seen Firefly, as I had not. I definitely missed a few things, but it was still enjoyable. It has the same witty Buffy banter that you'd expect from Whedon. A marathon viewing might improve your viewing, but it's certainly not necessary.

posted by: PaulNoonan on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Ehhh... everyone's a libertarian when they feel oppressed; that's what I pull out of Firefly.

posted by: Contrariety on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I think seeing the series would definitely improve your enjoyment of the movie, but you can understand what's going on without seeing the series.

posted by: Ricky Barnhart on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I haven't seen Firefly yet, but plan to get the DVD set, would watching Serenity first spoil Firefly?

posted by: DM Andy on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]


You need to check out Veronica Mars. Season one comes out on DVD in a few weeks. Whedon's a big fan, and he's going to do a cameo soon.

posted by: Jeff on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was glad to see that it was able to stand on it's own - having viewed the series will make the movie more fun but is by no means a requirement. Likewise, seeing the movie will in no way spoil the tv series.

posted by: Steven Anderson on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I think good fiction forms a sort of mirror for the philosophy of the viewer - people get out of it something that makes sense from their own point of view - which is why Left-Liberals, Libertarians and Conservatives can be found in numbers among the fans of Firefly, and hopefully Serenity.

I've seen it three times (previews and premiere), and it rocks. I try not to get hung up on the politics of a movie unless the writer/etc. are heavy-handed about it, which Joss isn't.

As long as you're not looking to pick nits, everybody but committed communitarians can love this movie. And even they might, if properly drunk.

posted by: Merovign on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I predict that it will make watching Star Wars or Star Trek movies harder to do without cringing.

Given that the three new Star Wars movies have been Cringe Central, this isn't much help. And non-cringing Star Trek movies? Hmmm ... Khan, and Voyage Home and, hm. Short list, no?

posted by: Doug on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

DM Andy: No. While the movie Serenity does finish up a somewhat mystery from the series, it doesn't answer every question... and the series isn't much concerned with that mystery anyway.

The series will give you a good perspective on the characters, and besides, it's darned fun.

posted by: B. Durbin on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Thanks for the round-up, Dan. One of the things that struck me about the movie was the explicitness of the theme--seldom have I seen such a movie that would openly discuss the values driving the characters. And as I said in my short review, I don't think Mal believes in the perfectability of Man.

posted by: B. Trovato on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I haven’t seen Serenity yet, although I’m hoping to go day after tomorrow (curse you, school!). I’ve been a devoted fan since it aired on FOX, and I’m so very happy they made a movie.

But I’m not writing in about that. I want to write about…STAR WARS. Lots of people have compared Firefly/Serenity to SW. Generally unfavorably, of course, but more in a ‘that’s how Lucas should have done it!’ way. When it comes down to it, though, the only part of the SW universe that even compares to Firefly is the original trilogy. The rest is more akin to an even more elitist and bureaucratic Star Trek.

After all, the last three movies have glorified what it basically a stratified bureaucracy staffed by an unchanging oligarchy, usually filled by royalty and corporate sell-outs. That’s not really my idea of democracy or republicanism – is it yours? And of course, the Jedi – the ultimate secret police; they freely pull the strings of government, work in the military, and feel free to interfere in an individual planet’s government, whether or not the planet wants their help. That leaves aside their forcible kidnapping of babies for religious indoctrination…

And that’s just the movies.

If you’re a die-hard fan and read the books and the comics and everything, it gets even worse. Imagine this – the galaxy is now controlled by the New Republic, the government formed after the Rebellion took over most of the galaxy during the civil war. Instead of becoming a just and limited government, they become yet another bloated bureaucracy, with a weak political system vulnerable to political upsets. Civil war and factional fighting nearly tears the young government apart over the years. Twenty-five years after ANH, extragalactic invaders come conquering, spreading a nihilistic religion that values submission to their gods and self-mutilation as prayer. The divided government refuses to believe it could be true, and in six years, the invaders nearly destroy them all. The Jedi are of uncertain help, plagued by factional difficulties – one faction advocates a no-holds-barred fighting, with little moral restraints; the other values meditation, believing that the invaders can be reasoned with.

In the end of course, the invaders are beat off, but there are lasting repercussions. The Jedi fully embrace a post-modernist reasoning for their religion, in which there is no right or wrong, only the means to an end. And yet another galactic government is born…

This is the DRECK I have had to deal with since 1999. Years of this crap have turned a devoted fangirl into a fangirl-in-flight. It is an odd phenomenon that the Empire – decried as the sources of all evil in ’77 – is portrayed as a liberal, democratic society with equal rights for all thirty years after the Emperor’s death. It’s now pretty common to sig. lines that say “if I was in Star Wars, I would be Imperial.” And that leaves aside the isolationist government that refuse to come out and play like good little boys… They’re muchly beloved by fangeeks as well.

SW has strayed so far from its roots that it isn’t about liberty vs. tyranny or good vs. evil anymore. It’s a story about how wonderful it would be if we’d all just shut up and listen to our betters. And that’s probably why so many fans are fleeing to other, more hospitable fandoms.

Fandoms like Firefly, for instance. Where SW is all about the governmental oligarchy, Firefly is all about the mass democracy, a la Jacksonian America. And that’s why we all love it, because we identify with its worldview. So don’t say it’s like Star Wars. That hasn’t been true since 1999, if not longer.

And even though I may mourn the death of something I’ve loved since I was a little girl, I still have the original trilogy to cherish, and a whole new fandom onto which I can lavish praise.


posted by: Elena on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Dave, Andy:
        I think you can enjoy the movie and the DVDs quite independantly of each other.  But if you're interested in the background, head over to my review, and you'll find five paragraphs labeled SOME BACKGROUND FROM THE SERIES that I think should put the film in context without spoiling the DVDs.  The idiots at Fox kept Whedon from developing the story arc for Firefly very far.

posted by: Stephen M. St. Onge on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Elena, you may find this comic of interest...

And they even make a shirt for it, too!

posted by: Tatterdemalian on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I'm not really familiar with Wheldon or any of his work. I've never seen FIREFLY. I thought the trailer looked like it was for a pretty cheesy flick.

Don't get me wrong. It's cheesy.

But good. Not only good, but better than at least 90% of the sci-fi out there. I don't think it's particularly revolutionary, like many like to gush. But it's a solid story with good characters in a good setting.

You rarely see more than one element of the story-characters-setting triumvirate in sci-fi, and often you don't see any of them.

This is good stuff.

posted by: Murdoc on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I attended the advance screening, too... unlike most others, I had no intention of ever ever EVER seeing Firefly or Serenity until the lure of free movie tix came... but I was pleasantly surprised. I don't think ppl should kid themselves: it doesn't compare to Star Trek. But it's pretty good.

posted by: admiral on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I was at the preview screening and wrote a review, and I would recommend it to anyone. I sort of knew the story, but that was unnecessary. I also usually don't like sci-fi, but When is such a good writer, it's much more than space battles.

posted by: Patricia on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

The problem with Serenity is that it's too violent for it's rating. That's gonna raise problems for families expecting Star Wars type stuff, and getting variations of the Wild Bunch.

the other problem is the post-modern, pop-cult aspect of the film. Audiences seem to want meat and potatoes, pulp not post-modern approaches. Whedon can't play it straight up to save his life, and it's not the nineties anymore. A movie like Spiderman is straight pulp and is why it worked. Serenity is post-modernist nihilism ala Chronicles of Riddick. It's basically the SAME movie except with a PG-13 instead of the R.

It also violates audience expectations to show the cleverness of the writer. Always a bad idea and one that audiences punish.

posted by: Jim Rockford on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Definitely see Firefly before watching Serenity. The character development is what sets this movie apart from others in the space-action genre, and you'll have a much richer understanding of those characters if you watch the series first.

posted by: Serenity Now! on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

On the "politics of 'Firefly' ", I disagree completely with what has been said. First of all, I don't think the politics was developed from one source, rather it was intuitively developed from several sources, which I identify as:

1.) Quaker ethical economics begun by William Penn.

2.)The real political tension in the historic Tombstone AZ between the Jacksonian ethics of Wyatt Earp clashing with the secular born-again Clanton's and the anarchist Johnny Ringo.

3.) The organized Pirate world based on historical-events-then-fantasized by William S. Burroughs in his novel Cities of the Red Night.

4.) "Wilsonian Justice" (see the writings of former President Woodrow Wilson and realize how widespread and modern his (now forgotten) ideas were/are.


posted by: Chris Strang on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I saw Serenity today, having never seen an episode of Firefly.

Now I know how non-Trekkies feel walking into a Star Trek movie. At least Spock was a part of the culture before the movies got made.

I thought this was overly-violent, dizzying ( that's not a compliment - I had to shut my eyes several times because the camera speed was making me ill) and frankly, only vaguely amusing.

Coming in and only knowing the archetypes and not the characters, I found it entertaining, sort of. The only character I really liked was Mr. Universe. Inara, OTOH [shudder].

In the end, I'm sorry I blew $6 on a matinee.

posted by: Kiz on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

If you've decided to see Serenity and haven't seen the series yet, DON'T see the movie first. Watch the series. I make this recommendation not out of, but in spite of, fandom.

Let's get far away from the fandom: let's mask all the content for a moment and look at pure context. In these terms, what happened with Firefly and Fox is a standout piece of cultural history, w/o even considering Serenity the Movie. See the episodes in the right order on DVD, then look at the order Fox broadcast them in. I challenge you not to see parallels between Fox's mangling of the continuity of Firefly's story, and Fox News' mangling of the continuity of the American story.

Next, you need to see the series to absorb the Western and Civil War references and the mainstreaming of psychotronic genre bending that make Firefly not, actually, sci fi, but slipstream. The movie doesn't give you the room to savor the blend's subtler nuances, but the series does, and it's what lifts the series from a good entertainment to an important mirror of the times.

The same author who coined the 'slipstream' label once wrote about the Star Wars pseudosaga as a mirror for the evolving culture of California. Bruce suggested the differences in the six films from Episode IV to Episode III track changes in the collective psyche of the state with the world's 5th largest GDP.

Context, not content. A little secret true artists learn is that the real power in their work is not in the content they create, but in the way that their content channels context. This is something you can't control or predict - all we can do is work to become better tools to be wielded by our contexts, which moves through us and into our work without our awareness. (Artists live for recognizing what has come through them in the moment after.) So we can stop hating George Lucas for evoking the Power of Myth, then totally blowing it. It's not his fault - he was just channelling the culture. Our culture has blown it, not our individual artists.

Which brings us to why Serenity is important, and why you should see the series before the film. The context is shifting, and right now the artist recognizing that shift in his work is Joss Whedon. It's work in the mass medium, of it, and against it, all at once.

Lest this seem to be mistaking comic books for manifestos, let me say that i think reading obsolete political and philosophical positions (such as existentialist libertarianism) into Serenity, as was done with Matrix, is pointless. I'll go further with this corollary to the 'see the series first' argument:

If you've watched Firefly and now feel motivated to go back and watch Buffy, don't. Myth doesn't rewind; it only re-ignites.

posted by: myles byrne on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

"Serenity", a movie in which the protagonist is able to triumph because he decides that he believes in something, is criticized by Jim Rockford as "nihilist". Uh huh. A more profound misunderstanding of a movie is difficult to imagine.

posted by: asg on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

I liked it well enough, it's one of the better movies I've seen in many years.

What I liked in particular:

1) The banter was Whedoney, that's always a good thing.

2) The characters didn't morph much.

3) Several plots of the TV show were fulfilled.

What I didn't like:

1) They completely lost me with the solid wall of Reaver ships, that was just dumb--Lucas lost me with the asteroid field and worm too. The suspension of disbelief was crushed.

2) Mal failed to put two in the assasin's head after his previous fight when he found out the assasin wore body armor, it just wasn't believable he didn't make sure of him.

3) What, Jayne had two or three grenades? I can carry more than that!

But what really torqued me up over it was the scene where River was being pulled through the doors be the bad guys, her hands are the last bit through the doors.

I need to take you back to BtVS geekdom for you to understand. Whedon put out the Dark Horse Comics miniseries Fray, about the first slayer in several hundred years, set in the future. The beginning of the interregnum in the Slayer line is shown as a frame where the "last slayer" is pulled through a portal by the bad guys, and all you see of her is a hand and forearm, and a bad guy's tentacle about to wrap around it.

I wanted that to be Faith or Buffy, and I wanted to see it or at least read about it in one of the books, but now Joss has dropped the whole BtVSverse like a hot potato.

So now I see it from Joss Whedon, but it's got nothing to do with Slayers.

Damn you, Whedon!!!

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

posted by: Tom Perkins on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

Interestingly, all the commentary I've seen from friends of mine has boiled down to one thing:

There's a lot less horribly mispronounced Chinese aphorisms in the movie than in Firefly, which makes it actually watchable (and quite, quite good) instead of absolutely unbearable. The Chinese was really awful in the TV series.

Of course, I know a lot of people who speak or understand Chinese.

posted by: John Thacker on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

ASG, I'd agree somewhat with Rockford. Some forms of Nihilism are very strongly supportive of individual beliefs. That whole will to power thing from Nietzsche? Is he not nihilist enough for you?


The key thing with belief in this film is that it is not required that the belief is accurate. Book doesn't care that Mal doesn't believe in God. He just cares that Mal believes... something.

Beyond that, no belief appears to *be* right. The Miranda scientists are wrong, Simon's wrong, the Operative is wrong, all the grand plans and schemes are wrong. When Zoe tells Mal that she disagrees with his decision (to leave the security guy to the reavers), she tells him that she is unable to judge the specifics of his decision, ie. that beliefs are radically subjective. The Miranda scene isn't just an attack on the welfare state and more broad political and scientific determinism, but on theology too. The "world without sin" is a nightmare vision. There's the strong local bias of caring for specific individuals and not for the wider world. There's the fact that it doesn't sound at the end of the film as if the galaxy is going to be a more pleasant place to live, that there clearly aren't any heroes in the sense of people who have helped others to live a better life (with the exception of Simon). Almost every postmodern, nihilist, talking point has been brought forth.

Combine this with a postmodern narrative touches, particularly in the way Wash dies, not at a climax, not even as a climax, but as a beat skipped in the film. It's a beautiful, uplifting, nihilist film.

posted by: James of England on 09.27.05 at 12:47 AM [permalink]

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