Wednesday, 2 September 2009

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then - explode.

No 383 - Serenity
Director - Joss Whedon

Some would say that I am a bit of a geek. And they would be right to do so. Just look at this site for an example. Hardly the actions of a non-geek. This is not a bad thing. Real Seth and Pretend Seth are just two examples of how geek is now chic. I like to think of myself as somewhat Chic.

I have, however, never watched Firefly. I feel this is a terrible slight to the world of scifi tv and it is one which I aim to rectify. Someone once said it was the best scifi show until Battlestar Galactica, and I loved BSG. In fact, as a tribute, a Firefly ship (of which the titular Serenity is one) is shown in the background of an early BSG episode.
This lack of experience in Joss Whedon's space world means I am going into this film blind. Without the prior back story and mythology to enrich the experience. Let us see what I can get from just the film. A pure experience.

I may not have watched Firefly but I watched a lot of Buffy. All of it in fact. I've also started watching Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's latest project. You can very clearly see the similarities in characters within these three works. So I wish to begin by discussing Joss Whedon's style and his 'voice' (for lack of a less pretentious tone).

The film follows the crew of petty thieves and mercenaries who fly a 'Firefly' class ship called Serenity. The group has a fantastic relationship and excellent chemistry, coming from working together for an entire season of the TV show (the film compresses and combines the plot elements for seasons 2 and 3).
The crew are harbouring a doctor (Dr Simon Tam) and his sister (River Tam) - a psychic who has been experimented on by the government, has mad ninja skills and is having repeated nightmares concerning a state secret the government would like hushed up.

The film follows this group as they deal with the state secret and the government operative on their trail (a fantastically polite, chillingly calm and wonderfully British Chiwetel Ejiofor). It focuses mostly on the ship's crew but also includes the wise Shepherd Book and the all seeing Mr Universe.

This group of key characters opens up some archetypes which are becoming staples of Whedon's work. Or at least ideas he likes to revisit.

Firstly let us begin with River. A calm and quite spaced out girl who has been primed to be an unflappable assassin when triggered by a key word.
This is not too dissimilar to Echo (or any of the dolls), from Dollhouse, a brainwashed woman who had had her memory wiped in order to have other memories and personalities downloaded for specific missions.
Both women are calm and subdued but have the potential to unleash deadly flurries of pain. It also reminds me of Robot Buffy who also spoke and moved in that slightly absent way.

Next I wish to flit to Mr Universe, who shares the same arrogant nerd status shared by Topher Brink, the programmer of the Dolls in Dollhouse. Both are very proud of there work and both seem to have given themselves epic levels of superiority and smugness. They are also firm in the belief that they are the sole people who can do their jobs.

Whilst River and Mr Universe seem like pretty clear influences for Whedon's later characters, others in Serenity just share behavioural similarities.

The character of Kaylee (played by the lovely, elfin and marvellously named Jewel Staite) seems like Willow. Placed in space as an engineer and desperately after some sex. Her language may be a little cruder than Willow, she may be less naive, but her tone, her worrying and her body language feels very similar.

Serenity's greatest character shares no traits from Whedon's back catalogue and is an homage to a different source all together.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds played by the marvellous Nathan Fillion. I love Nathan Fillion. I think he is superb. Go and find a way to watch Dr Horrible's Singalong blog and see his amazing turn as Captain Hammer. Then you too will see why he is so great. Bam! Said the Lady!

Malcolm's charm comes from his sarcasm, his surly expression, his reluctant climb to the status of hero, but also from the fact that his very essence is channelled through one of the greatest scifi pilots. Malcolm Reynolds is a contemporary Han Solo.

There are a lot of little points which lean towards this. They are both intergalactic guns for hire, rogues, deviants with a heart of gold - on the run from women and the law. In key scenes, built around a tense and menacing conversation, they both shoot first. Finally, look at them! Han.... Mal.... it is hardly rocket science! They could be brothers.

This leads me to my next point which could be seen as somewhat controversial. I think Serenity is the closest we have had in a long time in recreating the old Star Wars. Both films have taken the thrill and adventure of the Matinee and put it into space. Serenity takes the feel of the wild west, with war veterans and dusty sand planets and transfers it into an intergalactic chase story. Serenity may focus less on space ships and laser fights but the science fiction romp which was alive in Star Wars is very much alive in this. Far more so than in the overblown space operas of the new trilogy (regardless of whether you think they are good films or not, they are thematically and stylistically VERY different to the originals).

Both face an emotionless, relentless and terrifying villain clad in black who eventually sees the evils of the empire he worked for and changes their ways. Even the character of Inara in Serenity seems to be dressed following the same Eastern influences as Jabba's slave girls. But these little coincidences are not as important as the feel of the film. This film gives the same 'space romp' vibe that Star Wars has. The wild west feel to the intergalactic chaos which surrounds them.

What is truly special about this film is that it takes two quite flippant ingredients (a wild west science fiction matinee romp and a group of wise cracking sarcastic shipmates) and imbues it with quite a meaningful and harrowing tale about what happens when people try to control other people. Terrible shots of mummified corpses and the mutilated reavers which hang around the planet Miranda, a teraforming experiment gone wrong in which the alliance try to subdue people's desire to fight and ends up subduing their desire to do anything. At all. Thus killing them.

For whilst Joss Whedon is very good at writing for sound bite spouting smart alecs. He is far more impressive when he gives those smart alecs some really meaty subject matter.


Anonymous said...

I managed to see Serenity at the cinema without seeing firefly first.

It was one of the few times I got so caught up in a film I forgot I was in a cinema (i.e. no analysing shots, or anything).

There's some truly stunning bits where Josh has the confidence in the actors to _not_ give them his trademark sharp writing, and just lets their silent expressions carry the moment.

It's one of my favourite films.

You really should watch the series. I can lend you the Australian Box set. It has a few extra features over the US and Europe version (including the "directors cut" of the penultimate episode iirc).

Jim Carls said...

Great review, but I would truly give it a ten if you removed the spoiler. I know that, having not seen the series, you would not know this, but you let slip a major revelation that people who saw the series and not the movie would be grateful not to know (seriously). At least you didn't reveal the break-your-heart stuff.