***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau
written and directed by Joss Whedon
by Walter Chaw A key speech arrives towards the end of Joss Whedon's freewheeling space opera Serenity. The captain of an incongruous hunk of interplanetary junk--dubbed "Serenity" for said captain's transformative moment during a civil war in a valley of the same, ironic name--stands in a shaft of light and asks his disciples if, in essence, they're willing to follow him into Hell for a belief that their martyrdom will be in the cause of a greater glory. He's asking his crew, but he's also asking a slavering fanboy audience that has followed the good ship Serenity here to the big screen after the braintrust at Fox ("We'd rather focus on 'Stacked'--I'm sure you understand") cancelled Whedon's "Firefly" just eleven episodes into its run. The show found new life as a bestseller on DVD, of course, and this feature-length treatment acts as both the series finale it never got and a hopeful audition for a movie franchise. If it's still laden with such Whedonisms as thick, sometimes-inscrutable (certainly unspeakable) dialogue and a political cant worn, bleeding, on its sleeve, Serenity is also home to the kind of passion and belief in a cause worth fighting for with which the good ship's crew is infused at the bitter end.
Crafting a sort of 26th-century "Deadwood" (though I'd not stretch the comparison overly), Whedon imagines a new language of western patois sprinkled with Mandarin curses that are, occasionally and inexplicably, translated by their speakers into basic English (as in one of the film's more difficult faux-biblical passages, "Oh God, please make me a rock"), employed in the making of a civilization along a largely lawless frontier. It is, likewise, a universe recovering from a devastating war with outlaw settlements chafing against a "meddling" ideological majority that would see a union formed against all protests. Ex-"union" (here called "The Alliance") soldier Malcolm (Nathan Fillion) is the captain of a band of smugglers and criminals that, as the film opens, plots a payroll robbery on an outlying planet only to have it interrupted by a raid of murderous ghouls collectively known as the Reavers. Called "Mal" by his charges (bringing to mind biblical Malachi and his role as messenger), the captain begins the film as coldly calculating, leaving a desperate settler to his ugly doom--and he'll end it masquerading, and behaving, like the berserkers besieging them. Between, the crew is chased by an unnamed Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) charged with hunting down psychic neo-Buffy River (Summer Glau), who's more machine, really, than monster, and represents Mal's superego. (The Reavers, his Id, natch.) After much (too much) misadventure, Mal and Serenity are asked, astonishingly, to take a stand against groupthink, organized religion, and the fruitless hypocrisy that drives institutionalized, militarily-enforced morality.
Serenity has a certain audacity that's the product of Whedon, sure, but it also betrays a sense of "I told you so" that comes with a project prematurely ended now finding the freedom to choose its death. It's a valour that lends extra resonance to an early scene where Ejiofor's Operative allows one of his victims to have an honourable extinction--and one that ultimately gives Whedon the courage (as he discovered in the series finale of his "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") to kill off some (though not enough--there could always be that sequel, after all) of his beloved characters. Much of it is really just an average episode of "Firefly" with a lot of juggling going on here between introducing its characters for the smallish percentage of the audience not drawn here from the show and tying up loose ends for the rest, who were left wondering. But it's in the last half-hour, when the fans have been coddled and the rest of us brought up to speed to the extent that we can be, that Serenity becomes an ambitious, sometimes-exhilarating cyberpunk western grappling with the larger issues of faith and loyalty, family, politics, and, most essentially in this Eastern philosophy-flavoured Diaspora, balance.
Having seen "Firefly" on DVD, I have to think that the experience of the film could only be muted without at least some familiarity. Serenity's opening passages have the obsessive tenor of Robert Wise's introduction to the "Enterprise" in Star Trek: The Motion Picture--a long tracking shot (re-)introducing the major players follows a tight prologue (re-)establishing the River subplot and giving over the role of prime mover to the operative character. If you haven't seen the show, the first twenty minutes of the picture will probably seem more self-conscious, yet there's a part of me that wishes I hadn't seen the show: the obliqueness of the character development, the often awkward formalism of the language, and the television rises-and-falls in action would be more distracting, I think, had I not. As it is, Serenity feels like two average episodes and one exceptional series-ender (or cliffhanger) tied together in film-form as part valedictory parade and part impassioned attack against the corporate-driven, cash- and power-led "religion" that suppresses those TV shows that, for all their shortcomings, aspire to address the big questions in favour of entertainment that showcases people at their ugliest and most bestial. At least that's one way of looking at it. Originally published: September 30, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Universal shepherds Serenity to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It wasn't until my second viewing with writer-director Joss Whedon's feature-length commentary activated that I realized how lovely Serenity looks at home, especially with regards to shadow detail; at the end of the day, only our old friend edge-enhancement costs the presentation top marks. (While 'Universal jaundice' does creep into skin tones, it compromises the film's digitally-cooled palette to a negligible degree.) I hope I don't sound like a broken record by lamenting the absence of a DTS track, but in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the movie's underachieving soundmix cries out for that blast of nitro DTS can be counted on to provide, particularly during the dogfight against the Reavers. Nevertheless, Serenity's numerous take-offs and landings exploit the subwoofer with abandon.
Now, about that yak-track: one of the better commentators, Whedon is his typically loquacious self but not quite as discursive as we've come to expect, and I missed his usual litany of viewing and reading recommendations. Jeanine Basinger--the Wesleyan University professor famous for prematurely crowning Michael Bay "a master of movement, light, colour, and shape"--is once again cited as a mentor and constant source of inspiration, Batman is casually derided, and continuity errors are hesitantly yet routinely observed. Given that "Firefly" is often referred to as the anti-"Star Trek," it's worth noting that Whedon rationalizes a deep-space cloud formation by pointing to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and boasts that Mal and Inara are standing on the same rocky slope that served as the Genesis Planet in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Although probably not the mother lode of Serenity arcana Browncoats were hoping for, the remaining extras are geek-friendly, to say the least. Up first, nine deleted scenes (totalling 15 minutes) with optional commentary from Whedon--and in a change of pace for the studio, these are individually indexed, though you can still choose to play them as a continuous block. Aside: I wish more directors were as articulate as Whedon is in justifying the contents of their trim bin. Because she lost the most screentime of any cast member in post, Julliard-trained actress Morena Baccarin apparently became very insecure at the film's premiere, but Whedon has an airtight rationale for each of her elisions ("Pause for irony," he cracks dryly after saying a friend convinced him that one sequence was too "Wonder Woman"), all of them falling under the umbrella of bad screenwriting. Whatever it ostensibly did to the film's momentum, I wish he'd left in a goosebump-inducing passage that segues from an anguished scream of "Everybody's gonna die!" to a modified Lord's Prayer, if only because it has a cinematic grace the rest of the labour-intensive Serenity lacks. The back cover touts "over 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes," and sure enough there's also a shockingly profane (i.e. uncensored) six-minute gag reel. When these actors flub their lines, they turn into Scarface.
Three featurettes follow. Geared towards newbies, the brief "Future History: The Story of Earth That Was" (5 mins.) finds Whedon recapitulating the origin of "Firefly" and its Sino-American future, while "What's in a Firefly?" (7 mins.) zeroes in on Serenity's visual effects, specifically the work done by various F/X houses on the "mule skiff" chase--hovercrafts are a sci-fi prerequisite, according to Whedon--and climactic tailspin. (Curiously, they choose the latter making-of to start bleeping out the expletives.) Lastly, "Re-Lighting the Firefly" (10 mins.) retraces, with somewhat disingenuous guilelessness, "Firefly"'s baby steps from the small screen to the big screen and ends with footage from the 2004 Comic-Con, at which Whedon and the Serenity ensemble were greeted by a tsunami of affection from fans. For a significant sector of the buying public, this segment will surely feel like a home movie. Rounding out the disc: a 4-minute intro that prefaced sneak previews of Serenity last spring in which Whedon implores those who end up loving the film to spread the word. Kudos to the powers-that-be for preserving this slice of neo-William Castle ephemera, considering it's inextricably linked to a failed marketing experiment. For what it's worth, the clips from "Firefly" sprinkled throughout the platter throw Serenity's higher production values into sharp relief. Originally published: December 12, 2005.