Serenity : Fangirl Review
Reviewed by Nic Campos
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Chiwitel Eijofor, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Ron Glass & David Krumholtz
Rest assured you’re about to read the most spoiler-free review I can possibly give you for Joss Whedon’s much-anticipated Serenity. I can’t stress how important this is, although I should point out that my fierce protection of unspoiled eyes and ears is for the benefit of those who are familiar the film’s earlier incarnation – 2002’s miraculous Firefly, the TV series which was axed after a shameful mishandling and poor marketing by Fox. The show whose loyal, dyed-in-the-wool – or perhaps Chinese silk – fans just wouldn’t let it die. God bless you, Browncoats, for your tenacity, because Serenity is likely one of the most entertaining movies you or anyone else will see all year.
For the uninitiated, here’s your rundown: It’s the future, about 500 years hence, and mankind has abandoned an overcrowded Earth for a distant galaxy with numerous terraformed planets. A recently-fought intergalactic war resulted in the core-planets’ government, the Alliance, victorious over an Independent faction of outlying worlds, and there’s still a lot of bad blood flowing over the defeat. Several pints of which courses through the veins of Malcolm Reynolds (Fillion), a veteran of the Independents who now ekes out a living with his dedicated crew aboard the Firefly class starship Serenity, performing illegal salvage, the occasional armed robbery and the like to keep food on the table and their ship in the air.
Enter the Tams: Wealthy, brilliant young doctor Simon (Maher) and his psychologically-damaged yet staggeringly gifted sister, River (Glau). In a barn-stormer of an opening sequence, we are introduced to the siblings’ background which viewers of the show already know – that River was experimented on in an Alliance-run lab posing as an academic facility, until her brother was finally able to track her down and rescue her. New to this fable, however, is our first glimpse into why River – also gifted with psychic abilities in addition to physical and mental prowess – is so important to the Alliance that they would stop at nothing to get her back. And the man now tasked to complete that mission is the mysterious, uncompromisingly ruthless assassin known only as The Operative (Eijofor).
How the Tams come to reside on Serenity with Mal and his crew is then quickly, yet fully explained in a series of exchanges which sets the tone for the plot trajectory of the rest of the film. Despite its flaws – and we’ll get to those in a moment – Serenity is quite remarkably structured given its unique genesis: the screenplay gives newcomers to the storyline all the information they need for a self-contained, entertaining adventure, yet doesn’t overdo it with laborious set-ups that are bound to piss off the Firefly fans who have the advantage of 15 hours of back story they’ve watched countless times. Whedon has pulled off a marvelous hat-trick with this script, and while his direction is solid it still can’t quite match his skill as a writer.
The tricky dichotomy of satisfying both newbie and die-hard isn’t totally seamless, mind you. Don’t worry, I’m still not going to spoil anything! – but suffice to say that on occasion, there are developments with beloved characters – whether it happens to badassed first-mate Zoe (Torres), her wiseacre pilot-hubby Wash (Tudyk), sweet mechanic Kaylee (Staite) or lunkheaded brute Jayne (Baldwin) – which while interesting or amusing to a new audience will simply have far stronger resonance with regular viewers of the series, who already know and adore these characters before the opening titles have rolled. While the entire talented cast gets a chance to shine, Mal and River are the leads of this particular venture, and Fillion and Glau have the heaviest load to shoulder; both are magnificent, him a magnetic, charming scoundrel in the Harrison Ford mold and her an ethereal, emotive powerhouse with a lethal roundhouse kick. Even those characters who have significantly less screen time – high-society companion Inara (Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Glass), everyone’s moral and spiritual touchstone – ultimately play key roles in the story.
A story that, to the benefit of newcomers, is packed with action – from the moment the title dissolves from the screen into the emblem on the side of the ship, to a series of bang-zoom set pieces on remote outpost prairies and in smoky, dangerous nightclub dens. Except for one noticeable (tho somewhat brief) period where the action lags somewhere in the fourth act, the thrills do not let up Nor does the often uproariously funny dialogue, which fans of the series will be delighted to know has survived the transition to film intact. However, as was hinted in the months leading up to production, Whedon has made good on his promise to make this his original vision, a darker realm than what Fox commissioned for the series and often uncompromising. Still combining the best of B-movie sensibilities with A-list inspirations from Star Wars to How The West Was Won and everywhere in between, no cow is sacred this time around, and as regulars of the Whedonverse in its previous incarnations – Buffy in particular, but also Angel – have come to expect, anything can happen and often will. (This is your warning, nebulous as it is. I can say no more…trust me.)
Which leads nicely into one of the best surprises about the film, and his name is Chiwetel Eijofor. The Nigerian-born Brit has already done brilliant work in both TV and film, but here Whedon allows a newcomer to his ‘verse to sink his teeth into one of the most brutal, cunning and frightening villains to grace the screen in some time, and Eijofor is outstanding. His scenes with Fillion are rife with antagonistic menace; as the Operative pursues his target, his willingness to kill so easily for an objective he has no emotional investment in is directly at odds with Mal’s value for the lives of his loved ones, rooted deeply in his experiences of loss at the hands of the Alliance on the battlefield and every day since. The two’s rivalry, as fugitive and pursuer, bears fascinating similarities to Victor Hugo’s Javert and Valjean. It’s an especially nice revelation considering the returning villains from the series – the horrifyingly savage, deep-space-trawling cannibals called Reavers – lend themselves better to a collective presence instead of a single voice of evil. Not all the new players are so lucky – the otherwise exceptional David Krumholtz appears as intergalactic hacker Mr. Universe, and though he tries his best the role ultimately never rises beyond a useful plot device – but for the most part, all additions to the mix work like a charm.
You know, I’m just realizing I could go on for another three pages – about both the rollicking score and budget-conscious yet lovely production design. (Elements of the series’s Asian/Western influences still abound, though perhaps a bit muted – if you’re wondering, the Chinese dialogue peppered throughout still isn’t subtitled. And it doesn’t need to be, dong ma?!) I could also stretch my unwillingness to venture to spoiler territory by discussing how wonderfully the events of Serenity open up the possibilities for more films, or even a return to series television (Boy, that would be unprecedented!) But I still don’t want to risk spoiling you, my darlings – I’m not kidding, once you’ve seen the film you’ll know why I’m going on and on about keeping tight-lipped! – nor should I speak too soon of such thing as sequels (More to the point, the trilogy that Joss has promised us he’s got in mind.). It’s going to take a reasonably great box-office take for sequels or any such life beyond this to exist for our beloved Big Damn Heroes, especially given its unknown genre commodity with limited star power.
Still, stranger things have happened at the box office in recent years, and the good news is that Serenity has so very much going for it out of the starting gate. Though not quite as high-gloss as your average midsummer $200M blockbuster (frankly, the lack of total reliance on CGI is a blissful relief.), it’s got more brains and heart than a dozen Bay or Sommers vehicles. All those Browncoats who have been waiting impatiently for this film have plenty to celebrate, as Serenity represents a rare gift that most fandoms smacked with premature cancellation can only dream of. Yet even if you never watched Firefly – besides clamoring to catch up on DVD, which you will be, and I’d put money on that – what you’ve got here is one crackin’ good time at the movies.