Saying that Serenity was a good bit better than I’d been expecting is a little shy of unbridled praise, since I’d been looking forward to this film about as much as one might look forward to cranial surgery. Despite the stoutest of efforts by friends to alter this attitude, I continue to lack the proper reverence for Joss Whedon, whose cult TV hits just don’t do it for me.
I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer just fine as a movie, but was content to leave it at that. The TV series seemed — and still seems — like overkill, and Whedon’s much-vaunted humor and nonstop pop-culture references often feel forced and very much in the more-clever-than-good category. The humor in particular is ultimately rather mechanical. As soon as you realize the basic approach of the jokes — the construction and the never-varying style of the punch lines — it’s almost impossible not to predict the gags before the setup is over.
And that brings us to Serenity, as misbegotten an idea as any imaginable. The source for the film is Whedon’s TV series Firefly. Now, just why Universal opted to pour a reported $45 million into making a feature film taken from a TV show that got axed after 11 episodes is one of those questions that can only be answered with, “Only in Hollywood.” That Whedon’s film couldn’t dethrone Flightplan and only just squeaked past Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to land the No. 2 spot at the box office does little to justify this decision, though it would be foolish to deny that the film plays well with the faithful, who applauded the director’s efforts at the showing I attended.
Problem is that Serenity is an entirely different kettle of fish for just about anyone else. Whedon does a good job of making the film move, and he keeps it generally entertaining, but characterization exists only for those who already know the characters from the show. The rest of us get tossed a few bones, but the overall effect for the uninitiated is about like being the only stranger at a party otherwise comprised of old friends, who can converse in a kind of shorthand incomprehensible to the outsider.
The worst of this is with the character of Inara (series veteran Morena Baccarin). We can pick up that she’s the ex-girlfriend of Capt. Mal (series veteran Nathan Fillion), and that she’s taken up residence at some kind of training facility for intergalactic geishas, but we never know why. In fact, we never know anything about her, except that she and Mal constantly bicker like refugees from a phony Howard Hawks picture — and ultimately, the film does nothing with her. She mostly just stands around on the edge of scenes to such a point that it’s possible to forget she’s there.
This shortcoming is more pronounced by the fact that the best — and almost only — developed character is The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things). This character does not appear in any cast list of the original series, nor does Ejiofor, which may be why Whedon spends some time establishing him, which he rarely does with anyone else. It’s therefore not surprising that Ejiofor’s character is the most interesting thing in the film.
The story line is OK without being distinguished. Basically, Serenity is a Western set in outer space, something that’s emphasized a little too abundantly by the improbable fact that this advanced civilization uses little more than elaborate six-shooters for weapons. Arguably, Serenity has something on its mind besides the self-glorification of its own mythology. The plot includes outwitting a vaguely fascist government in its attempt to recapture one of its escaped creations, River Tam (series veteran Summer Glau), a psychic killing machine who might spill the beans about some dark governmental secrets. (It wasn’t surprising to hear one patron leaving the theater commenting to his companion, “Somebody needs to tell George Lucas that this is how you do it.”)
Combine this with Ejiofor’s performance and Serenity‘s entertaining verve, and the film is certainly worth a look, despite its flaws and often-sketchy special effects. The latter will doubtless play better on TV — as, I suspect, will the film overall — when Serenity comes to DVD. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke