From the Archive: Serenity


I don’t feel obligated to sync this backward-looking weekly post to some current media offering, but this weekend seems to call for it. Much as I was a Joss Whedon disciple, I wouldn’t have tagged him at the likely future impresario of the biggest blockbuster franchise going, but then I also wouldn’t have imagined that my boyhood comic book collection would provide such lucrative fodder for moviemaking. If the Make Mine Marvel aesthetic is going to be the defining quality of the current cinematic age, then Whedon is an excellent choice to be a primary creative force behind it. His television series moved to many of the same narrative beats as the classic comics from the House of Ideas in the nineteen-sixties, seventies, and eighties. While it’s Iron Man that officially launched the Marvel Age of Movies (Sam Raimi’s first-rate Spider-Man movies — and the one bad one — are officially outside of that continuity), Whedon’s official film directorial debut offered its own signals as to what was coming.

I am quite ill-suited to provide an honest assessment of the big-screen directorial debut of the small-screen storytelling master Joss Whedon. In bringing his cancelled TV space western Firefly into theatres with what amounts to triple-sized series-finale-that-never-was, Whedon is presenting a new glimpse at a fictional ‘verse that I know very well. Newcomers who buy their tickets to Serenity will, I suspect, be perplexed.

For one thing, it takes a bit to get used to this genre hybrid, although Whedon has significantly toned down the Western trappings, opting for a more clear science fiction feel. This dulls some of the most effective themes of the TV series (most notably, the sense that the universe is full of people that the powers-that-progress have specifically chosen to leave behind) but may prove to help the accessibility of a film already hindered by a cast of characters well-established to longtime fans, but sometimes hastily sketched in to the confines of this two-hour movie.

But now…that’s enough of a review of the wisdom of making this film, what about the film itself. It’s a hit-or-miss first half blessed by a slam-bang second half. After all, the first half has a lot of work to do, reestablishing the scruffy crew of the starship Serenity, most crucially for purposes of the storyline, the disturbed teenager River Tam. She was brought aboard by her doctor brother, Simon, who was trying to keep her away from the intergalactic government officials who wrought the damage to her psyche through experimentation meant to transform her inherent brilliance into something that would come in handy on a battlefield. Despite the danger in smuggling this human cargo, the ship’s captain, Malcolm Reynolds, has kept her protected, motivated in part by a personal grudge against the ruling powers nursed since he fought on the losing side in a failed revolution.

And that’s just the start of the complexities that need to be wrestled to the movie theater floor.

In the early going, Whedon tries a little too hard to have his movie be all things to all viewers. And there are some big special effects scenes that seem designed primarily to remind everyone that he has a bigger budget now (although, still a fairly modest one for this sort of film). The bigger the set piece, the less adept is Whedon’s touch. As the film progresses and he focuses the action on the sort of hand-to-hand combat that he executed weekly as the main creative force behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, Whedon’s skill as an action director truly comes to the fore. As do his skills with a well-placed wisecrack that crackles with intelligence and the sort of elegantly crafted dialogue that ran rampant in the glory days of Hollywood. As the film gets deeper into its running time, Whedon seems less concerned with explaining the story and more concerned with simply telling it. When that time comes, Serenitystarts to look like a film that may have the capability of doing more than speak to established fans. It even starts to look like a film that could create a few new ones.

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