Wednesday, September 28, 2005


[NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review. You are safe.]

I went to the special screening of Serenity tonight at the Cordova Malco. It was surprising to see the long line waiting to get in, even though we got there an hour early. Turns out some radio station had a contest for tickets. I scanned the crowd to see if I recognised anyone from the Memphis blog community, but we were it.

We managed to snag some swag -- a page-sized one-sheet and some Serenity keytags. Kinda wimpy, as they didn't even have enough for the crowd. By the time the movie started the theater was maybe 95% full. Judging by crowd reactions during the crowd was largely, but not completely, Serenity fans. They laughed at all the right places and were appropriately shocked too.

The rock station sponsoring the showing (I guess?) had a banner down front, as did the Commercial Appeal for some reason. There was a middle-aged guy with a clipboard and a buzzcut running around; once in a while he'd run up into the seats. Not sure what his function was. There were also a couple of folks with hardpasses on neckchains, but they were never identified.

Anyway, on to the movie!

I had worked hard to keep my expectations down, with fair results, but I still loved the movie. Folks who have been looking for a new direction for science fiction movies in the post-Star Trek/Star Wars world should be glad for the new Battlestar Galactica and Serenity. In both, the "gee whiz" techno-geekery is held to a minimum in favor of strong characterisations and the relationships. As much as I like the technobabble and gee-whizzery, I have to say that I find the characters in these new SF productions to be worth tuning in for by themselves. They are flawed, normal people -- easily recognisable. Some strive for the heroic, some are just doing their job, but they are more like you and me than the stereotypes and archetypes of SW/ST.

At the same time, this movie has a large-scale feel, a sense of large events moving in the background as we watch our heroes cope with the daily business. It's the right pitch, as in the first two Star Wars movies, and makes us feel like we're in a large, lived-in space.

The movie's lead, and captain of this rag-tag crew, is Captain Mal Reynolds (Played with rock-solid leading man chops by Nathan Fillion.). He is an embittered veteran of the losing side of a civil war. He's a survivor of its worst battle. Like all Whedon heroes, he struggles between the desire to do the right thing and paying the costs. But when he decides on a course of action, all grey areas disappear and you are either on the team or far, far away. He is an idealist who has a tough time fitting into the workaday world. This is not to say he's honest, in the sense of following the letter of the law. He just has his own moral code, which he follows strictly.

The movie starts out by briefly setting up the situation in the Serenity universe, and answering a long-time fan question. We are then into the action. The plot is clear and the narrative easy to follow, except at one point late in the movie. The pacing is a good back-and-forth between action and dialogue. I never got the sense of things dragging with one exception, and that was more a thematic one having to do with the young woman who is the source of their troubles. We know what must come, but it takes a while. Events move quickly enough, but the thematic overlay seems stretched thin.

Comparing to the television series it is based on, Firefly, there are some differences. The use of pistols for civilians, versus heavier weaponry by the government, isn't explained and may confuse some. But, the new pistols don't look like Wild West survivors. The show's blending of Chinese and Anglosphere cultures is never addressed. Fans of Firefly of course know what's going on, but the characters spout the occasional Chinese phrase with no explanation; most of the text is Chinese too. I'm not sure how someone coming to the movie cold might react. The series intentionally conflated Chinese and Western culture and put it front-and-center. It gave the series a sort-of late 19th century San Francisco / Chinatown feel that helped set a mood and style. The movie tends to background the Chinese aspects a bit too much.

River Tam, the damaged girl, was a mystery in the series, and here her mystery is slightly more cleared up. It's very good to see that she's not some supernatural mental freak, but only slightly more gifted than the best of us. The actress who plays her, Summer Glau, does a spectacular job keeping her traumatised mind front-and-center, rather than playing her as some X-men angsty superhuman. She has much more to do in the movie than she did in the series and she rises to the demands with appealing results.

Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass, who is really showing his age; is he ill in real life?) is nearly a cameo in the movie, though in a pivotal role. Inara (Morena Baccarin, looking more beautful in the movie. Yum!) comes in late but falls into her accustomed ship role quite well. The movie's bad guy is played by African/British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. He starred in the thriller Pretty Dirty Things and is a very watchable blend of civilised and ruthless and evil all in one.

The script is packed full of the trademarked Whedon dialogue and humor. None of which will be quoted here. The crowd laughed a lot, in the right places, so that should tell you something. Fans of his throwaways and asides and conversational twists will be well pleased. I know I was. It's good to hear his dialogue again. Sometimes the language seems a tad forced in being Wild Western, with archaic terms and stilted phrasing, but it's not lethal. Just a tad clunky sometimes.

Overall, I don't think it's off-putting to people coming in to this movie cold. Fans should be very happy, certain events excluded. (No spoilers in comments, OK y'all?) I would recommend this movie to anyone, and especially to folks who are tired of the Star Trek/Star Wars ethos. It's different in that it's less high tech glossy and more grungy and lived-in. Director/writer Whedon has said that his inspiration for the series was post-Civil War America, and it certainly shows in many ways, especially in the moral code of Mal Reynolds.

My only criticisms are technical. The film is too-dark for my tastes, and the grain in the film shows too much. Otherwise interesting sets are just muddy and hard to see. Whedon also shoots a lot of the action sequences up close with shaky-cam and quick edits that make the action harder to follow than I'd like. There were a lot of establishing shots and landscape (or spacescapes) that I'd like to study, but I guess that's why God made DVDs.

As an aside, I have to say that the libertarian in me was tickled pink by this movie. Its ultimate message is libertarian to the core, as is Mal's way of life and looking at things. It's not pushed in your face, but it's there, like with The Incredibles.

Lastly, I saw the CA's movie reviewer there: John Beifuss. In person, he's much leaner and more rumpled than his picture. I introduced myself and asked his quick opinion. He said, and I quote, "I liked it!" Exclamation included. He didn't think people who didn't know about Firefly would be confused. So there you go; I just saved you fifty cents on Friday.

I attended with fellow fans AlphaPatriot and Mark. As I wrote this they didn't have their reviews up, but they should by Wednesday morning. [NOTE: Done! Links changed.] I'd suggest you read their reviews, as they also like it, but had different reactions.

My thanks to the folks at Universal for setting up this screening and giving us the chance to attend.

In short: Go, enjoy. Good science fiction; great dialogue and story; compelling plot with relevant undertones. It's funnier than the usual run of SF movies, too, which is welcome.

WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATE: Links above are fixed to link directly to AP's and Mark's reviews. AP also has another post with links to more reviews!

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