The Movie Review: 'Serenity'

Serenity, writer/director Joss Whedon's exuberant space opera, opens with one nod to the power of love and closes with another: the first concerns a brother's affection for his sister; the second, a captain's for his spaceship. (Tellingly, the latter is, if anything, more touching.) The two scenes form an apt pair of bookends because, to the extent this can ever be said of a major Hollywood release, Serenity is a product of love--that of fans of "Firefly," the cancelled TV series from which the film was spun off, of the cast, and most of all of Whedon himself.

Following the successes of his cult hits "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," in 2002 Whedon left the horror-comedy realm to launch "Firefly," a picaresque, Western-themed sci-fi series that followed the interplanetary wanderings of Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former soldier in an unsuccessful interplanetary rebellion, and the crew of his ship, Serenity. (The movie is named for the vessel, which in turn was named for a battle Mal fought in--none of which could be accurately described as "serene.") Created for Fox, "Firefly" was Whedon's first big-network experience ("Buffy" and "Angel" aired on the WB and UPN), and it wasn't a happy one. In their inscrutable wisdom, network executives decided to air the series out of sequence; when it struggled to find an audience, they pulled the plug after eleven episodes.

But, as fans of "Buffy" and "Angel" know, Whedon has a penchant for bringing things back from the dead. "Buffy" itself was raised from the ashes of the eponymous movie, for which Whedon had written the screenplay. Unhappy with the way his dark comedy had been lightened during rewrites, he resurrected his heroine for the small screen. "Firefly" faced the opposite--and more difficult--challenge of persuading a studio to back a film based on a cancelled series. But while the show's audience was small, it was committed. Calling themselves "browncoats"--after the defeated rebel forces in "Firefly"--they wrote letters and showed up at sci-fi conventions and, when finally given the opportunity, voted with their wallets: When a DVD set of the entire season was released in late 2003, it vastly outsold expectations. That windfall, and Whedon's perseverance (he'd even kept several of his cast members employed with stints as villains on "Buffy" and "Angel"), persuaded Universal to bite on a $40-million feature-film adaptation.

And thank goodness. Serenity, released on video last week, is terrific. By turns witty and harrowing, clever and weighty, it is closer in spirit to Star Wars than anything George Lucas has produced in a quarter century. Like the spaceship for which it is named (or, for that matter, Han Solo's Millennium Falcon), Serenity is pleasantly rough around the edges: In this universe, dust and debris are omnipresent, guns still fire old-fashioned bullets, and heroes are more apt to be petty crooks than selfless monks. (In fact, here it's the bad guy who's the latter.) It's a refreshing change from the hermetic, CGI airlessness and ponderous sanctimony that has characterized the last three Star Wars pics. Even when Mal gets his Big Speech, it concludes on a note as roguish as it is resolute: "I aim to misbehave."

One of the challenges of bringing a series like "Firefly" to the big screen is introducing the show's history and main characters--there are nine of them--without loads of painful, expository dialogue. Whedon manages it with a wicked bit of narrative jujitsu in which a schoolroom history lesson is violently subverted--it is, in fact, the nightmare of a girl undergoing psychological experimentation in a lab--and then that subversion is itself subverted. In the course of this triple gainer, we learn that humanity has relocated to a new star system with dozens of terraformed planets, ruled with quasi-benevolent tyranny by a government called the Alliance. We're also introduced to River Tam (Summer Glau), the young psychic on whom the Alliance doctors are experimenting; her surgeon brother Simon (Sean Maher), who rescues her from their clutches; and the nameless Alliance operative sent to bring her back, a gentle-voiced assassin played with understated elegance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Melinda and Melinda). From there we jump to the ship Serenity, where River and Simon have found uneasy refuge, for a fore-to-aft Steadicam stroll that introduces Mal and the rest of the crew--all in the course of a potentially lethal crash landing. ("We may experience some slight turbulence," Mal warns over the intercom, "and then explode.")

And that's just in the movie's first 15 minutes. The crew will next indulge in a good-natured stickup that is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a pack of Reavers, semi-human cannibals addicted to rape, murder, and sewing their victims' skins into clothing. There will be revelations about River's untapped abilities ("Buffy" fans will be unsurprised to learn that among them is an aptitude for spinning back-kicks to the face) and the secret locked in her head which the Alliance is so eager to keep from getting out, something about a planet called "Miranda." (Hint: It has to do with Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest, who gave us the phrase "brave new world.") As Serenity unfolds, it deepens from picaresque to epic, from comedy to near-tragedy. By the end, the movie has become a rumination on order versus chaos, the pursuit of perfection, and the inevitability of sin. But don't fret: Such meditations are squeezed in between some exceptionally boss battle scenes.

Serenity has, in other words, pretty much everything you can ask for in an action-adventure movie. Unfortunately, it lacked two key ingredients for box-office success: bankable stars and a big-league marketing budget. (It couldn't have helped that Serenity is probably the most counterintuitive title for an action blockbuster in cinematic history.) Though it was made for a relatively modest $40 million--and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive--it pulled in a mere $25 million in U.S. theaters, a small fraction of the booty earned by such sloppy, self-satisfied summer extravagances as Episode III, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and War of the Worlds.

Still, as Whedon and his "Firefly" cohorts have already shown, there's more than one way to skin a human (and sew him into a nice little Reaver ensemble). Theatrical box-office makes up an ever-shrinking portion of a film's total receipts (now a mere 15 percent, according to Slate's Edward Jay Epstein), with the vast bulk of the revenues coming from DVD sales and rentals on the one hand, and broadcast licensing (pay-per-view, network, and cable) on the other. And while Serenity was never well-positioned for the box office, it should, like "Firefly" before it, make a killing on DVD. (My own exceptionally scientific survey of a couple of local outlets would tend to confirm this: By day two of its release, Serenity had sold out from one and was only available in the less-popular fullscreen version from the other.) Once the movie hits cable, it should be set for life--I envision it running three nights a week on the Sci-Fi Channel for at least the next decade. Will this be enough to ensure a sequel? You can cast your own vote at the local Blockbuster.

The Home Movies List: Short Runs


"Greg the Bunny" (2002). Fox nabbed the puppets-behaving-badly sitcom (a kind of PG-13 version of Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles) from the Independent Film Channel, then promptly cancelled it. At least the characters were able to come back to IFC for a "reunion" episode and a few spoofs of popular movies earlier this year.

"Boomtown" (2002-2003). A clever (occasionally too clever) multiple-POV police drama in which storylines collided with dizzying force. When the first season drew meager ratings (despite excellent reviews), the network flattened the show out for season two, before pulling the plug just a few episodes in. It's a shame, too: It was nice to be reminded that not all crime drama has to fit the "CSI"-"Law & Order" mold.

"Firefly" (2002-2003). The show is not quite as strong as the movie (the latter better captures the sharp wit, unexpected reversals, and encroaching tragedy that characterized the best of "Buffy" and "Angel"), but it is strong nonetheless, and an excellent opportunity to see Whedon's characters and storylines unfold at a more leisurely pace. It also gives Serenity--which is essentially a sequel--a deeper resonance, especially when a few regular cast members meet their ends.

"Arrested Development" (2003-2006). Credit Fox with taking chances on some of the most inventive shows in recent network history. Credit it, too, with ruthlessly pulling the plug, often after broadcasting them out of sequence and on irregular schedules. The latest casualty was the funniest sitcom in a decade, which miraculously survived for more than two-and-a-half seasons before apparently getting the ax last month. Though not yet officially cancelled, it had its season abruptly "shortened," and subsequent episodes have been shown at erratic intervals, interspersed with random reruns and other programming. Whatever its ultimate fate (a reprieve? new life on Showtime?), there are still a couple of this season's episodes left. Addicts like me will be laughing through the tears.

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