Serenity is a Lesson for Lucas

Back in June, I said that if I were marketing Josh Whedon’s Serenity, I’d pitch it as ‘more Star Wars than Star Wars’. As it turns out, I’d have been telling the truth. The movie owes a lot to Lucas’s original trilogy, but it’s clever and fun in all the ways the second trilogy isn’t.

Serenity tells the story of how devil-may-care starship captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his ragtag crew acquire some unusual cargo and end up pursued by half the galaxy. Sound familiar? It ought to–the film could be called “The Further Adventures of Han Solo”.

That’s not a criticism. While the film’s something of an homage (down to the space opera stylings), it also stands on its own. The characters are distinct and memorable–a rarity in the science-fiction genre. The cast is mostly unknowns, but they offer strong, committed performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a peculiar addition to the cast, but he turns in a stellar performance (and when doesn’t he?) as an unlikely antagonist.

The decent showing from the actors may in part be because, for most of the film, they’re surrounded by actual sets, with actual props and so forth. I remember reading an essay about Star Wars years ago, and the writer remarked on how, for the first time in science fiction movies, the ships looked lived-in. The Millennium Falcon was always only a couple of parsecs away from the scrap yard. Lucas went digital, and the ships got cleaned up. Fortunately, production designer Barry Chusid recaptures that broken-down feeling with every location, including the great-looking Serenity (the movie’s named after the protagonists’ ship).

Josh Whedon is best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Themes from that series–the loneliness of the outsider, the duality of heroism, and so forth–permeate the movie. The movie also features a super-powered teenage girl and a number of intense, Buffyesque fight scenes. Summer Glau as River seems an unlikely choice (Whedon has always been a brave director when it comes to casting), but she’s sufficiently different from Sarah Michelle Gellar to make us forget the flaxen-haired heroine.

Whedon is first and foremost a writer, and Serenity’s script reflects this. He’s managed to make a science-fiction movie while entirely avoiding ludicrous sci-fi dialogue. Instead (as on Buffy), he’s devised a vocabulary for his actors which is both original yet immediately comprehensible. He’s also the master of undercutting the mood of a scene. I’d spoil a surprise by citing an example, but just as you get comfortable with a scene, Whedon changes the tempo and pace on you. This unpredictability keeps each moment fresh.

The special effects won’t make you gasp, and the fight scenes hardly rival The Matrix, but Serenity offers a great, character-driven ride.

Here’s what some critics thought about it.

11 comments

  1. I just got back from seeing the movie, and it was brilliant – there were a lot of little touches from the series, such as lack of sound in space and shaky, hand-held camera shots, which were used in the movie.

    In the opening shot, Mal and Simon (the doctor) are arguing as they wander around the ship, and since it’s one continuous shot, you really get the sense that this is a working ship, and not just some pretty computer work. Plus, the interior looked like a thrift shop, and just added to the air of a ship that was holding together with spit and prayer.

    And you’re right about Whedon’s rapid change in tempo – if I’m thinking of the scene to which you’re refering, there was a collective moment of laughter, and just as suddenly, a gasp and silence as everyone in the theater tried to process what had just happened.

  2. Yup – same thing happened in the theatre tonight here in Calgary. Everybody laughed, and then suddenly gasped. I heard somebody in the back yell ‘no!’

    I really enjoyed it…though I think it would be a hard movie to follow if you haven’t seen the television series first. And I so wish they’d used that opening sequence from Firefly to open the movie.

    Just a great movie. Can’t wait to see what the director’s cut looks like when it hits dvd.

  3. my best compliment for the movie is that it isn’t the tv show polished up all pretty like for movie watchers. the characters are still the characters we loved in the series. the ship is still the ship (with the addition of that new room and a smaller sick bay) from the series. the bad guys are still the bad guys (with some ommissions and deletions). everything is true to joss’ original vision in the tv series. i didn’t feel like they’d tried to make it bigger or fancier because it was on a bigger screen.

    i think i appreciated that most of all.

    i will have to see it again and add it to my firefly dvd collection.

    two thumbs up.

  4. Just got back from seeing the movie about an hour ago. I loved it. For the most part, it’s a great movie. I won’t spoil anything, but things that happen in the movie that certianly seems to say that Firefly is never coming back to TV.

    They also seem to recycle some of the shooting techniques from the series. Things that were acidental in the series ( like misframing a shot ) seem planned in the movie.

    All in all, though, I’m still seeing it again tommorow. 😀

  5. I have seen the trailer a zillion times in the theatre and on TV, and it made the movie look like a joke I thought. I definitely was not planning to watch the movie, but after reading your post and the above comments, I just might!

    Of course, I never saw the TV show, so who knows, I might not get it.

  6. Mack: Yeah, I never saw the TV show, but that didn’t particularly matter. That hasn’t been a complaint from the few reviews I’ve read.

  7. Glad they didn’t show us too much of the Reevers. In the TV show, they were much scarier cos’ we had no idea what they looked like.

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