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.