Wednesday, November 10, 2010

 

Finding New Life on the Big Screen


By J.D.
In 2002, Joss Whedon was enjoying considerable success writing and directing episodes for three television shows that he created: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. The latter was his new show and pet project — a funky hybrid of the science fiction and Western genres. Firefly was about the misadventures of a small, rag-tag group of mercenaries operating on the fringes of the galaxy 500 years into the future. In other words, what if Han Solo decided not to help Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan rescue Princess Leia? It was a fantastic blend of Whedon’s trademark dry humor, moving drama and exciting action.

Firefly lasted less than half a season before Fox pulled the plug, Buffy ran its course and Angel was cancelled just as it started to fire on all cylinders. Fortunately, Firefly had accumulated a small but dedicated following, much like the crew of the Serenity itself, which campaigned tirelessly to save the show. Whedon returned the favor by shopping it around to other studios and Universal Studios agreed to resurrect the show in the form a feature film called Serenity (2005).


“Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is an ex-soldier and captain of the Serenity, a small spacecraft with a handful of crew members who scavenge, smuggle and steal for profit. Along the way, they picked up a brother and sister, Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau). He is a doctor and she is some kind of secret weapon, a deadly sleeper assassin a la Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). She was created by the all-powerful Alliance who rule the galaxy with a benign façade to cover their ruthless methods. They want her back and send a deadly and very methodical assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to retrieve her and eliminate anybody who gets in the way.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. It is like the show had never been cancelled as everyone slips effortlessly back into their respective roles again. Nathan Fillion does a fantastic job as Mal, a character who is clearly cut from the same cloth as Han Solo, a selfish rogue who has lost his faith. He has all the charisma and charm of a young Harrison Ford only with more depth. Adam Baldwin is a real scene stealer as Jayne, the gruff, gun-toting strong man. He gets to deliver some of the film’s funniest lines in what is easily his best role since Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Inspired by the dirty, grungy look of Alien (1979), Serenity also features a spacecraft that actually looks like our heroes live in it as opposed to the glossy, immaculate Enterprise of the Star Trek films. This is a great looking film shot by Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer, Jack Green. He helps Whedon give his show a more cinematic look. Like he did with the series, Whedon bucks the typical trend of having sound in space — explosions, lasers blasting and spacecraft engines roaring — for a more realistic take by opting for a nicely understated score by David Newman.

It is a credit to Whedon’s skill as a writer that he is able to make you care about these characters even if you have not seen the show. He takes the time to show the dynamic between them and their motivations which pays off later on when they are thrown into life-threatening situations because we have invested so much in them that it makes what happens so effective emotionally. There is a distinctive ebb and flow quality to the overall structure of the film. It never feels forced; rather there is a sense urgency as early on he sets up what is at stake and then executes some genuine, white knuckle moments where you do not know what is going to happen next. There is even a moment late in the film where it seems like the entire cast is going to be killed off and this is so refreshing because most films are so predictable that you know exactly who is going to be killed and who will not (the big name stars).

Whedon has pulled off an impressive feat with Serenity. He has made it accessible enough for people who have never seen the show and included all kinds of references and revelations for the fans. With a quarter of the budget of the last Star Wars movie, Whedon beats George Lucas at his own game by crafting a science fiction film that has the perfect balance of character development and plot and effortlessly blends science fiction with a horror edge. Serenity is everything a space opera should be and proof that a smart, engaging popcorn movie is possible.


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Comments:
Wonderfully stated, J.D. This has to be one of the gem series of television, and a clear travesty that it was prematurely snuff out. The SERENITY film marked a fantastic exclamation point to what Whedon created. I know for a fact, the film itself generated new fans as they inevitably went back and discovered the series on disc. And you're dead-on with regard to the pleasure it is watching Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin work their magic here as Mal and Jayne. I re-watched SERENITY earlier this year, this time on Blu-ray Disc, and it was glorious. Thanks, J.D. and Ed.
 
I agree! I know of several people who were turned onto the show thanks to the film. Whedon was able to juggle it so that he made a film that was satisfying for fans but also acted as a good intro for newbies.

I will admit to being only a casual fan of the show before I saw the film but was converted after watching it. I had hoped that the film would've been successful enough to spawn a sequel but sadly it doesn't look like it's going to happen.
 
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