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Review: Serenity

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I found myself experiencing the same problem trying to decide on an approach for this review that I’d imagine the creators of Serenity faced: how to gear the movie/review so that it pleases both the rabid fanbase of the “Firefly” TV series from which the movie spawned and people who’ve never seen the show. It’s a difficult line to walk, for true. Considering the movie doesn’t come out for four months yet, I think what I have to say will be of most interest to fans of the show, so I’ll write on accordingly–though I’ll be spoiler-free, don’t you fret. Believe me, I don’t want to ruin the impact of this movie for anybody.

The good news for “Firefly” fans: the property translates to the big screen quite well. There’s not an awful lot of introductory exposition about the hows and the whys of the “Firefly” ‘verse; Joss Whedon and company seem to figure you know the setup already or you’ll figure it out on the way. The emphasis on “space western” here falls fully on the “space,” which I found a little disappointing (very little) but completely understand: people coming into this universe fresh, people who’ve only seen the trailers, will be expecting more of the spaceships than the six-shooters.

But if that translation of concept from television to movie is good news, then here’s better: the cast more than lives up to the challenges before them…especially Nathan Fillion. Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds anchors not only the crew of Serenity but also the emotional center of the film. Mal runs a shade darker here than he did on the show (the final episode of which takes place six months before the movie begins), especially in the film’s second half. Mal’s in nearly every scene and it’s his character arc we follow–and Fillion does a fantatsic job of holding the screen and the audience’s interests with Mal’s intense internal conflict.

Be sure to check out our special Moviegeekz: 7 Days of Serenity section!

It’s not just Fillion, though: almost none of these actors would be considered “movie actors,” yet each is more than capable of playing their roles large. Both the characters and the actors who play them prove plenty substantial enough to drive a film. And though I believe all of the cast did fine jobs, I hav to give special commendation to Summer Glau for her spectacular work as River. For someone who’s still almost a complete newcomer to the industry, she brings some impressive stuff to the movie, both emotionally (River probably has the widest range of emotions to manage) and physically (the balletic grace during River’s scenes of mayhem belie her…well, her ballet training).

Serenity‘s villain, too, is pure Whedon: “The Operative” (the only name he’s given) can execute the most brutal, terrible acts of violence and destruction, yet does so in such a way that it’s hard not to like him, at least a little. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the man with smooth charm, eloquence, intelligence and his own strange sense of honor. He knows that he’s a monster, that his actions can be pure evil–but he sincerely believes that those horrific actions are in service to a greater good.

And speaking of bad guys, I can’t not discuss the Reavers, the very epitome of evil in the Firefly ‘verse. The Reavers play an enormously important role here, both in terms of what they mean to this movie and the future of the franchise–yet we still never get a good look at one. What we do see, though, is scary as hell, all the more terrifying because of what’s left to our imaginations. These Reavers and their final confrontation with our Big Damn Heroes produce what had to be the most nail-biting, stomach-churning thirty minutes I’ve seen in any movie in ages.

Serenity (2005)
Grade: A
Written and Directed By: Joss Whedon
Starring: Nathan Fillion Gina Torres Alan Tudyk Morena Baccarin Adam Baldwin Jewel Staite Sean Maher Summer Glau Ron Glass Chiwetel Ejiofor
Studio: Universal

And a lot of that tension, of course, comes because I’ve grown to care about these characters so damn much…which brings me around at last to discussing Mr. Whedon himself. The skills of Whedon the writer still outpace those of Whedon the director, though not by as much as I might have thought. His fantastic screenplay had every bit of what I expected: the humor, the character development, the moments of inspiration, the shocking punches to the gut. Whedon had nine characters from the show to carry over and introduce, explain and advance in a two-hour action flick, and he served all of his characters well.

Whedon’s direction was surprisingly solid–and I say “suprisingly” not because I don’t think he’s a good director but because the process of directing a film differs so much from directing a TV show. The fact that he did such a good job for his first feature was impressive. Though there were still moments that felt a little too much like an episode of a TV show, shot selections that betrayed his beginnings, they were few. And the man undoubtedly knows how to build tension (see for reference that anguishing last thirty minutes). I also have to give him a smile and a nod for his opening, a five-minute single shot that introduces the entire crew of Serenity and introduces the entirety of the ship itself–Robert Altman would be proud.

I still have some small concerns about how well the movie will play to the uninitiated. It’s hard for me to tell how well audiences not already familiar with the property will take to it–I can’t watch it through the eyes of someone not already in love with these characters. And I’m a little afraid of the reactions if people go into the theater expecting Lucas-level visual effects from a movie with a $30-million budget. The effects were solid and professional, but they’re certainly not Star Wars-ian.

But Serenity‘s not about the special effects, it’s about the characters–and those characters create special effects, indeed.

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Written by Allen

May 29th, 2005 at 5:34 pm

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