Somebody needs to let Joss Whedon make more movies, because “Serenity” is so much better than I ever thought possible.
A little background (to get the most out of this movie, you’re gonna need it):
For the uninitiated, Whedon is the creator/writer/director/general guru of two cult TV hits, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spinoff, “Angel.” However, back in 2002 he released a little-seen series called “Firefly” on FOX, which lasted less than half a season before the network canceled it (the same network that didn’t even bother to run each episode in the correct order).
“Firefly” combines two classic genres—Western and space opera—into one swashbuckling rollercoaster adventure ride. In this back-to-the-future scenario, the population of earth grew to the point where humanity was forced to seek out new worlds and “terraform” them to our specific set of living conditions. We humans discovered new planets and new solar systems, all of which eventually fell under the oppressive unified control of a new government, the Alliance.
Such overwhelming control of course led some citizens to rebel, forcing a war between the Alliance and the “Independents,” which the Alliance won, of course. The Independents (also known as “Browncoats”) scattered like sand in the wind, retreating to the ends of the galaxy to find their own ways of life separate from (and often in opposition to) the government.
Here’s where Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of miscreants come in. Reynolds is a former Independent sergeant forced to go underground when he lost the war. Essentially a Han Solo for the new generation, Reynolds’ life revolves around the life of his ship, “Serenity,” which he uses to try and make his way in the galaxy, however he can (smuggling and mercenary work, mostly).
Like Whedon’s other two series, “Firefly” is over-the-top in its action and oversized characters, yet grounded in genuine emotion; this gained the show an instant cult following, devotees who were very disappointed when the show was so abruptly plucked from the broadcast schedule.
Under those circumstances, “Serenity” is like a blown kiss from Whedon to his fans. All of the major characters are back, and in two hours Whedon tells a story that ties up several loose ends left hanging by the original series while maintaining the show’s inherent sense of fun and adventure. It actually delivers on what 1998's "X-Files" movie merely promised—"Serenity" is more than just a TV episode on movie studio steroids.
But the film brings up an interesting contrast between two rival, yet similar, mediums: television and cinema. TV has a bad—and well-deserved—reputation as a melting pot of all things soul sucking and mediocre. Just look at any of the new batch of “reality” programs that force people to endure degrading situations to win a few bucks. Or how ’bout the latest moronic sitcom or over-sexed drama?
No, it’s Hollywood where the true “auteurs” reside, right? If the Academy Awards is for the court of kings and queens, the Emmy glitterati are merely dukes and duchesses.
In reality, though, television has a unique ability to tell stories the average movie can’t come close to matching (which is why the first two “Godfather” films remain the industry standard—and exception). It’s a simple matter of screen time, really: The average TV drama gets about 16 hours a year to explore its characters, where a movie gets, what, two and a half hours at the most? Whedon came up against this problem when writing the script for “Serenity”; according to an Aug. 16 Entertainment Weekly article on the film, the writer/director’s first draft was a massive 190 pages that Whedon said was essentially the entire second season of “Firefly” he had swimming around in his head. He had to boil it down to a two-hour space-chase thriller (making this movie’s success even more stunning).
That’s why “Serenity” received only decent reviews and probably won’t do as much for newbies who wandered in off the street—these are fabulous characters, but it’s impossible to get to know them well enough in the first few minutes of a film. To fully appreciate this movie, you have to watch the original 13 episodes of “Firefly” (out on DVD and airing on the Sci-Fi Channel). You have to see Mal and Wash tortured by a sadistic “businessman”; you have to learn the backstory between Wash and wife/soldier Zoe, as well as the star-crossed love between Mal and classy prostitute (excuse me, companion) Inara; you need 13 episodes to get to know the series’ pivotal character, the government experiment gone awry River; you have to get used to the way Whedon’s dialogue mixes Old West, Chinese, and brand-new curse words (it’s unnerving at first, but by the second episode, it’s charming and funny). Shows such as “Firefly,” “Smallville,” “Alias,” “Lost,” and the granddaddy of ’em all, “The Sopranos,” demonstrate TV—when done well—can offer a much deeper entertainment experience than film.
By the same token, though, there’s no way Whedon could have told this final chapter of his story so compellingly on the small screen. “Serenity” washes over you with kinetic energy and overwhelming images in a two-hour rush that leaves you, well, drained at the end. Even this film’s modest budget of $45 million still meant millions and millions more money than any episode of “Firefly” would have received, and Whedon (in his feature film directing debut, mind you) made full use of his newfound financial freedom, letting his imagination run wild—especially in some fantastic space battles. (On a side note, Whedon is signed on to direct a "Wonder Woman" movie, set for a 2007 release. I'm sure it will be the second of many.)
Where does that leave us, then? For those interested in seeing “Serenity,” I would obviously recommend watching at least a handful of “Firefly” episodes first. For those who already love the show, this movie delivers time and time again. It’s a gem.
Grade: Without “Firefly,” B; with “Firefly,” A