Serene machine

There’s a lot to dislike about Serenity, but…

Actually, no – there’s not much to dislike about Serenity. (Joss Whedon’s address to the fans, now, that is dislikeable. It’s three parts you-guys-are-great motivational pitch, two parts my-mental-horizons-are-expanding-right-now! Emersonian wonderment and one of saving irony; it’s very American, in other words. But you can always ignore it and just watch the film.)

Serenity does have one big flaw and one major weakness. The flaw is closely related to one of the film’s great strengths: the dialogue. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon gave the world an unprecedented three-way hybrid – genre-based action crossed with teen heartache, presented in language as mannered and frivolous as Wilde. (Sure, it looks easy now…) Serenity is coming from the same world, only with grownups instead of teenagers and outer space instead of the occult. But the language… Here are two excerpts:

This landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
Define “interesting”.
“Oh God oh God we’re all going to die”?

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

There’s a scene early on in Good morning Vietnam, when Robin Williams’ manically free-associating DJ first lets rip. After a few minutes he finds a gap in his stream of consciousness big enough to fit a record in; then he kills the mike, looks up and says “Too much?” For a moment it’s as if Robin Williams is seeking reassurance from the director of the film. Of course it wasn’t too much, it wasn’t that kind of film; in real life it would have been enough to get the guy suspended from army radio pending psychiatric reports, but never mind. (The true story on which GMV was based is a quieter affair, by all accounts.) But either one of the lines quoted above verges on too much, and using them both in the same scene tips the film momentarily from ‘adventure film with gags’ to ‘Airplane with SFX’. Joss Whedon’s a fine writer, particularly with regard to the cracking of wise, but as a director he needs to rein that writer in.

Still, there really isn’t a lot to dislike about Serenity – and there is a lot to like, starting with the great majority of the dialogue. I liked the odd, sketched-in back-story, and the way the names of the characters ranged from Star Trek-standard (‘Inara’, ‘Shepherd Book’, ‘Fanty and Mingo’) to just plain standard (‘Malcolm Reynolds’). I liked the ventures into Andre Norton ‘space Western’ territory (two genres, count ’em), and the way Whedon is clearly conscious of going there: at one point our heroes are driving across a semi-desert planet pursued by a gang of savages who want to kill them, and sure enough, arrows begin thudding into the ship. (Possibly spears, but the resonance was there.) I liked the technology, which has a solid, grungey, Chris-Foss-with-rust quality to it: the ship being chased through the scrub looks like nothing so much as a JCB, albeit one which (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) is flying through the air in exactly the way a JCB doesn’t.

I also liked the acting, even if there were too many characters to keep track of – as the Star Trek films have shown, you can’t do as much with an ensemble cast over the length of a film as you can across a series. (Most of the problems with the film, major and minor, come back to it being a spinoff from Whedon’s cancelled TV series Firefly, which had the same setting and most of the same cast; to put it more bluntly, the trouble with the film is that it is a film and not a TV series.) I particularly liked what were effectively the two male leads, the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative (who wasn’t in Firefly) and Nathan Fillion as Mal (who was). Before Firefly Fillion was in Buffy, towards the end – he played Caleb, the backwoods hellfire preacher who had gone to the bad and kept on going. Personally I didn’t think much of him, but I think now the problem was more with the character than the actor. Mal is a great character. He gives the impression of blundering through life without much to sustain him but his determination to keep on blundering through, and of being the captain of the ship for no real reason other than that somebody had to do it. That, and a deep but unfussed love for the ship and its crew, and the determination to keep the show on the road for as long as possible. It’s the ordinary bloke as leader, essentially; it appealed to me. Fillion brings it off well, particularly the anti-heroic moments where Mal’s inner shallows come out:

– Zoe, the ship is yours. Remember, if anything happens to me, or you don’t hear from me within the hour… you take this ship and you come and you rescue me.

– Do you want to run this ship?
– Yes!
– Well… you can’t!

He also delivers one particularly fine line of dialogue which I won’t quote – it’s the last line of the last deleted scene on the DVD. It’s a good scene – an exception to the general rule that deleted scenes were deleted for a reason.

As for the film’s major weakness, it’s the plot. Without giving away too much, the film sets up a horrifically evil force early on, apparently as part of the back-story scenery. Much later, this force turns out to be centrally involved in the main plot of the film, in an entirely unexpected way. I was left feeling that there was something wrong about this – it didn’t seem to work as a feature-film plot motor. I don’t know if any of the plot of the film figured in Firefly, but it seem to me that what Whedon gave us wasn’t so much a plot as a story arc – a theme which could run underneath a series of plots, occasionally affecting the way they developed, before being resolved at the end of a series. (Think “Dawn as the Key” or “Faith and the Mayor”.) If you take that out, the plot of Serenity boils down to two people chasing each other – and in the end they both get away.

But perhaps we wouldn’t want it any other way: a good plot has a resolution, and resolutions end things. Even Buffy ended, after the total implosion of Sunnydale, with the casual revelation that there was another Hellmouth out there (Cleveland, apparently). Harry Shearer once said that the reason Hollywood studios don’t get comedy is that in comedy you don’t want your characters to go on a journey or learn a lesson – you want them stuck, like Laurel and Hardy on the steps with their piano, and you want them to stay stuck. Something similar applies to genre fiction, perhaps. Having met Mal and his crew, I feel about them very much as I do about Buffy – I don’t want to know how they got to be ‘brown coats’, and I certainly don’t want to know about what happened after they gave it all up and settled down. But I wouldn’t mind another story about them flying the ship, going where they go, doing what they do. This one was fun.

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6 Comments

  1. Justin
    Posted 5 October 2006 at 07:19 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, I maybe misreading you but you don’t make it clear whether you saw ‘Firefly’. ‘Serenity’ is a fine(ish) film on its own but so much finer after watching the preceding series (unfair, but there it is) – if only because your investment in the characters is stronger and what happens near the end (you know what I’m talking about) has a real kick.

    The series (14 episodes) is available for around 15 quid in some outlets. A very cheap but enjoyable weekend in prospect. I watched it twice back to back. American TV strikes again.

  2. Jim Bliss
    Posted 5 October 2006 at 13:58 | Permalink | Reply

    Just to agree with Justin there. The problems you had with the plot are most-likely a result of having not seen the series. I suspect that outside the context of Firefly, the film can’t possibly work as well as it should.

    It’s well worth tracking down.

  3. Lisa Rullsenberg
    Posted 15 October 2006 at 18:39 | Permalink | Reply

    I watched the film at the cinema before watching ANY of the series, and with only minimal understanding of the characters and story line of Firefly.

    I loved it, flaws and all (and you’re right with most of them). I therefore think you CAN watch it without the series, but probably an empathy for Whedon’s approach to character and plot is appropriate.

  4. Andrew Bartlett
    Posted 19 October 2006 at 13:49 | Permalink | Reply

    I came away from watching Serenity with the impression that a fan of Ayn Rand had written a pretty good sci-fi story. As opposed to Ayn Rand, who was a terrible writer all round. This wouldn’t surprise me, given the unfathomable popularity in the United States of Atlas Shrugged.

    It did seem to me that well-meaning liberals were going inadvertenly destroy all that is was to be human.

  5. Clive
    Posted 20 October 2006 at 08:07 | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting post, Phil. I’ve put you in my bookmarks. Again, avoiding spoilers, the thing you say doesn’t feel quite right felt completely exhilarating to me. (And I never took the scary force which plays an unexpected role to be the ‘big bad’: I took that to be whoever was behind The Operative.)

    I think you’re right, though, that there’s a TV series story arc at work. In my understanding, the plot which plays out was that originally intended for Firefly (and one of the pleasures of watching Serenity a second time, now having watched Firefly, is you discover it all takes place after the events in Firefly. The first time, I assumed it was a movie-isation of the same story as the series).

    In an interview I’ve seen (you can get a DVD of it, not that I’m a Wheedon nerd or anything), Wheedon makes an interesting observation on one of the differences between film and TV: in film you go in and get out; TV (he means series which last a long time) are all about exploring questions. I think he means that thematically TV can be more complex.

    That seems true to me. I’m not sure it follows, though, that the ‘end point’ of a TV series is different in its very nature to the resolution of a movie, or that movies can’t, in principle, borrow some of the story-telling techniques of series. When I first watched Serenity, I wasn’t bothered by anything TVish about it, and certainly not the ending.

    Although it is true that the ending felt like the set-up for a sequel, I suppose. Maybe that’s Wheedon’s TV background, or maybe it’s more a comment on the current fashion for series-like movie franchises.

  6. Clive
    Posted 20 October 2006 at 08:09 | Permalink | Reply

    PS Did anyone else understand Andrew Bartlett’s comment? ‘Cause I didn’t.

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