The low-key feature film debut from Writer-Director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien Resurrection, The Avengers) Serenity serves as a continuation of his cancelled Sci-Fi TV Series Firefly (although it is largely accessible as a standalone film to viewers unfamiliar with its predecessor), and despite the increase in budget and length is made in a very similar vein. Concurrently fans are likely to be satisfied (to an extent at least), and get the most from this film, although other viewers may have a little trouble adjusting to a somewhat offbeat tone, and the tongue in cheek ‘used future’ setting.
In any case the film’s genesis as a TV project is perhaps a little too obvious, and doesn’t always prove a blessing, whilst the film brings flaws of its own into play. But that’s not to say the film hasn’t got things to like about it…
Firefly and its sequel take place Five Hundred Years in the future. In a fast paced opening montage we learn: ‘Earth-that-was’ could no longer sustain human numbers, so colonist vessels were sent out to find new worlds fit for human colonisation, dozens of planets were terraformed ‘a process taking decades’ and made fit for human life, the central planets ruled with an iron fist by the Interplanetary Parliament of the Alliance (Whedon’s liking of Star Wars is quickly noticeable in the film).
But some planets resisted, albeit temporarily. The Independents raised an Army of ‘Browncoats’ and fought gallantly for several years, but victory was ultimately something beyond their grasp. The war eventually lost, the surviving ‘Brown Coats’ scattered to the four corners of the Galaxy.
This where Serenity’s story picks up. Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillon), a former officer in the Browncoat Army, serves as the (slightly arrogant) Captain of the smuggling ship going by the same name, his small crew (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), helping him as he weaves between Alliance patrols, dodgy deals, the semi human ‘Reavers’ and annoyingly predictable bad guys.
Reynolds’s already risky life takes a turn for the strange when he agrees to shelter the brother-sister pair Sam (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau), on the run from the Alliance. Gradually the reasons why are revealed, and Reynolds’ loyalty to friends, both old and new is put to the test, as a secret at the very edge of the Galaxy is revealed…
It’s a simple, straight forward story that could be covered in half the time the film takes to pan out, and for seasoned fans of Firefly is very much covering familiar ground. But, the film maintains a unified (and generally fast) pace for much of the film, and despite its similarities to Star Wars (And Battlestar Gallactica) immediately the film marks itself as different to your standard Hollywood film.
New Audiences and fans alike will have little trouble following the plot even if not everyone will enjoy it. The film is noticeably low on the confusing technical jargon that often plagues Sci-Fi films, the backstory plays a smaller role than you may think, and although the film certainly has serious undertones and plot points, it predominately follows a ‘bright and breezy’ tone.
But this simplicity also demonstrates the biggest issue with Serenity, whilst being different to its competitors is certainly something to be proud of, it never entirely shakes off its TV Origins. The plot is a mere continuation of the one featured in the series and never feels as ‘cinematic’ as it could have been (Considering this was a project 3 years in development, and was based on a cancelled TV show it does seem a little lazy and strange Whedon didn’t stray far from the formula), the small cast aren’t always given a lot to do- unlike in a 14 episode TV series there is little room for subplots or ‘character scenes’ to develop, whilst Chitwetel Eijofor is essentially a stock character as the chief bad guy, little different to those that had preceded him. On the one hand it doesn’t stand on its own two feet well enough, on the other it only answers some of the questions posed by Firefly.
Many of these issues may be further hindered for some viewers, by the smallish $40 million budget. The Alliance costumes are recycled costumes from Starship Troopers, the extras and sets often look very similar (that’s not to say they aren’t good designs…just a little repetitive), whilst the location scouts clearly didn’t stray far from Hollywood, some viewers may find such things an annoyance or a ‘breaking of the illusion’, although others may find they add to the charm and tone. It certainly has issues but in many ways the film also succeeds.
Whedon is generally quite impressive in both his roles; introducing the Title ship via a boggling tracking shot he soon places his unique stamp on the film, whilst demonstrating his capabilities as a filmmaker. Working with veteran cinematographer Jack N Green, the film is far more cinematic than its predecessor, with precise tracking shots, and dizzying handheld camerawork replacing the somewhat predictable setup of its predecessor.
Whilst the action sequences in the film are relatively bloodless and sporadic, they are well staged and very entertaining- in a way the limited budget improves them, the forced reliance on practical effects, not CGI making them more raw and believable. CGI when used is very hit and miss- the design of Serenity for example, is Slicker and sharper than ever before, but still all too obviously an illusion.
The cast give nicely modulated performances, and don’t bring the baggage a more famous cast would, a nice chemistry is shared and adds to the film’s fun tone. Whedon has built up a reputation as one of the sharpest screenwriters in the business, whilst that may be an overstatement, the film contains his trademark sense of humour, a lot of memorable one liners, and is very successful at sketching characters- ‘You want to run this ship?’ Mal Asks a crew member during a heated argument ‘Yes’ is the answer, a staggered Mal replies ‘Well…You can’t!’ before an awkward silence descends.
The fates of two central characters from Firefly are dealt with in a surprising, and probably very divisive manor- coming out of the blue they are very brave and certainly shocking decisions, but for some viewers may prove upsetting or unnecessary (the limited screen time of one of them in particular is certainly annoying, as it closes the book on a mysterious, barely explored past)
The universe in which Serenity is set is a mixture of ‘used future’ Sci-Fi and Western settlement, and as such is both familiar and completely alien. This decision gives room for some very inventive set and costume designs (although as mentioned all are somewhat let down by the budget), and a few interesting themes to infiltrate the plot: the facts that all the main characters speak Mandarin as well as Chinese and are proficient with many weapons, will probably go unnoticed by many viewers, whilst the not too subtle message about the dangers of bureaucracy may come across as preachy to some, but all are interesting ideas all the same, which could have easily been developed further.
Admittedly by the same token, the overly familiar setting may not be cinematic enough for some viewers, whilst the first proper look at ‘Reavers’ paints them as far less threatening characters than they always appeared to be.
Where Whedon really lets the side down is pace. The film slacks noticeably on the middle- as mentioned the film is overlong, and lacking in serious character development, whilst the ending fight is suitably staged it is brought to a rather awkward conclusion, and in retrospect isn’t perhaps the final send-off Firefly deserved.
In Conclusion Serenity is a flawed but fun resolution to Firefly’s story, but doesn’t completely succeed as a standalone film. Story, budget and pacing issues detract from its fun, offbeat nature, whilst the setting and manner in which it unfolds may not be to all tastes, but overall its issues are overwritten by its strengths, and for the right viewer this should be a fun watch.
7/10 Paul Ashwell