First, let me start by saying that whilst I do enjoy the man’s work, I am by no means a Whedonite. I loved the early seasons of ‘Buffy’, but it lost me partway through season 4, whilst I only watched a couple of episodes of ‘Angel’ & never really got into it. Most of his fans seem to gloss over his involvement with ‘Alien Resurrection’ on the theory that Jean-Pierre Jeunet screwed with his script almost beyond recognition. I don’t really hold to that, as whilst I think it’s a mostly terrible attempt at an ‘Alien’ film (the original is one of my all-time favourites), I do really enjoy it as a fun stand-alone film. I was first introduced to ‘Firefly’ when a mate lent me the DVDs about the time ‘Serenity’ hit the cinemas (if it had a UK terrestrial TV airing then I certainly missed it), & almost immediately I decided it was probably the best thing Whedon has done, & went out to buy my own copy so I could watch it through a second time. One thing I did notice however is that it has an obvious genesis in the script of ‘Alien Resurrection’ – the “Betty” & its crew from that film seem to be almost a trial run for the “Serenity” & it’s crew. Beyond the simple nature of the ship & a mercenary crew, some of the characters have clear roots too – most notably with Ron Perlman’s Johner being very similar to Adam Baldwin’s Jayne. It’s not too hard to also see connections between the world-weary captains & female mechanics either, even if noting traces of River in the cloned Ripley is perhaps going a touch too far. But whilst Whedon’s patented brand of wisecrackery was a poor fit for the ‘Alien’ franchise, it really comes into its own given it’s own universe & set of ground-rules to work with.
For those who missed out on the short-lived TV series ‘Firefly’, the story so far is ingeniously & briskly recapped at the start of the film, but in such a way that it also reveals new information & sets ‘Serenity’s own plot into motion. The galactic Alliance has been running top-secret tests on psychic River Tam (Summer Glau), turning her into a superhuman weapon but leaving her conscious mind in tatters. When her brother Simon (Sean Maher) breaks her out of the research facility, the Alliance realise that her psychic abilities have gleaned all manner of highly sensitive secrets which must not be revealed, so they send a mysterious Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to ensure River’s silence. The Tam siblings take shelter on the Firefly class ship ‘Serenity’, crewed by a rag-tag group of mercenaries unsympathetic to the Alliance, who are willing to take any job they can, no matter how legally-challenged. With the Operative in hot pursuit & willing to use any means necessary to reach his prey, Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) & his crew must discover what it is that River knows if they are to have any chance of surviving.
There’s always a risk in adapting a TV series to the big screen, particularly when it’s a TV series not many people saw, & which got cancelled in the first series. Yet Whedon manages to sidestep most of the pitfalls to produce a cracking movie, whose sole problems are really to do with the latter, & the inherent difficulty of finding an audience. The cast are hardly household names, whilst the film’s title ‘Serenity’ means nothing to those who haven’t seen the series, hardly suggesting a thrilling, witty & emotive sci-fi action-adventure. It’s a tough sell to non-fans, who are likely expecting a somewhat stuffy & geeky ‘Star Trek’-alike, filled with dodgy actors with cookie dough on their faces or CG toy prototypes which we are somehow supposed to take seriously as aliens. It’s a shame that it’s proving hard to get people to give the film a chance, because it is actually very accessible (with nary an alien in sight!), & everyone I know who I’ve persuaded to see it – even those underwhelmed by ‘Firefly’ – have loved it.
Whilst Whedon is no stranger to directing, this is his first big-screen feature, & I have to say that he makes a far better fist of it than I’d dared to hope. Freed from the confines of TV he makes great use of the widescreen ratio, with some really well thought-out compositions & imagery, whilst DoP Jack Green employs a richer, high-contrast visual style, which is something of a surprise after the perhaps slightly bland TV lighting the ship is used to. In addition, there are some great stylistic flourishes, perhaps most notably the awesome extended steadicam shot that first tours us around the “Serenity”, introducing the crew & really giving us the sense of the ship as a genuine physical space. Much of the film is shot fairly loosely with hand-held cameras, giving a sense of “you are there”-style reality which is not too often found in sci-fi films, but which was one of the hallmarks of the series. Whedon also proves to be surprisingly adept at action sequences, delivering several genuinely exciting scenes, including a grand (if a touch too short) space battle that is way beyond the scope of anything in the series.
Through it all though, what really shines through is the quality of the writing. As you’d expect, the film is filled with the kind of witty one-liners that were completely out of place in ‘Alien Resurrection’, but which are more than at home here. More than just humour though, the characters are what really makes the film work. With 14 episodes of the series behind them, the actors have all had plenty of time to develop the characters, & they give this opportunity to let them loose on the big screen their all. It’s unfair to pick out any one performance as being particularly strong, as it’s a great ensemble piece. The characters are so well drawn & recognisably human that we genuinely care about them, & that’s why it’s so tense & exciting when they’re put into danger – something that happens all too often. The film is also noticeably darker than much of the series, particularly in the final third after River’s secret is revealed. There’s a sense of real desperation in the claustrophobic finale, as major characters are killed off (in gloriously unsentimental but highly affecting manner) & it’s by no means certain who – if indeed anyone – will actually make the end credits alive.
If I had to complain, I’d perhaps note than one of things I loved about the series was it’s sci-fi western feel, with it’s old-fashioned clothing, dusty plains, horses, train hijackings & so on – after the opening job these types of things are left behind in favour of settings more typical of a sci-fi action movie, & perhaps a certain something is lost as a result. It’s a trade-off though, & so much more is gained that wasn’t in the series that it’s not a problem for me. David Newman does manage to keep certain elements of the guitar-led music familiar from the series, & weaves them into his handsome orchestral & electronic score, which boasts a strong main theme, some furious action writing, & several beautifully affecting pieces.
Overall, ‘Serenity’ is a film I find it impossible to dislike. It’s packed with action, humour, drama, darkness, & somehow manages to be both emotionally affecting and terrific fun. If you’re a ‘Firefly’ fan you obviously need no encouraging to see it, but if you’ve never seen it (hell, even if you have seen it & weren’t overly taken), then ignore your preconceptions & prejudices, & just give ‘Serenity’ a chance. Everyone I know who has was very glad they did, & I’d hate to see such a cracking movie fail to find it’s potentially huge audience.
‘Serenity’ is released on R1/NTSC DVD by Universal. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer looks just great – a lack of shadow detail threatens to be something of a problem at times, but I believe this is due to the intentional, high-contrast look of the film, rather than a problem with the transfer itself. As you’d expect, the Dolby 5.1 audio delivers the goods, although it’s a shame there’s no dts. A decent smattering of extras begins with an audio commentary by Joss Whedon, & also includes:
- A selection of deleted scenes & outtakes,
- ‘Relighting the Firefly’, a doc about the transformation from TV to cinema,
- ‘Future History’, Whedon talks through the reasoning behind how the world of ‘Serenity’ comes about from today,
- ‘What’s in a Firefly’, a better than usual look at the effects
- Joss Whedon introduction, clearly from an early test screening aimed at fans of the series, which surely explains why the early reviews were so damned glowing - well, aside from the obvious fact that the movie rocks, that is!
It’s a decent selection, perhaps marred only by the absence of a truly meaty “making of” – but then I guess if this sells well enough (as ‘Firefly’ has) they’ll have to have something extra for a super special edition somewhere down the line!