A Review of Joss Whedon’s Serenity

I gave an overview of the television show, and now here I am reviewing the film.  I complained that the series was fun but I was unaware of where the focus was.  The film was meant to give some of that to the show, and actually does succeed. But it also feels too tied down to the show, and as a result, the narrative becomes muddled.

Let me make it clear I am a fan of Joss Whedon, and was one of only ten people in the United States how genuinely liked Dollhouse. However, I am still nervous whenever any big television personality tries to make the leap into film.  Film and television are two completely different mediums that require two distinctly different ways to address them.  For every television personality that actually was involved in the creation of a good movie (Aaron Sorkin, Terry Gilliam) or vice versa (David Lynch), there are hundreds who failed, some so badly (Lorne Michaels) that it may classify as a hate crime.

Whedon is more talented than many, and thus manages to take the lessons he is learned and actually created a good stand alone film, filled with al the clanging and bangs that you would expect in an old space opera.  It is almost like Indiana Jones in that way –  a loving tribute to a by gone genre that actually helps to reinvigorate it and maybe even take it in new directions.  Yet Serenity also feels tied to its television show – and thus has to tie up every single loose end imaginable.  The narrative becomes slightly bogged down and difficult to follow, particularly in the middle of the second act and the beginning of the third one.

Serenity follows the crew of Serenity, each with a different background.  The Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillon) fought against the Alliance, which sought to be the one government of the vastness of space.  For the entire story, watch the television show.  The film is about The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is hired by the Alliance to track down River Tam (Summer Glau) who is riding with Serenity.  She apparnetly knows many classified secrets; while they crew is outrunning The Operative (who enjoys decimating colonies without caring), they discover another colony that was killed by an experiment by The Alliance.  The crew seeks to expose this truth and defeat The Operative.

Many of the items hinted at in the television show are given full explanation in the film.  The film does well (in a very memorable long shot) of reintroducing everyone. But such a warm introduction is rare. Characters who were not present are suddenly given the sort of status that would make you think they were regulars, while the actual regulars are condemed to horrific fates or barely being present at all (to say which characters are which would lead to my death).  It seemed like the idea was to bring these characters onto the television show at some point, but its cancellation meant that this would be the only chance that Joss Whedon had.

Seems rational, and in fact it was – the film has no sequel in development. But it does not make for a tight narrative – characters are introduced, reintroduced, and then forgotten about, or simply eliminated.  I wanted to know more about their back story, and it certainly appears that the characters did.  Now, this may seem like a bizarre for me to criticize the lack of exposition.  I much prefer films that have a self contained universe – these characters certainly would be familiar with each other without having to explain it to the audience.  The problem is, Serenity is too self contained. It pretty much expects everyone to know certain details (such as who Inara and Book are) and gloses over them.  As accessible as Whedon tried to make it, this is ultimately material that you need to know about if you ever hope to watch it.  I did, but considering how “long” the show lasted, I know many who would not.

I am aware of what Joss Whedon was intending to do.  He stated how he could reintroduce characters who were not widely known outside a certain fanbase.  It really is an exercise that I am not sure anyone could completely master.  Besides, it at least tries to address that problem.  There are many films based on television shows that do not even try and are frankly not worth anyone’s time.  But then, there are a few well executed adaptations (The Fugitive, The Blues Brothers) that demonstrates it is not impossible.

Now, I certainly do admire the spirit of the film.  I can hear the special effects technicians working tirelessly to make the effects just right, and I can hear the cast and crew laughing, joking, and having a great time as they watch the rushes.  It certainly is among the most fun science fiction movies ever produced.  It is also not a direct copy of the television show; the atmosphere is far darker. Yet the ultimate problem with the Firefly franchise as a whole is that Joss Whedon never figured out what he ultimately wanted to do with it.  Maybe more time is what he really needed.  For something this fun, I would have been pleased to give it to him.  But one can only have so many chances.

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3 Responses to A Review of Joss Whedon’s Serenity

  1. Jonathan Thompson says:

    The thing about “Serenity” is that it never was about trying to introduce the world of Firefly to the masses via film. The whole reason it happened was because the show was canceled so quickly that once fans realized what an amazing treasure the show was, it was too late. So the movie happened. So when you say that the characters (like Inara) in the movie are very glossed over (granted, her character kind of got shafted in the movie), all her backstory is very much developed, in the TV show. The movie is a continuation. I do recognize that Joss had to deal with having to explain characters and themes to the audience that hadn’t watched any Firefly beforehand, but really, the movie is for us Browncoats who saw the show and just needed a little bit more. The movie definitely does not tie up all loose ends; there are plenty of mysteries that we want cleared up, but it does tie some of the loose ends, enough to find a content (but not completely satisfied) closure. I do understand what you’re trying to say about it as a stand alone movie, but I don’t think it can serve that purpose. It’s not too tied-down to the show, it’s an extension of the show. Joss has expressed that “Serenity” is basically what the 2nd season of the show would have been, so it’s more rooted in television and the show than as a stand alone movie. I could go on forever, so I’ll try to control myself. The movie is fantastic; we can agree on that. But it’s definitely not meant to be a stand alone movie. Miraculously Universal decided to give Joss the opportunity to satisfy the Browncoats’ desires to see more, and I’m incredibly grateful that we have this. Would I love another movie? Of course, but it didn’t rake in the money — since pretty much only fans saw the movie, and there weren’t too many because of Fox’s mistreatment of the show. So I’ll just leave it at that. Thanks for the post!

    • pred3000 says:

      You are welcome. I am glad you enjoyed it. And yes, taken at that level, it is exceptionally well done and pretty much what anyone could have wanted. The problem that many people (not just Joss Whedon and he at least tried to address this fact) is that they do not recognize film and television are separate mediums. Simply remaking a longer television episode and playing in a movie theater is not particularly satisfactory (in the same way that films playing on television are usually not satisfactory). Whedon did a good job, and made result is a fantastic piece of entertainment. But was it the best job he could have done with a “movie?” Probably not – his technique still resembled a television show. My whole article was trying to point out the difference.

  2. Jonathan Thompson says:

    Well, after the show was canceled, it wasn’t like another TV studio was going to pick up the show and keep it going, so when Universal picked it up, I really don’t think Joss was trying (or should have) completely changed his mind to film — it was originally supposed to be a television show, so that’s where it needs to stay rooted to. I know what you’re trying to say, I just think that this is one of those rare instances where a movie isn’t really a movie, it’s TV on the big screen.

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