Thursday, January 19, 2006
I aim to misbehave.
I wanted to like Serenity, Joss Whedon's feature-film adaptation/follow-up to his short-lived cult tv series Firefly. After all, it's fun to be part of such a subculture - under the best of circumstances, shared interest in a work of popular art can create a rich significance that transcends the work itself. The very existence of Serenity, which came about after diehard Browncoats voted with their wallets, buying DVD sets at Best Buy, is an encouraging triumph of the geeks. I wish I could be more excited; how unfortunate it is, then, that Serenity is actually pretty terrible.
The film follows Mal (Nathan Fillion), the captain of Serenity, and his crew as they attempt to protect the telepathic River Tam (Summer Glau) from an operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the Alliance, the totalitarian government that rules over a host of planets colonized by refugees from earth (think Earth 2 without Grendlers). The Alliance wants River because she knows secrets (too convoluted to spoil here), and Mal is determined to solve said secrets. Fillion stands out from the rest of the cast; while his character is a blatant Han Solo knockoff, he approaches the role with humor and conviction. The rest of the crew are like a spaceship full of your average MCLA students - horny, sarcastic and middlebrow - and are basically interchangable.
The biggest problem with Serenity occurs at the most fundamental level - writing. I know a lot of people find the jumble of old west-speak, Chinese culture, and vague mysticism clever, but I found it grating and contrived. The culture clash doesn't emerge organically from the story, the way it does in Blade Runner, for instance (another world where eastern and western culture collide). As for the space western thing - it's been done a thousand times, everywhere from Buck Rodgers to The Last Starfighter. The only difference here is that the comparison is made more overt through the dialogue (and the goddamn fiddles). The effect is smug. It distances us from the characters, and most of the actors seem uncomfortable wrestling with the dialogue. Eventually a few characters are killed off, because it made people cry in Star Trek II. But here, it doesn't matter, because after two hours, I felt no closer to the crew of the Serenity than I did in the opening moments (or in the handful of Firefly episodes I'd seen before).
Whedon also has simply horrible visual instincts. I'd estimate that more than half of Serenity is close-ups - a technique that is used out of necessity on tv (wide shots are harder to decipher on a thirteen-inch screen) but makes no aesthetic sense in a scope movie. The frame feels crowded when it should feel expansive, and the effect is claustrophobic. It's also possible that Whedon was trying to hide the shoddy special effects - during the rare wide shots of space battles I found myself thinking "EXT - GIANT COFFEE POT - NIGHT." I realize that Serenity was made on a relatively small budget, but much smaller movies like The American Astronaut have gotten around this problem imaginatively. And while Serenity may be filled with "clever" moments, it suffers from a dearth of imagination.
I'd love to hear from fans - why does Serenity mean so much to you? Is it the smart-assery? The vaguely subversive tone (the government is the bad guy - ooh!)? It can't possibly be the design, can it? The film received few bad reviews even from typically tough critics like Walter Chaw, so if there's some aspect of it that flew over my head, I'd love to hear about it. I will suggest this, though - the weekend you were all dragging friends to Serenity in the hopes of making it the new Star Trek, a film called A History of Violence went into wide release. Cronenberg's film is massively entertaining, thought-provoking, and emotionally wrenching - in short, everything Serenity aims for and misses. In short, you backed the wrong pony.