Monday, October 03, 2005

Adam's Serenity Review!
Joss Whedon was long one of TV's most effective and talented writers. And no, I'm not talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel or Firefly. I'm talking about his days as a writer for hire in sitcom hell on shows like Roseanne or Grace Under Fire.
Whedon showed his skill even past the colossal egos and substance abuse problems of those shows' stars. He further refined his craft working on movie scripts in Hollywood. And yes, before you mention it, I liked Alien: Resurrection. The hybrid monster may have been hokey, but the movie showed a deft hand at characterization and cleverly handled the link between Ripley and the alien in a way that expanded the franchise's mythology rather than destroyed it like the subsequent mindless crossover. He also wrote Toy Story, which is beloved enough to perhaps reach that elusive status of classic in time.
His TV work after his struggles in the movie industry established a worldwide fanbase that literally will go to the ends of the earth for him. Witness the campaigns to save both Buffy and Angel from cancellation's axe. The brisk sales of his shows' DVDs might also hint that people seem to connect with his material.
Whedon also wows me monthly in the pages of Astonishing X-Men. But, I'm a comic geek and love that the man's writing the best X-book since Claremont in the early 80s. Yes, it's even better than Grant Morrison's take on the team in New X-Men, though the plot's not nearly as intricate.
Which brings me to his current opus, the film Serenity (based on his late, lamented FOX series Firefly). It's perhaps his most "writerly" work. And perhaps also his best.
Firefly was easily his best TV show. Things just clicked perfectly. Not that FOX noticed. Instead of giving the best quality show they had a chance, they gave it an unceremonious heave-ho (much like other quality shows like The Family Guy, Wonderfalls, etc.). Time and time again, FOX cancels quality fare in favor of crap. Makes you wonder how in the world they survive, doesn't it? (HINT: the competition is even worse...)
The premise of Firefly was deceptively simple. It's a Western in space (much like Star Trek, Battle Beyond the Stars, Space Rangers, etc.). There were layers to each characters relationships with each other...and with their ship, Serenity. Each had a reason for being there, and those reason were what kept the stories meaningful. In the short span of the series, EVERYTHING that happened mattered. There were no random episodes. No freak fo the week monsters to fight. The whole thing interlocked on the basis of the relationships between the characters and the history of the galaxy in which they found themselves.
Serenity encapsulates the history very quickly in the simplest way possible...a history lesson. The Alliance, the civilized core worlds of the human territories (Sorry folks, no space aliens...mankind hasn't reached out into the blackness far enough to find them yet.), set to enforcing their will on the outlying Independent worlds. The Independents lost. Badly.
Shades of the Civil War? Well, yes...and no. The structure of both wars is similar, however the Alliance has more in common with the government of Today than any of history. The Alliance is fascistic and secretive, controlled by a shadowy Parliment who maintain control though military might and covert programs like the one which spawned River Tam (Summer Glau), the mystery girl from the series.
River was experimented on and turned into a psychic assassin by the Alliance. She was the program's greatest success. And greatest failure. She was their most powerful psychic and most talented killer. However, she was also rendered insane by their programming techniques, causing her to lapse into catatonia or psychosis more often than she could remain lucid.
Rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), a brilliant doctor who squandered his family's entire fortune to find and liberate her, the two ended up on Serenity with no aim except to escape the clutches of the Alliance.
The Serenity's captain, Malcom "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) kept them aboard for personal reasons more than anything else. The doc, much as he was skilled at patching up the crew's frequent injuries, never integrated into the familial unit that the rest of the crew comprised. And River served no function except as an occasional threat to their well-being when an Alliance bounty hunter or Operative caught up with them.
She's much more of a threat to them in the feature film. And the Operative who finds them this time is far and above the worst that the Alliance has to throw at them. He's a believer, to use the parlance of the crew. He believes that no matter how heinous the actions he perpetrates in the name of the Alliance, it's all worth it to make a better world. Oddly, he knows it's a world he could never live in, since he is himself an aberration and a monster.
He's sent after River Tam because the lab where she was created trotted VIPs through to show off their successes and to justify their covert funding. VIPs whose secrets might have been gleaned by the unstable psychic they were shown. The Operative doesn't know she actually knows any secrets. But the possibility that she might marks her for death as surely as the certainty.
Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the operative as every bit of the complex individual that he could be. He's lucid, rational and intelligent. He never seems to anger or act out of violent rage. He's not the picture of the monstrous that Hollywood normally trots out. In fact, in a different movie, a man of his questionable methods and ethics could easily be painted as heroic (like James Bond or any of the myriad characters portrayed by Arnold Scharzenegger).
Meanwhile, our heroes are a much more motley band. The aformentioned Mal (a man scarred by the horrors of war, loyal to his friends but lost in a sea of his own beliefs), the Doc and River; but also Zoe ([Gina Torres] the first mate and the only other survivor of the massacre that named Mal's ship in Serenity Valley), Wash ([Alan Tudyk] Zoe's husband and the Serenity's amazing pilot), Jayne ([Adam Baldwin] the tough, dumb and mutinous cuss who lends muscle when needed) and Kaylee ([Jewel Staite] the cute, spunky and desperately horny mechanic).
Two members of the Serenity's crew are missing: Inara (Morena Baccarin), a "companion" (think of her as a prostitute/counsellor/diplomat) who had a private berth in one of Serenity's shuttles, and Book (Ron Glass), a "Shepherd" (mostly like a roaming priest) who had booked passage on Serenity and grown into one of the more valued members of their family. Before you think they're forgotten and cast aside, Whedon doesn't forget things like that. He's a continuity whore. The great thing about his television shows was that things could pay off from a random episode YEARS down the road. Both characters show up in short order. And both have very important things to do.
The previously mentioned robbery is the first job that Mal has thought to bring River along on (against Simon's objections). And it's a good thing that he did, because while they're in the vault, the settlement is attacked by Reavers. River's psychic senses warn them of the attack, so the crew is able to escape -- and warn the hapless employees of the place they're robbing to lock themselves in the vault (and thus ensuring their survival). Reavers are men reduced to worse than savagery. They're raiders who rape and eat their conquests (sometimes concurrently), lash corpses to the exterior of their spacecraft as trophies and generally aren't pleasant folk to be around. Legend has it that Reavers are men who travelled to the edge of known space and, when confronted with the infinite blackness before them, went mad. Legend is wrong.

You know, I could tell you the entire plot to the movie at this point (In fact, I had about another eight pages of stuff detailing plot points and not even getting to the real meat of things). But I'm not gonna. Because you really should see it. Really. You don't have to have seen an episode of the show to appreciate the movie -- in fact, some of the fans of the show might be plum pissed off by certain events in the movie.
The writing isn't the only thing showcased by Serenity. Nathan Fillion shows he has the chops to be an honest-to-goodness movie star, should Hollywood so choose to deem him one. Ron Glass is a touch of class, and he's the spiritual heart of not just the crew, but the movie. Morena Baccarin is just unbelievably gorgeous and apparently can do much, much more than just look stunning in costume (Did Joss give her action scenes to set her up for Wonder Woman? If so, can't wait to see her in the red, white and blue...yum!). Jewel Staite is wonderful. Alan Tuydyk is great -- as usual. Gina Torres (who'd make an even BETTER Wonder Woman if only the character were black -- do you think Hollywood could just this once turn a colorblind eye to casting?) is the picture of strength and humanity that Zoe needs to be. And damn...Summer Glau gets some of the best scenes imaginable. Hell, she gets damn near all the hero moments...and the best Wolverine moment outside of an X-Men comic book that may ever be (and that includes in the X-Men movies). And finally, Sean Maher gets a bit of room to stretch his acting muscles. But only a little bit. He's always been the most underused of the actors in the ensemble, but maybe that looks to change.
The ensemble might have been put together for TV, but they're more than up to the challenges of a motion picture. As was the writer/director. Joss Whedon's been itching to get back into the movie biz for some time now (the travails of his shows at the hands of the various networks have soured him to the medium...and he's always wanted to be more of a film director anyway). And he does it with a vengeance. The movie is confident, smart and expertly constructed. All hallmarks of a Joss Whedon TV show. Now, hopefully, we can look forward to more of his work on the big screen. Me personally? I can't wait for another chapter of the adventures of the crew of Serenity. The Little Show That Could became the movie that kicked my ass nine ways to Sunday.


Adam said...

All SpamBots must die.

For the record, yes, I fully disagree with Lons' assessment of Serenity. And yes, he can kiss my ass. I'll make sure to wash it first, though.

Lons said...

I like how you don't even discuss my review after calling me out in the headline. You didn't even send the review to Cinegeeks for us to post! And it's not like anyone reads this blog...2 posts up until now, and one's spam, and the other's by you!

So you just want to go on your little blog and tell me to rim you where no one will possibly even see it? Possibly because you have nothing substantive to say? Because you can't defend your obsessive, inexplicable devotion to a hack sitcom writer? Because you're terrified of actual conversation about film, preferring to simply state your ill-informed opinions as aggressively as possible?

I'm done with you. May you and Joss and the rest of the shitcoats find eternal happiness together.

Adam said...

I sent this email to Lons. Hope you enjoy it.

You don't necessarily have to rim me. That's gross.
However, your review on CineGeeks was quite frankly, one of the most blatantly biased pieces you've ever done.
You have a personal problem with Joss Whedon. I get it. Get over yourself.
I have a personal problem with Steven Spielberg. That oddly hasn't made enjoying his good movies a problem. Why? Because I actually want to ENJOY what I see.
I don't go into a movie expecting to hate it. And, your phrasing in the review hints that you did.
Try harder.