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Serenity

After spending a week locked in writing to hit various deadlines by today (of which the last will be hit this afternoon) I finally grew sick of staring at the computer and took off to watch a film.

Fortunately, there's a new cinema opened up where I live, and they're offering cheap tickets to see films. Which is good, because I actually won tickets to see Serenity, but then missed the phone call that would ensure that the free tickets would be sent out to me. Still, I'm used to the world ripping me off for cash these days. I can't go five steps before a cinema decides to up its prices, or petrol decides to jump at an even more alarming rate. It's just depressing. Equally depressing for me has been the sight of hundreds of hidden posts about Serenity so that as they can't share spoilers. I skipped them because I thought, you know, maybe the film had some serious spoiler moments, but apart from one moment in the film it's all pretty by the numbers, so there's not much to spoil, really. But I've noticed that's the mentality of people when they get near the Whedon stuff, as if it were somehow difficult to pick out how the plot is going to unfold.

Be as that may, this post is about Serenity. If you're afraid of learning that there is big space battle and a scene in a bar, I suppose you ought to stop reading.

Serenity, for those not in the know, is the film spawned from Joss Whedon's failed tv series, Firefly. Both are about a small crew of smugglers on board a small spaceship that go around and rob banks and smuggle goods, but do it while upholding some sort of vague code of honour that all the officials who Rule the Galaxy don't appear to uphold. The crew is lead by Captain Mal Reynolds, whose character is pretty much what I described for the whole crew, but with a bit of a Southern twang. In his crew he has 1 Second in Charge, 1 Pilot, 1 Dumb Gun Totting Nut, 1 Mechanic, 1 Doctor, and 1 Doctor's Experimented On Sister. He no longer has 1 Prostitute and 1 Priest, since the first character has taken off to the Prostitute Training House due to her feelings for the Captain as per the end of the series, and the Priest, for reasons never quite explained in the film, has taken up on a hideaway called Haven. It's pretty obvious from the outset what happens to priests who take up in hideaways called Haven and harbour their old crewmates--a flashing neon sign would have been less subtle, I thought. Still, the reason why the crew takes up in Haven is because they are being hunted by the Alliance who want River (Doctor's Experimented On Sister) dead because she, also a psychic, has overheard things which would be bad for a shadowy Government that you cannot trust.

Incidentally, there's a rampaging group of cannibals touring around space that no one knows where they came from. Should I draw you a map?

The problem I had when I approached Serenity was that it had to be able to justify itself as a film to me. One of the things that I've never gotten into is Star Trek films. None of them feel much like films, but instead feel more like things created to serve the TV audience, and play off plots and points there. The last Trek film I saw, which had mechanical hive entity people in it called the Borg, had me leaning over to Jesus and saying, "What's going on?" Serenity, for me, had to be a self contained film, and not simply the continuation of the TV series... and from the outset, it is apparent that Serenity is simply a two hour condensed version of the last half of the first season of Firefly.

Now, I liked Firefly, so I liked Serenity, up and to a point. However, as alluded to by not using any of the characters names, the film is forced to jettison pretty much all of the characterisation so that it doesn't become unwieldy, which is why the priest is shoved off on a different planet, I suspect. With the exception of Mal, the rest of the characters are reduced to single notes. The Gun Nut is comedy relief. The Doctor and the Mechanic provide some sort of romance. The Doctor also provides conflict with the Captain over his Damaged Sister. Is that two notes? Well, you get the picture. It is inevitable that this would happen with such a large cast and smaller screen time to create a full experience, and to a certain extent, if you've knowledge of the series, this knowledge helps counteract that because you can read inbetween the lines--which is what you're required to do a lot with the Prostitute and the Captain when they come back into contact. It's not difficult to find the romance, but the back story, the reason why the Captain is so eager to save her, why her deciding to stay at the end... these beats in the film gain a fuller resolution only if you have watched the series. Without that, it's hollow.

What makes Whedon work, when he does, is that he can have excellent character moments and dialogue. Since the film feels like it is condensing twelve episodes of TV plot, a lot of those moments are lost. Adam Baldwin's Gun Nut and the Captain are probably the only two that escape with any memorable moments outside the big fights that River and the Captain and the Spaceship are in. However, other Whedon trademarks are there, starting from the long, uncut establishing shots of the main characters, which is probably the finest moment of the film, to a plot that feels as if it has been lifted straight from a video game. TO DEFEAT THE EVIL ALLIANCE, it is read, YOU MUST UNLOCK A DAMAGED GIRL'S SECRETS TO REVEAL AN EVEN DARKER SECRET THAT WILL CHANGE THE GALAXY. That kind of plot has worked for Whedon in the past, but for every time it has, there are equal examples of it not working and, as with when it hasn't worked, it's hard for the audience to really give a shit about what that secret is. This is one of those cases.

The last real disappointment I have with the film is that, look wise, it hasn't changed from the TV series. Sure, there's a bit more money in the special affects, but the spaceship battle at the end doesn't come anywhere near the spectacle of Star Wars, nor the beauty. Sure, the Star Wars films aren't as interesting, characterwise, as Serenity, but they have a beautiful look. Likewise, every time they end up on a planet, it either looks like a cheap back lot set, missing the borderland beauty that can be evoked as Sergio Leone did so well in Once Upon A Time in the West, or the slick, futuristic city feel of... well, Star Wars, again, I guess. To make these comparisons is not, I might add, wrong. Serenity is a film. What can be excused on television because of budget and time, cannot be excused here. There is time. There is money. The look of the film does not have to be that of a television show. Indeed, even a TV show doesn't have to look so cheap now, as anyone who has seen Deadwood will agree.

That said, I want to add again at that end that while it sounds like I didn't like Serenity, the truth is, I did like it. I just liked it because I liked Firefly, however, and I didn't understand why it was a film now, since it hadn't been improved or changed at all.

It was just the end of season one.

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angriest
Sep. 30th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC)
"Indeed, even a TV show doesn't have to look so cheap now, as anyone who has seen Deadwood will agree."

Yes, but they spent a lot of money on Deadwood.
benpeek
Sep. 30th, 2005 01:43 am (UTC)
yeah, i know. it shows. it's also brilliant.
drjon
Oct. 1st, 2005 03:42 am (UTC)
...the Star Wars films ...have a beautiful look.

You think? To me, the SW films always seemed like those fake ice cream cones you buy from Macdonalds (compared with, say, a Tira Misu cone at the Nova)... saturated, plastic and sticky.
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2005 12:13 pm (UTC)

yeah, i do think the star wars films look beautiful.

there are times when i haven't liked what they've done, but for fully realising the world look, i don't reckon there are many sf films to meet them. i did like THE FIFTH ELEMENTS look, though. of course, it must be said that part of me does like the eye candy of trashy sf films. i can't abide the rubber monsters and cardboard sets.
mrteufel
Oct. 2nd, 2005 09:14 am (UTC)
Grrrr. Movies aint movies! Serenity had perhaps a tenth of the budget of any Trek film. And if you've seen the series you should realise that the space battles are different as much for stylistic reasons. And the movie did solve a mystery that had been presented as part of the series - I always thought the accepted explanation of the Reavers was a bit suss.

Yes, it was forced to reduce the characterisations because of movie constraints - which is why I think the executives who cancelled the series should be sent to seven kinds of hell, sequentially and in combinations. But it had more characterisation than most SF or action movies this decade - and less drowning in SFX!
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2005 12:09 pm (UTC)
Grrrr. Movies aint movies!

got some agitation, have you?

Serenity had perhaps a tenth of the budget of any Trek film. And if you've seen the series you should realise that the space battles are different as much for stylistic reasons.

what stylistic reasons? the actual battles themselves aren't different from any other space battle i've seen. if you're suggesting that the battles are suppose to suggest some sort of old west showdown, that's just silly. the film only has one big space battle and it's nothing special. when they get off the ship they go pg cowboy and kung-fu battles.

But it had more characterisation than most SF or action movies this decade - and less drowning in SFX!

why's the last a bad thing? and as for the first, i'd argue that it didn't, but that's just my opinion.
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