Saturday, November 25, 2006


I never saw the original "Firefly" series, but I did watch "Serenity" on DVD the other day (thank you, Smoo, for your many large and comfortable DVD-equipped classrooms). My overall feeling is that the movie looks a bit thrown-together and low-budget; also, the dialogue was trite, TV-ish hokum. There must be some joke I'm not getting-- it could be that the dialogue is written that way on purpose, and fans of the series will understand this. For me, "Serenity" feels like a large TV episode, not a movie.

"Serenity" is the story of a tramp freighter captain and his motley crew. The movie offers us three antagonists: the central government, known as the Alliance; a government assassin known only as The Operative; and a race of vicious, cannibalistic mutants called Reavers.

Let me take that back: I couldn't figure out whether the Alliance truly was a malevolent entity, or whether it was simply a large, unwieldy government that occasionally made mistakes on a planetary scale (not hard to do when you're governing trillions). At any rate, the Alliance is more of a shadowy backdrop than a true antagonist, but it's what our hero, Captain Mal (Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion), and his crew are constantly dealing with as they travel the space around the colony worlds performing various heists.

The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (how the hell do you pronounce that?), is the movie's most dangerous villain-- urbane, sophisticated, philosophical, and a true believer. The Operative will stop at nothing to further the cause of his government, and what's more, he has no illusions about the nobility of his work. "I am a monster," he tells Mal outright. At one point he proves this by murdering the defenseless, including children.

The Reavers represent the weakest element in the film. They aren't particularly scary, and what's worse is that they suffer from a flaw in narrative logic: Reavers are crazed berzerkers-- primitive, hyper-aggressive, and always on the lookout for fresh human flesh. Unlike Klingons, Reavers have no particular culture (unless stringing skeletons across your ship's bow counts as "culture") and no visible sense of social organization. They utter not a single line of dialogue, preferring to roar, bite, and shoot a lot. How, then, are they rational and disciplined enough to pilot large space vessels? Don't you need a command hierarchy for that sort of thing? And doesn't such a hierarchy assume non-chaotic personality traits like obedience and rationality? How can Reavers pilot even a single ship, much less an entire fleet of them?

The plot struck me as desultory for much of the film. It was essentially about a passenger aboard the Serenity named River Tam, a teenage girl with psi ability and extensive martial arts training. River is the product of a government project to develop a human weapon. Mal isn't aware of this at first, not until a subliminal cue sets River off and she reveals herself to be a one-woman army. The plot eventually begins to make more sense as we're let in on the big picture: the government is also responsible for having inadvertently created the Reavers. Everything comes together in the end, but I felt as though we were meandering toward the conclusion.

Characters aboard Serenity are colorful, with Adam Baldwin's character, the very unrefined Jayne, standing out. But the greatest character of all is not seen but heard: "Serenity" features one of the best, most un-SF soundtracks I've ever experienced. The music constantly went against type and created a playful, adventurous mood. I'd see the movie again just to listen to the music.

I'll give "Serenity" a very, very cautious thumbs-up, because despite its flaws, the movie has its good points, and it obviously means well. It's definitely a flick for fans of the "Firefly" TV series. If you're new to that universe (by the way, "Firefly" refers to a class of space vessel, of which the Serenity is a member), you'll probably find yourself wondering, at times, what makes "Serenity" so watchable. The movie isn't deep; it doesn't raise many big questions, except for the usual ones about benevolent government and utopianism. If you decide to watch "Serenity," do so mainly for the quirky characters and the delightfully different music.


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