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DVD Review: Serenity (2005)

Writer Joss Whedon’s feature film directing debut—based on his canceled television series FIREFLY—is an inspiring triumph of an artist preserving over adversity to keep his dream alive even when it seemed impossible. Unfortunately, that triumph extends only to the behind-the-scenes story of how Whedon managed to get the film made; the film itself is a negligible piece of entertainment, competent but forgettable—basically, a made-for-television movie with delusions of grandeur. If not for the saga of how Whedon resurrected the failed series (thanks to personal perseverance and fan enthusiasm), the film would have no claim to fame at all.

Fortunately, the story requires no familiarity with the source material. The MacGuffin fueling the plot is that one character, a young woman named River (Summer Glau), has been programmed to be a post-hypnotic assassin (a la THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), but she is also a psychic who was inadvertently allowed to scan some information that could be damaging to the planetary alliance responsible for her behavioral programming. After being rescued by her brother, she ends up on the not-so-good ship Serenity, captained by the cynical Malcolm (Nathan Fillion, also seen in SLITHER), a free-lance mercenary always looking out for Numero Uno (rather in the mold of Han Solo and CASABLANCA’s Rick Blaine). After his latest mission (a robbery), he shows some unexpected feeling and decides to keep the girl on board, even after her programming kicks in and she nearly kills him. With a nameless alliance assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) searching for the girl, Malcolm and his crew hide out until his old girlfriend calls for help, Of course it’s a trap, but he goes anyway, hoping to learn something. After more running away and hiding, the secret information in River’s brain is finally revealed, and Malcolm decides to risk his ship in order to do the right thing and get the word out to the population of the solar system.

The story is uninvolving and moves with paralyzing slowness because Malcolm is such a reluctant hero. Things are further undermined by the performances (lots of macho posturing that feels as convincing as school boys pushing each other in the sandbox), nor by the tone of the script, with affects a bored, matter-of-fact, been-there-done-ennui that is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but rarely manages to be funny—there is one line worth chuckling over about forty-six minutes in, and maybe one or two after that. (The attempted humor does, however, manage to undermine any suspense: if the characters don’t take things seriously, there’s no reason why we should.) Certainly, the glossy, made-for-TV look is at odds with the supposedly harsh universe in which the story is set (where shooting someone is an act of mercy, because the alternative is so much worse).

Some second-rate dream scenes are randomly tossed in to liven things up as River experiences flashback/hallucinations from her programming. And there are a handful of none-too-exciting action scenes, where no one ever seems in much real danger. This wouldn’t be so bad if they were handled with some panache, but the fight choreography in particular never rises about the BUFFY standards—which is to say, you can rent better stuff on almost any Hong Kong DVD you can find in the foreign section of your video store. In some cases, the moves are so weak (particularly when Captain Malcolm faces off with the anonymous assassin halfway through) where things might as well be moving in slow motion.

As a director, Whedon is far from inspired; this is basically a point-and-shoot movie. He might be able to get away with this if his story were strong enough to work on its own, but somewhat surprisingly (considering that he comes to directing from being a writer first), his screenplay shows numerous signs of sloppiness:

The crew is introduced beneath the opening credits while the ship is on the verge of crashing, but the crash is immediately forgotten after it’s served its alleged purpose (giving the cast a chance to crack wise under pressure).

We’re repeatedly told the River’s programming has made her psychotic, but we see no evidence of this; mostly, she acts like an alienated teenager who has occasional nightmares.

River is supposed to have been programmed as a killing machine, but when her behavioral conditioning is first triggered, she opts for ass-kicking (we’re told she probably killed some people, but mostly she just seems to be knocking them out).

River’s brother knows a “safe word” that will make River fall unconscious, thus putting an end to her post-hypnotic rampages, but for some reason no one ever uses it after the first time she goes bonkers. Instead, they worry that they may have to put a bullet in her head to stop her.

The doctor who brainwashed River is executed for allowing her to get too close to key parliament members from the planetary alliance—as if it were his fault their minds contained incriminating information that she could glean. And even if he knew about it, did he even have the authority in this benign dictatorship to tell high-ranking government officials to keep their distance?

During the ending, a protracted gun-battle between the Serenity crew and some inter-planetary cannibals (a scene lifted more or less intact from GHOSTS OF MARS), the alliance assassin somehow circumvents the shoot-out (without explanation) just so that Whedon can get him together with the Captain for the final real knock-down-drag-out fight scene.

As the film nears its conclusion, the pace does pick up a bit, and the climax is reasonably entertaining. Captain Malcolm even comes up with one brilliant idea for outwitting the alliance (his ship deliberately fires upon an armada of “Reavers”—the aforementioned cannibals—then lures them into a confrontation with the alliance space ships). The final shoot-out and fight scene is reasonably well staged, and Whedon manages to pull a few effective heartstrings when showing the crew under duress, trapped in a firefight that they have little hope of winning. There is even a clever resolution of the conflict with the anonymous assassin (a true believer in the rights of his cause, whose faith is undermined by the revelation that Malcolm sends out to the rest of the planetary system). Sadly, even these good moments are undermined by the goofy BUFFY mentality that has River shifting into her ass-kicking persona and killing off all the cannibals single-handedly. It’s about as convincing as watching Herbie the Love Bug outrace high-powered performance cars, and for some reason Whedon presents it not as the lame joke it is but as if the audience will really buy into the action.

But then, that pretty much symptomatic of the whole movie. The overriding assumption seems to be: the fans love this stuff and eat it up, so we’ll just keep serving it to them. But if you don’t walk in pre-disposed to accept the characters and the universe they inhabit, the film does nothing to win you over, either dramatically or stylistically. This is truly a film made only for the faithful.

Serenity (2005) Review: DVD Details

The DVD features numerous bonus features that shed some light on the history of the project. Overall, the tone is far more self-congratulatory than the film warrants, and the amount of information conveyed is too small to make the features of interest to anyone but fans.

There is a selection of “Deleted Scenes,” which for the most part are actually extended scenes. It’s all unnecessary padding that deserved to go on the cutting room floor, and little of it adds to our understanding of the plot. These bits and pieces do, however, show that the film could have been even lamer than it turned out. There is also a section of “Outtakes,” that consists of flubbed lines, dropped guns, and occasionally malfunctioning props. It’s moderately amusing stuff, not much goofier than what actually made it into the film but generally a bit funnier.

In “History of Earth That Was,” Whedon explains that his reading a book about Gettysburg while on hiatus from BUFFY lead him to thinking about writing a story set after a war, about characters squeezing out a living on the margins of society, but taking inspiration the Millennium Falcon in STAR WARS, he opted to set his story in outer space. It’s a moderately interesting piece, but Whedon makes a rather bizarre assertion that Americans are more interested in losers than winners (his sole evidence being that most books and moves about the Civil War focus on the South, not the North).

”What’s in the Firefly?” takes a look at the film’s special effects, focusing most attention on a competent but unexceptional chase scene that takes place early in the film. Par for the course for this kind of thing, most of the effects people congratulate themselves on not showing off their craft for its own safe but using it to further the dramatic goals of the story.

“Relighting the Firefly” addresses the subject of resurrecting the canceled television show and turning it into a feature film. It contains some footage of Whedon and his cast at the San Diego Comic Con, illustrating the fan reverence that helped keep the project alive, and the closing credits feature some interview clips with those very fans, including one very ill-informed one who insists that there has never been a feature film made from a canceled TV show before (guess he never heard of a little something called STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE—which despite being a critical disappointment, was a huge blockbuster success compared to the trivial box office returns of SERENITY).

Finally, there’s an introduction to the film by Joss Whedon, which seems to have been recorded for a pre-release screening (he refers to the film’s effects and credits not being finished it). Whedon gives a brief explanation of how the film grew out of the canceled FIREFLY show, the launches into an appeal to fans to dedicate their efforts to turning SERENITY into a major motion picture event. It’s a little bit heavy handed, but Whedon does temper his tone with a touch of humor (“If the film fails, it’s your fault”).

As with everything else connected with SERENITY, the behind-the-scenes story is more dramatic and exciting than the film itself, and our awareness that the film turned out to be at best a minor motion picture event undermines the sense of triumphalism imbuing this and all the other bonus features. Yes, perseverance and enthusiasm got FIREFLY resurrected when it should have been dead, but that doesn’t make SERENITY a great movie.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.