Action Movie Friday: Serenity

It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!

Title: Serenity
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release: 2005
Genre: action, science fiction, horror
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Ron Glass
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
Distributor: Universal
Budget: $39 Million
Box Office: $40 Million

Extremely fragmented and hard to watch, plus relies too much on Joss’s prior credentials. Just… ouch trailer, ouch.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 82%

Gingersnaps Rating: Two and a Half Cookies!

The more I care about something, apparently the more I write about it. I care a lot about Firefly & Serenity. Thus, I wrote a lot…

Summary:

Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of the Serenity, made a choice eight months ago and now the chickens have come home to roost. He has two Alliance fugitives on his boat, one with a deadly secret. Now that secret has started to escape the fragments of her psyche. The Alliance wants her and wants her bad enough to kill everyone that stands in their way to get to her. They’ve sent an Operative, a high level assassin to do the job and kill her to keep their secrets. It’s not Malcolm Reynolds way to let sleeping secrets lie down and go away. Now he’s got to make another choice, one that will lead him to the very edge of space to confront the deadly Reavers, bogeyman of the ‘verse.

Review:

After Firefly went dark, the fans wanted more. This being the age of the internet, they protested, they petitioned and if Kickstarter had been invented, I’m sure there would have been a campaign. Universal listened and granted the fans their wish to see more of the universe of Firefly. They planned to tie up the questions that the series had left dangling. Joss Whedon allegedly sat down and wrote out everything he’d wanted to do for a 26 episode second season and then they condensed it down to 3 comics and a two hour long movie.

Universal dumped $39 million into making a Serenity movie, convinced perhaps by all the noise that the fans were making, it would be a hit. The fans did turn out, to the tune of $40 Million in ticket sales both foreign and domestic. Financially, the movie was a disaster. Though, it was moderately better than the Veronica Mars movie, which had a budget of $6 Million and sales of $3 Million. (Take what you can get I guess.) The fans supposedly got what they wanted. Whether or not it was what they really wanted is a matter of some debate.

The beauty of Firefly was that it was an ensemble piece and throughout the show, you could take the time to focus on individual stories. Serenity has the handicap of being two hours long with a break between the show and the series sketchily filled in by three tie in comics. There isn’t enough time to focus on everyone’s stories, especially since the movie spends roughly a good half an hour catching up everyone who didn’t bother to watch the series on the cliff notes version of what is going on and everyone’s personalities. So, if you’d watched the series, everything had been introduced in the pilot, the second episode and now we’re on our third time around here with the movie. To make matters worse, the characters in the movie have either taken steps backwards or have become cardboard cutouts of their characters, reduced to mere facets of who they are in deference most likely to those pesky time issues. Perhaps the most consistent character is Jayne, mostly because Jayne wasn’t given that much character to begin with as Joss wanted to kill him off early on in the show. In fact, Jayne gets more to do in the movie than most the episodes he was in combined in the show.

I understand why they chose to go with the Assassin story rather than finishing up the Blue Hand plot from the show. The Assassin story has the luxury of being able to be given a clear cut beginning, middle and an end. It makes sense from a story perspective. The problem being Joss has a thing for extremes. I don’t know precisely what he was thinking, but the Assassin from a villain point of view, while not as obviously over the top as Adelai Niska from the show, had the same bone structure. He was too obviously a clear cut villain painted in broad brush strokes so that the viewers could get behind Mal. Who during this whole movie, didn’t come off well at all.

Gone is the smuggler with the heart of gold from the show, left in his place is the smuggler with the heart of coal. By the end of the series, it had been established that Simon and River were part of the crew. Within half an hour of the movie’s opening, Simon and River were being kicked off the ship because they were not a part of the crew. Despite the fact it is Simon and River that are being chased by the Alliance, the entire movie of Serenity is ‘the Mal Show,’ with Simon and River just people who happen to be a way for Mal to stick it to the Alliance.

Because the villain was painted in such broad brushstrokes, the plot became poorly constructed. If we could do little ticky boxes it might go something like this, flush River and Simon out, set up a trap, set off trap, run and hide, Assassin kills everyone, run to heart of problem, discover shocking truth, enter another trap, the Operative and Mal fight a second time, Mal wins. (The assassin who runs about killing everyone who has something to do with his quarry, is not really an assassin that is going to be in his line of work very long.) Games of cat and mouse can be fun, if they are set up over long periods of time. I would like to put forth that this was just the wrong villain for this particular movie. As fun as a villain as he was with his gentleman’s demeanor and penchant for elegant speeches. The Operative would have been a fine villain for the show. Not for a movie, where extreme measures are taken because of time issues.

And then to make matters worse, Joss has publicly come out to say that he felt that in order to make the movie feel real, that the stakes were high, that he had to kill one of the members of the crew in the final act. This is how Hollywood gives emotional weight to any action story. They throw a death in it to motivate one of the characters. Nothing is real in Hollywood unless someone dies. To make matters worse, Joss chose a fan favorite to kill off. By now, there is no impact. It’s tired. It’s done. It’s time to end this cliché. We expect better of Joss Whedon of all people. (There wasn’t a death in the Avengers I bet because everyone had to survive to continue in their next movies.) What if there had been enough money for a sequel? And this fan favorite character is already dead? What do we do for their part of the story? Because Joss directed and wrote the movie, this is all on him folks.

However, as much as the story being predictable in its plot point beats bothers me. The core of the story, what secret that River has been holding all this time, is in its way rather brilliant. In the end, several of the major questions of the series were answered and they were all tied together with a big bow. The secret was more horrifying than the villain. If the movie had focused more on the secret and the horror of the secret rather than trying to make Mal appear smart and the villain smarter. Then maybe the movie would have been better.

Maybe, no guarantees. Because of the way the questions were tied together, I’ll only eat half the cookie.

The fights were definitely entertaining and there were enough of them that it was worth the price of the ticket. We got to see River fight and Mal fight and Jayne got to throw a few punches as well. Zoe really didn’t get into a fight, but they seemed to be going more ladylike with her character this time around. So, we get to keep the yummy cookie.

There were no “holy shit,” explosions in this film. For the life of me, I don’t know why not. Really very sad. Eats the cookie.

What was really disappointing was that for a self-professed feminist who had four strong female characters in the show and on the crew, that the movie became the Mal show. I know I said this up above. Zoe was given nothing to do. Kaylee was reduced to being the ‘girlfriend’ that pined after Simon. Inara was bait for the trap. And River, well, despite being the catalyst for this entire affair, River’s thoughts, opinions, desires and wants were never discussed, asked about, or portrayed outside of “Bullet to the brain pan, squish.” River is the fugitive and yet somehow, the entire movie revolved around Mal’s emotions and wishes. I am boggled. The strongest the women were was Inara managed to pull off an escape plan from the trap without either Mal or the assassin noticing and River got some pretty cool fight scenes that is if fighting makes a woman strong. (Which, it doesn’t.) While it was nice to see River’s Academy training, (which they never really discussed it was the Academy, it was a facility). It didn’t make her a ‘good’ or ‘strong’ character. It didn’t have to be the Mal show. In fact, it would have been great if it hadn’t been the Mal show. I am eating this cookie.

Serenity mostly builds on the ‘verse that was started in Firefly. The ship is still a wreck held together with wire and duct tape. The crew still doesn’t make a lot of money, just enough to get from place to place. The worlds are still an interesting mix of Chinese and American flavors. Most of the action takes place out on the Rim at worlds like Lilac, Haven and Miranda (the furthest world out actually.) With a trip to Beaumonde, a border planet to spice things up a bit. There are worlds like, Mr. Universe’s moon and the moon the Training House is on that aren’t named. I don’t really have any problems with the world building in this movie outside of distances. But without a movie verse canonical map, it is impossible to say whether or not the distances mentioned in the movie were accurate or ludicrous. (I’m leaning towards ludicrous myself.) I could use the map given in the RPG, but that’s not really playing fair. So, the world building will keep the cookie.

Serenity felt like Joss was deliberately closing the book on the Firefly universe, trying to answer all the questions the fans had in one fell swoop. He packed at the same time too much and too little into one movie. Too much plot clichés and too little characterization which was the reason the fans loved the ‘verse so much. All the characters male and female got pigeonholed in their little roles in order to support Malcolm Reynolds, a character that without the outright evil of the Operative, no one would want to root for without seeing the series and knowing that yes, he can be an all right guy. Two and a half gingersnaps.

(And I really wish it was three.)

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