Big. Damn. Movie.
Joss Whedon's Serenity is terribly exciting, and I mean that literally. Exciting in so many ways, and terrible (as in the great and terrible Oz) in its ability to move its audience through a world, through a galaxy, and through a myriad of emotions so intense as to make one all manner of discomfited.
Serenity is the big-screen extension of Whedon't television series Firefly which ran for 12 episodes on FOX originally, was cancelled, and proved to be the show that wouldn't die. Fan support was demonstrated with money spent on the DVD set, as well as conventions and gathering the world over, and Universal pictures listened. Serenity isn't visually as slick as a Lucas production, but it has more heart, and better writing, than any sci-fi film to come along in a decade at least, and to paraphrase a line from the series: that makes it mighty.
Whedon's film tells the story of Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), the owner of a transport ship named Serenity, a former soldier and now independent businessman whose two goals are to remain free of the oppressive interplanetary Alliance, and to find enough work to keep food on the table and his ship in the air. He is assisted by his first mate Zoe (played by Gina Torres), who was his right-hand in the war, his ace pilot Wash (played by Alan Tudyk), his thuggish muscle Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin), and his unnaturally-gifted ship's mechanic, Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite). He also has two passengers, a fugitive doctor named Simon (played by Sean Maher) and his sister River (played by Summer Glau). River is the reason they are fugitives, and why they are hiding out on Mal's ship.
These seven make up the primary cast of the film, and it is their interaction that fuels the movie. Although this story revolves around one of them in particular, this remains an ensemble-driven piece, as each character has a moment or three to shine in the course of the story. Add to this Mal's spiritual advisor and friend Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass) and a former passenger who has a significant impact on his heart, Inara (played by Morena Baccarin), and you have all nine cast members from the series. Each has a role to play in the story, and each becomes a significant part of the events that take place, so much so that there is not one among them that could have been left out without lessening the telling of this particular tale.
As Whedon is known to do, his villain is multi-layered and not at all what moviegoers have come to expect from big-screen evildoers. The Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the type of villain who is at once both gentle and savage, philosophical and direct, peaceful and aggressive. At every turn, he displays a genuinely faceted personality, but none jarring or out of place. He is an able foil for Mal, and every meeting between reveals something about both men that audiences can pick up on.
One of the delights for me personally was to see the same level of special effects in this film as was evident in the series. This is not to say they are not good, they are, but they are definitely not at the level one thinks of Sci-Fi being as of late. This is not Star Wars, nor is it Star Trek. The special effects have a decidedly different feel to them. Some are clearly CGI, but some are nothing anyone not already familiar with the series will have seen: effects shots off-center, effects shots that have glare, effects shots that shake, effects shots that temporarily lose focus. All these elements are meant to enhance the experience of the audience by letting them sense a bit what the characters must also be experiencing at that moment. It has a more raw, more primal feel to is, and when dealing with this particular universe and crew, that is entirely accurate.
Although privy to two of the three test screenings over the summer, this was my first exposure to the finished score by David Newman. Some of the musical additions to the film were quite ear-catching, very evocative, and very much fitting with the feel of the story. Others were quite bland, blending into the background and becoming just so much clutter behind the action. On the whole, the music wasn't distracting, but neither did it enhance the film as much as another composer might have been able to.
This movie is hands down one of the best sci-fi films I have seen in the last decade. It has wit, it has charm, it has characters that evoke feeling on the part of the audience, it has thrills, it has moments of truly human horror, and it has many fine things to say, but in its text and in its subtext, about the depths of honor, and the power of love.
I give this film a grade of A-. I would give it an A+, but there is one event in the film that I simply cannot appreciate, no matter how hard I try, and every time I see it, that event jerks me out of my enjoyment of the film and makes me withdraw into myself. I will not spoil the film by explaining this further, nor is mine a reaction that everyone shares, but it affects me so profoundly that I cannot. And then there is the music.
Regardless of its few faults, Serenity is hands-down the most thoughtful, evocative, enjoyable Sci-Fi to come along in years. May the film make the $80 million in profit it needs for Universal to greenlight another. Truly gifted writers are in short supply, and Joss should continue this story for at least a couple more chapters.