Serenity

Serenity

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Universal, 2005

Rated PG-13 for sex and violence

In Hollywood there are very few second chances. Joss Whedon pulled off an out-and-out miracle in bringing a show cancelled after only 11 episodes to the big screen. “Firefly” was not even allowed to show its last three episodes before the Fox Network yanked it. By the time it was cancelled, it had a small but loud fan base. Normally, this would mean absolutely nothing to the suits in Hollywood, but perhaps someone noticed that this fan base was made up of the coveted twentysomething advertising demographic. For whatever reason, Whedon beat long odds in getting a green light to make a movie after the cast was released, the sets torn down and the series long gone.

Having, therefore, pulled off one miracle, it was not beyond reason to hope for another, mainly, that Whedon could keep the wit and charm of the television show intact as he moved to a wider screen and wider audience. For the first half of “Serenity”, he succeeds. Fans of the show will be happy to see their favorite crew (played by the same actors) of starship “Serenity”, the same witty dialogue, the same savoir-faire. Nathan Fillion once again plays Mal Reynolds, a delightful combination of rogue and hero a la Han Solo. Adam Baldwin plays mercenary Jayne Cobb with feral wit, Gina Torres is statuesque warrior queen Zoe, and Sean Maher is the surreally beautiful but icy Dr. Tam, whose psychotic sister River (Summer Glau) is the focus of the Bad Guys’ vendetta. A new unnamed character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor provides a sophisticated villain as foil for our heroes, as he pursues them from hideout to hideout trying to recapture the fugitive Tams.

But there’s no sense in detailing a plot which will be rehashed by a thousand other reviews. Let’s cut to the chase: Joss Whedon blew it. It was all there–the characters, the ship, the dialogue, the story. And he threw it all away for the sake of a cheap cliche, just to show us all how cool he is. Midway through the story, he kills off one of the most likeable characters, Shepherd Book (beautifully portrayed by veteran actor Ron Glass). Fans of the show will mourn him, of course, but his death was a heroic martyrdom that fit his character and afforded us a poignant moment of sorrow to point up the desperation of the Serenity’s crew and their situation. To laugh in the face of death, which Whedon’s characters always excel at, requires actual death. But then Whedon goes one step too far, and kills off Wash, the innocent and cheerful pilot. Having guided the Serenity to an impossible landing and saved the lives of the entire crew, Wash is destroyed between one breath and the next, without a death scene, with hardly enough time for his wife Zoe to know he’s gone, and we’re OFF to the next thrill-packed action scene.

When Gene Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer killed off Mr. Spock, one of the most beloved characters in television, in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”, at least they had the decency to make it an integral part of the story, one which changed the lives of the other characters. There was catharsis, pity, a genuine sense of loss. There is nothing like that for Wash. His own wife summons up only a stony expression at his graveside. This is especially disturbing in light of the critical praise Whedon originally drew for portraying a stable, happy marriage in “Firefly” between Wash and Zoe. They fought, they loved, they dreamed, they backed one another up, just like real married people. Their marriage was neither a caricature nor a farce. Now, of course, it’s gone, and one of the emotional anchors of the Serenity’s crew is gone as well, in an opportunistic, sophomoric piece of blatant manipulation. It’s no accident that the two characters killed off in this movie are the ones least likely to appeal to a juvenile fan base: the mature Shepherd and the happily married man. We are left with a crew of pretty people, all of them single and all of them hormonally supercharged.

Joss Whedon has been writing for adolescents for too long. Apparently, he has absorbed the idea that nihilism for its own sake is cool, and that killing off major characters on a cavalier whim shows some kind of angsty, edgy sensibility. It doesn’t, and his use of a “shocking plot twist” to do so merely comes across as a desperate move to inject¬†some¬†kind of depth into a story that is comic-book thin. Pacing and balance problems plague this movie. Viewers who are not familiar with the series will wonder why Book, who was onscreen only long enough to deliver one or two pithy lines, gets the full grief treatment from the crew of Serenity, but their crewmate Wash gets two seconds of his comrades staring sadly at their boots while the Bad Guys hammer at the door. Grownups will wonder why Mal, a war veteran in his early thirties, stammers like a gawky teenager in conversation with Inara, a professional prostitute. It’s just too much to believe that a trained sexual artiste would not know how to take charge of the situation. But of course, that might introduce a level of maturity and adult behavior into the show that would offend the fan base. Other viewers will wonder how a renegade geek teenager can afford a communications center that broadcasts to all of known space, or how the zombie-like savage Reavers can pilot a sophisticated piece of equipment such as a spaceship, or why everyone seems to speak Chinese but there are no actual Asians about.

The setup is clearly meant to prepare for further sequels: the unresolved sexual tension between Mal and Inara, the question of River’s future, the economic future of this ragtag band of amateurs, and the fate of the oppressive Alliance itself. With any luck, however, this future will never materialize. As far as this reviewer is concerned, the Firefly franchise is dead. See this movie at your own risk, and observe the wreck of a fine ensemble cast, a brilliantly conceived universe and a talent for characterization rarely seen in any medium. But nobody who can cavalierly dispose of a major character the way Whedon has done, merely in order to score points with the immature cynics in his audience, deserves a third chance.

Copyright 2005 by Sarah Stegall