Friday, February 15, 2013
When the Avengers movie blew a massive hole in the box office in the summer of 2012, it felt like a triumphant coronation for a guy in Joss Whedon who had had a lot of well-documented struggles in reaching a mass audience with his particular brand of self-aware geekery. I'm not a member of the cult of Joss - I have never watched a single episode of any of his TV shows (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) - but even I felt good for the guy, because if there's one thing that comes across loud and clear with Whedon it's how much he genuinely loves his fans. It can be easy for the creators of cult phenomena to become jaded by the fervency of the cult, but Whedon never seems to fall into this trap, and the reverence with which he treats his fan base is something I respect immensely.
When Firefly was unceremoniously canceled by Fox after airing 11 (out of 14 produced) under-performing episodes (and, to be honest, Fox dicked around with the show in ways that were never conducive to building a large audience) it was destined to be a lamented cult failure, cherished as much for its pristine beauty (shows that only run for 14 episodes never run into the universal problem of the cult hit, which is the impatience fans have with the inevitable dips in quality of a long-running TV show) as for its merits as a TV series. Somehow Whedon, who is obviously deeply attached to this project, managed to convince Universal Pictures to acquire the rights and bankroll a feature film, which picked up the characters where the series left off. Serenity hit theaters in the late summer of 2005, almost three years after Firefly was given the axe.
Some back of the envelope math - something like 4.5 million people were tuning in to Firefly by the time it got cancelled. If each and every one of those people bought a 10 dollar movie ticket to see it in the theater, the film would gross 45 million dollars domestically (and a film based on a TV show that barely made a dent in America would probably not be a huge hit overseas.) Serenity, at a very marked-down budget, cost about 40 million dollars to make. Add in marketing and promotion and you're at 50, 60 million dollars. That's a shitty investment for a movie studio unless you're convinced you can pull a substantial audience who already had one chance to invest in this world and declined.
I can't really figure out if Whedon meant to set up a new film franchise, or if he just wanted to give fans one last chance to say goodbye to these characters. The film is certainly open-ended enough to suggest further adventures, and movie studios don't usually take a chance on action-adventure films from novice directors unless they see sequel potential. The members of the cast who couldn't sign up for multiple films were killed off on-screen, so someone at least was thinking about sequels. On the other hand....I've watched Serenity. And it is really hard for me to picture anyone involved as genuinely seeing this as a good entry-point for a new generation of fans. In no uncertain terms, I think that Whedon either didn't really care about sequels, or he seriously miscalculated how newbie-friendly the film he made actually is. Joss Whedon loves his fans, and he made a film that, I believe, is meant to please them (how effective he was in that task I'll leave to actual fans to determine). But he didn't really make a movie that is meant for the rest of us, and it's not really a surprise that Serenity cratered at the box office, and this universe is kept alive only through ancillary media with low start-up costs (ie. novels, comics, and pen-and-paper RPG's).
There's an infodump at the beginning that lays out the basics of this universe - inner planets, Alliance; outer planets, not; some kind of war, Reavers that eat people. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions but it fulfills its function well enough. The problem really sets in when we're introduced to the crew of the Serenity. Whedon chooses to go with a show-offy 5 minute unbroken take, following Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) through his ship, as he checks in with everyone. There are six other people aboard the ship and, while we get something of each person's personality (Jayne is a hothead, Kaylee is mousy and in love with Simon, Simon is a haughty dickface) what we don't get, and never really do, is any sense of the relationships between most of them. That can't be helped to some degree, but what's most frustrating is just how little we understand why they are under Mal's employ. Mal is obviously cut from the Han Solo template, right down to his wardrobe, but just based on what this film tells us about him, he is kind of an unpleasant fuckstick, alternating between unfeeling and self-righteous. There is clearly some kind of bond between these people that is lingering just underneath the surface, but it is not shared with us here. To give just one obvious example - Zoe (Gina Torres) is obviously the person that Mal trusts the most on the ship, and she is something close to his right-hand woman. I am quite certain that she and Mal have a lot of history between them. But I haven't the vaguest clue about what that history is, so when Mal really turns on the self-righteousness and basically forces the crew to go on a suicide mission for nebulous reasons, I can't remotely piece together why they all say yes.
I also can't really figure out what the crew of Serenity does. I mean, I know what they are tasked to do in this movie - protect River Tam (Summer Glau) and figure out why the Alliance wants her so bad. But I'm not sure what their greater goal is. We see them go on one non-plot-related mission, which is basically an armed bank robbery. Actually, that's precisely what it is. Is that what this crew does? Travel from planet to planet and rob people? Are they just an interplanetary gang of thieves? That seems unlikely. So what do they do in the broader sense? I have no idea. This is one of the inherent benefits that the Star Trek franchise gets from working out of a military framework. If you watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture without knowing anything about Star Trek at all, you'd probably have a lot of these same questions, but the answer to most of them ultimately winds up at "because they are under orders to do so". That's why they go on missions, and why the crew never abandons a fuck-up like Kirk. With Serenity, I'm just totally adrift when it comes to motivations, and that's a big problem.
The acting is a mixed bag, as one would expect from the cast of a television show. I can see the appeal of Fillion's too-cool-for-school attitude, although I find his performance somewhat one-note. Glau, who is asked to carry large portions of this film, sometimes suggests interesting depths to the damaged River Tam and sometimes is in way, way over her head. Alan Tudyk does his Alan Tudyk thing as Wash (which is a thing I mostly like); the same could be said for Adam Baldwin as Jayne, who is basically playing his character from Full Metal Jacket but in space. Jewel Staite is cute as Kaylee, although her performance is all on the surface. Sean Maher's performance as Simon is something close to dreadful. Gina Torres is the one actor in the main cast who seems like a significantly more talented performer than the material she's given here as Zoe - I would have preferred to watch a movie about her character than one about River. Chiweter Ejiofor chews the scenery nicely as the guest villain, and I'm glad they allowed him to use his natural accent. And I'm not really sure what movie David Krumholtz is in but it's not really this one - the scenes with him seem mostly like a parody of space opera films.
I can't avoid talking about the script. To call it "in-jokey" would be doing a disservice to just how alienating a lot of it is. People say things like this: "We're gonna explode? I don't want to explode." Kaylee uses the phrase "Twixt my nethers" at one point. And people keep using the word, "gorramn" which I always thought was one of those dumb internet memes like the obnoxious "ermagerd" but is apparently some sort of in-universe term of choice. Ultimately the blame here probably has to fall on Battlestar Galactica (the original, and then the remake for continuing the trend), for suggesting to sci-fi writers that it's okay to create words and then beat them into the ground. It is not. Everyone needs to stop doing this.
I can enjoy Serenity on an entirely surface level, as an action-adventure space opera that does a lot with its limited budget. It's a sci-fi movie and it's not brainless, so its simple existence is already unusual. The problem is that this is a lived-in universe where the lived-in part of it is obviously only meant for people who have already invested in the 14 hours of television preceeding. That's not a huge commitment for a person to make, and on some level I'm just being lazy in not wanting to put in the effort, but a feature film that runs in movie theaters should be expected to be more friendly towards novices, and this one just isn't.
A few odds and ends:
The opening exposition involves nested stories, and I hate nested stories as much as I hate nested dreams.
The cute, mousy girl down in Engineering has a thing for the haughty charisma-vacuum that is Simon. Why? This is one of those things that is particularly alienating for a non-fan, because Simon is awful, and this sub-plot screams at me that I Just Don't Get It, Man.
I've been around the internet block long enough to know that Browncoats are a big thing in Firefly fandom, but when this movie mentions the term it never really does the work of explaining how they fit into the universe. They were I guess the army of the outer planets that fought the inner planets? And Mal was part of that army?
There are a lot of fisticuffs in this universe. At least 3 separate scenes of kung-fu fighting from what I remember. Whedon fell a little too in love with pitting his characters against one another in hand-to-hand combat.
The brief space battle at the end between the Alliance and the Reavers is very busy, with a whole bunch of ships that aren't really distinguishable from one another.
I don't really understand why the crew of the Serenity needs to use Krumholtz's equipment to broadcast the message about the Reavers that winds up being the film's MacGuffin. It seems like there should be a million easier ways to get the message out, especially since it ends with the crew defending a location against a much larger army of Reavers, while Mal has to jump across a chasm to get to Krumholtz's stuff, Super Mario style.