Denver Finds Serenity
by Ari Armstrong, May 6, 2005
You can't take the Big Damn Heroes from me. I am one of the fortunate two or three thousand people in the world who has now seen Serenity, Joss Whedon's first feature film (that he both wrote and directed) that, for the rest of you poor bastards, won't be released until September 30.
I thought the May 5 "special preview" would tide me over, but now I want to see the movie on opening day more than before. The brisk pace, the subtle and layered writing, the characters -- the cool, heartbreaking, upsetting, ass-kicking, breathtaking characters -- the fanatical "browncoats" laughing uproariously such that I missed some of the dialogue -- all this adds up to me having to see the movie again. On September 30. That's, let me see, 21 weeks away. And Mal thinks Inara's a tease.
I have plenty to say about the screening (I reveal some general information about the story, but no details), but I want to get the uninitiated off and clicking. You can view the cool preview of the movie, though some of my friends skipped it because they didn't want to learn about the story in advance. The most important thing you should do, if you want to see the absolute best television series ever made (says me), is buy Firefly, from which Serenity develops, from Amazon or your local video store. The movie stands by itself, but the television series is terrific and it will add a lot to your viewing of the movie. A good independent source of news is offered by a fellow named Jeremy Neish, a brown-noser (okay, I'm just jealous) who got to be an extra in the movie (though I have no idea if he made the final cut). Official pages support Can't Stop the Signal and the browncoats.
Where to start? Perhaps with the biggest damn hero of them all, Joss Whedon, who created Serenity as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I've watched all that, and I regard the new movie as Whedon's finest work. While the studio didn't fly one of the cast members out to watch the movie with us, which was disappointing as hell, Whedon did film a special introduction. He pointed out that canceled television shows aren't supposed to be turned into feature films. But the cast and crew believed in it, and the enthusiasm of the fan base convinced the money folk to go along. ("So if the movie sucks, it's your fault," Whedon joked. The audience seemed thrilled to share in the blame.)
Whedon encouraged the fans to spread the word. The "special preview" was announced through Can't Stop the Signal. That idea of the signal -- of mass yet dispersed communication -- plays a central role in the story of the movie. David Krumholtz is perfect as Mr. Universe, a tech geek. Thus, the internet has played a large role in the development of Serenity, both in that it helped create a buzz and fan base surrounding the work and it inspired an important part of the story.
The deeper theme, which was carried out with mostly good results, involved the other new character, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the evil Operative, along with Shepherd Book and Captain Reynolds (see the official pages for complete casting). And Kaylee, in perhaps the single best scene of the movie. That's all I'll say about the theme, for fear of revealing too much.
Simply the fact that Serenity has a theme and a strong plot separates it from the regular pack of movies. Whedon is an excellent writer of fiction. Part of what makes him great is that he achieves what Ayn Rand might call romantic realism, a tightly plotted story driven by strong characters that is both plausible and inspiring.
Part of why I like Serenity is that its world is in important respects our world, or our world as it might be. There's little in the movie that's difficult to buy rationally. And yet this is not "naturalism," in the sense that the characters are mundane people who are mostly at the mercy of forces beyond them. No, these characters are strong-willed, and they are willing to fight for the world of their aspirations. Serenity is neither a crazy action/adventure film that's momentarily fun but that requires a suspension of disbelief, nor a "realistic" film about boring crap that nobody really cares about. It's a believable film about normal people who choose to become extraordinary in a possible future.
In brief, the story involves the captain of a space ship who offers protection to a fugitive, a girl whose mind was messed with by a governmental entity for nefarious reasons unknown.
It took a while for the movie to grow on me, and for a few minutes I was worried. Part of the problem for Whedon is that he had to satisfy both fans of the television series and newbies. And so the movie offers a quick recapitulation of the television series. We again meet Dr. Tam before we're sure of what he's about. The captain is all manner of disturbing at the beginning, which is important in order to understand his history. (I think the filming uses some interesting techniques of lighting and contrast to highlight the progress of the characters, though I'll have to watch the movie again to check into this.)
The introductory segment, though, is brilliant, in that it fills in the story quickly in a way that's satisfying to fans. Nice job on that.
One interesting thing about the movie is that its scenes of violence and sex are somewhat restrained, even though it's a fast-paced action movie filled with fights against barbaric and evil characters. But unlike, say, Sin City or the films of Quentin Tarantino, Serenity doesn't revel in gore. I don't suspect that young children will enjoy it, but that's because it's complex and emotionally charged. (I suspect it will pull a PG-13 rating.) Serenity is interesting because of the story and the characters; it doesn't use blood or skin as a crutch. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty of violence, some of which made me wince and most of which made me clutch the arm rests. But the violence is more subtle and purposeful than it is in most action films.
Now some notes of a more personal nature. I never even heard of Firefly until after it was canceled and available on DVD. But I became a fan long before the movie deal was finalized, so I got to observe that whole process from a distance.
On April 23 Whedon sent out an announcement about the trailer. Then on April 27 he announced the advance screening of the entire film:
By the time I had all this figured out, the tickets were sold out. Thankfully, three of my friends conspired to grab me a pair. (Of tickets.) While I was saddened that a number of my friends were unable to go (a sadness mixed with the urge to gloat), the fact that the theaters sold out quickly bodes well for the future of Firefly/Serenity. Apparently Whedon can make two more movies if the first one does well.
Rotten Tomatoes, citing a "CABridges," reported: "Advance screenings of the upcoming movie 'Serenity' were announced last week, with ten showings in ten cities on May 5. Universal had an advertising campaign all ready to go but didn't need it as tickets sold out by the next morning."
Unfortunately, on the very day of the showing, my wife had to drop out. (The ticket found a good home.) So I was feeling a little distraught about that, but I was determined to make the best of it.
Those in my group ate dinner, then played cards or chatted while waiting in line. Others wore "browncoat" or "Blue Sun" shirts. Then we all ran our cameras and other electronics out to the cars, because we were threatened with crucifixion if we brought a recording device of any kind into the theater. (Okay, maybe it was merely a public lashing; I couldn't hear the announcement very clearly.)
The crowd was excited but not rowdy. There was some clapping, laughing, even a bit of whooping, but nobody found their way into that special place in Hell, at least as far as I could tell. (You'll have to watch the television series for some of the references...)
The upshot is that, after a late night and a few hours of typing, I'm tired but happy. Serenity is a great movie. You should see it. Several times. So that I can see the next two movies. And so that you can, too. You only have to wait until September 30. A mere 21 weeks, or 147 days, or...