Same old same old. Sci-fi TV movie adaptation proves average in every respect.

Released in 2005, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 07 Oct 2005 by Craig Eastman
Serenity image

Serenity. Defined "a disposition free from stress or emotion". How apt, such was the trance-like state it became all too easy to slip into throughout the running time of this, the cinematic outing for sci-fi clown prince Joss Whedon's cancelled TV series Firefly; a series met with such apathy Stateside that it was terminated after a mere 11 episodes. Of course this made it a prime candidate for cult status amongst lifeless geeky nerds in need of something trendy to latch onto, lest they actually find themselves required to venture out of the darkness of their bedrooms and into the real world where there are lots of people who do scary stuff like talk to each other about current affairs. Net result, Firefly DVD sales bizarrely exceed expected returns based on TV viewing figures and network chiefs say "Hang on a minute... maybe there's a market for this after all!", hence we find ourselves sitting in the cinema sandwiched between hordes of obese men who apparently only shower biweekly and still have difficulty letting go of that whole Matrix long leather coat vibe, and suspiciously H&M-clad student female types who have come in groups of two or three, sans male accompaniment. But I digress...

For those, like myself, not previously in the know, Serenity takes place 500 years in the future after a bloody civil war between planetary factions. Wise-cracking Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) found himself on the losing side, and now captains the transport vessel Serenity as it darts around the outer systems on paid missions, all the while avoiding where possible the ships of the victorious Alliance. As well as his predictably rag-tag crew Mal's vessel is also host to a mysterious young girl named River (Summer Glau), who, as well as being the sister of ship's doctor Simon (Sean Maher), is also an Alliance-engineered psychic harbouring a deadly secret. Oh, and she's an expert in martial arts. Yawn. So incriminating are River's suppressed memories that the Alliance will stop at nothing to eliminate the infuriating little pixie, and so they dispatch their top assassin, known only as "The Operative" (a predictably English Chiwetel Ejiofor), to eliminate her before she spills the beans. Thus the stage is set for all manner of MOR sci-fi shenanigans in a world best described as Cowboys and Indians in space. Be still, my beating heart.

Now in all fairness Serenity did deliver slightly above my expectations, as I am a self-proclaimed hater of all things Buffy, which pretty much means I should want to drive a stake through Whedon's heart. Indeed my predisposition to loathing this movie wasn't entirely unjustified, as it does contain pretty much all of the elements I find retarded in Joss' work; the kung-fu bitches, the smart-mouthed heroes with an infinite supply of quips, the low-tech vibe and every other facet that explains why sad old men with ponytails have nothing else to talk about with their equally socially dysfunctional friends. That Whedon has actually diluted them to a tolerable level came as quite the surprise, and I found myself if not necessarily engaged by this movie then at least not overtly offended by it in quite the measure I had expected. The world of Serentiy is certainly appealing enough with it's rusty hulls and thinly veiled Wyatt Earp vibe, and while despite it's $50million budget there are still moments of suspiciously "TV" set design, the general aesthetic is a pleasant enough one. The characters too have much more to offer than I had expected, and I was relieved that the impression of near constant smart-ass verbal intercourse given by the trailer remained largely unfulfilled.

Serenity image

Fillion's Mal may not, as some corners have recently been suggesting, constitute the new Han Solo, but he does cut some depth of mustard as anti-hero for a new generation of the great unwashed, delivering a ballpark interpretation of the moral ambiguity the character needs in order to support any kind of long term audience interest. It is, however, never in doubt that come crunch time Mal will inevitably do The Right Thing, and it does take something of the edge off proceedings having witnessed his casual ethics earlier in the film. Still, he gets all the best lines (most of them having disappointingly been used in the trailer) and in a production targeted at this particular demographic that's pretty much all you need to guarantee instant Icon status. Similarly the rest of the crew are sufficiently affable as to endear themselves to the audience without causing much fuss, with only Jayne (Adam Baldwin) offering any kind of resistance to Mal's charm, and even then in such a way as not to rouse much suspicion as to who will ultimately captain the ship. Crucially it's River who proves the weakest link, though not through any fault of Summer Glau's. For all his admittedly apparent ability to write characters who charm or entertain, Whedon seems incapable of rendering any of his players particularly sympathetic, and when we're supposed to believe that the crew of Serenity are willing to lay down their lives for a young girl it's pretty basic math that we should feel some sort of concern for her too.

Unfortunately for Whedon he's been so busy penning River as an ass-kicking little rock chick to keep silly little men and boys happy that it's almost impossible to doubt her prospects for survival. Clearly she can look after herself, so why exactly am I supposed to fret over her state of health? Simply having her break down and mumble a load of bollocks about wanting to be a stone every now and again doesn't cut it I'm afraid, but clearly Whedon thinks he can have it both ways. How wrong he is. Still, Chiwetel Ejiofor has the decency to provide someone to root for, even if he is an evil bastard by his own admission. "You don't kill children. I do" he calmly states when comparing tactics with Mal, providing the film with at least a whiff of a character whose commitments are firmly established. Indeed were it not for his presence you'd be forgiven for forgetting that somewhere amongst Serenity's muddled thematic endeavours there's supposed to be a morality debate going on. It's a good job there are plenty of English actors willing to take on bad guy roles, eh? Just a shame that the film's ethics end up clarified by a man so overtly evil rather than resting in the balance of the supposedly "complicated" Mal.

Still, there's just about enough action to keep the mind from wandering too much, assuming you're not as numb as we are to just about every conceivable mode of death and destruction. Personally I came close to falling asleep, but my own reaction was not mirrored by the rest of the audience, one of whom was even sad and lonely enough to begin clapping upon River's "hero shot" near the movie's climax. I will admit that the limited aerial action is well-handled, certainly better than in a recent third world debt-equalling trilogy I could mention, with some very nice virtual camera work indeed, oddly reminiscent of the Ace Combat series of PlayStation games with their shaky cameras and crash-zooming. In fact maybe Serenity would make a better game than a movie, if indeed it isn't already on the cards, for all it's gravity-defying, smart-ass quipping, quick draw shooting, kung fu kicking left me feeling a little bit detached. By no means a bad film, my apparent apathy is more the result of Serenity simply being more of the same in a year so far filled with, well, more of the same. Good in some places, bad in others, and overall as average as a walk in the park. Next.

I award this movie 3 out of 5 Units We Use

Joss Whedon
Cast list:
Nathan Fillion (Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds)
Summer Glau (River Tam)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative)