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the pathetic caverns - movies

Serenity

2005, D&S: Joss Whedon

Everybody seems to love Serenity but me. I only like it, and I'm left wondering what I'm missing, or if maybe the emporer's suit isn't tailored as finely as one might wish.

I do think it's a big improvement over Firefly, the Joss (Buffy) Whedon-created Western-in-space TV show that begat it.

Firefly had its moments, but it suffered from inconsistent writing/acting and shallow characterization. I was willing to overlook some of that — it took at least a season for Buffy the Vampire Slayer's characters to acquire depth, and longer than that for me to acclimatize myself to David Boreanaz's acting. But more seriously, almost the only thing distinctive about Firefly's train heists and cattle-rustling tales was that they took place on distant planets. Other than the exotic settings, there wasn't much to differentiate them from the average Gunsmoke rerun. And — especially coming from a guy who enthusiastically celebrated female power in Buffy — the role of women in Whedon's Westernverse bugged me. Inara (Morena Baccarin)'s character was a sort of space geisha, and although her position was repeatedly described as highly esteemed by society, the claim wasn't borne out. She was frequently referred to her as a "whore" and treated with a marked lack of respect. The mechanically inclined Kaylee (Jewel Staite) had to spend most of her time panting over the nearest pair of cheekbones (Sean Maher) so viewers knew she wasn't gay, but she was far too passive to do anything about it.

Serenity wisely downplays the space hooker slurs and concentrates on Firefly's most promising story arc, that of renegade military telepath and sister-to-the-cheekbones River Tam (Summer Glau). Serenity is also much more swashbuckler-in-space than Western-in-space, with space swordfights and space pirates instead of space lariats and space horse thieves, which adds a different flavor. (I'll try to sidestep spoilers, but Serenity's Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) actually attempts one of the same credibility-stretching gambits that Captain Aubrey used in Master and Commander.) Serenity also benefits from more thematic heft than the TV show. I wouldn't exactly call it pointed political satire, but I don't think it leaves much ambiguity as to how Whedon feels about the current national security mania.

Also fortunately, the acting — particularly that of Fillion and Glau — makes a quantum leap forward. The script doesn't have the tossed-off feel of some of the TV episodes; it barrels along without pause, and it bristles with Whedon's trademark quips and penchant for flouting genre conventions. In one near-perfect moment, Reynolds fires on a foe the instant the man claims he's unarmed. It further not only further defines his character, but it's exactly the sort of pragmatic decision that cinema protagonists — even antiheroes — seldom make. Serenity also has some very creative and effective sequences, particularly the opening. It painlessly supplies the necessary exposition with a flashback structure that's simultaneously complex, startling, easily followed, and visually rich.

But even though the story is action-packed and often surprising, it just doesn't make sense. The plot obstacles and the gimmicks that defeat them seem equally arbitrary. I overheard audience members debating afterward whether the action took place in one solar system or several; their confusion was understandable. The three-dimensional nature of space wasn't convenient for the narrative, so it was ignored: a trip from point A to point B had to follow a straight line between the points. (Serenity's spaceships act much more like 18th- or 19th-century sailing vessels than anything else.) Despite the presence of "magic" technologies like instant interstellar communication, nobody seems to have computers significantly more advanced than our own. Throughout the TV series I gave the creators the benefit of the doubt on that point. Several sci-fi writers have posited futures in which artificial intelligences won't permit humans to "enslave" computers much smarter than what we've got now. I was half-expecting that an aside might offer a similar explanation for Serenity's lack of advanced computers — that is, until the artificially intelligent sex robot showed up.

I frequently have objections to the credibility of sci-fi films, and maybe I'm a viewer who's anomalous enough that my reactions aren't particularly useful. I've been accused of not having a sense of fun (or taking films too seriously). I'm told that the precepts of drama and/or the conventions of genre require that sci-fi movies ignore logic and physical laws.

The thing is, plenty of sci-fi movies do a much better job of not blowing my suspension of disbelief. I'm basically favorably inclined toward the genre, and all I ask from a film is that it think through the problems a little bit. If a spaceship has to fly through a dangerous area to make a plot point work, the movie just needs to create a logical reason why the ship can't fly around it. Alien and Blade Runner were far more believable, but it didn't make them less exciting or dramatically satisfying.

I get the impression that Whedon isn't very concerned about making his stories plausible. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was mostly internally consistent throughout its run, but not only was it the product of several authorial voices, it also violated almost all of its ground rules at least once. Whedon's script for Alien Resurrection, the fourth entry in the Alien franchise, had a far less credible take on alien biology than did its predecessors.

It may be unfair of me to criticize Whedon for failing to achieve a standard he's not interested in meeting. But Serenity frustrates me because I feel like it could have been much better — a film I could have unabashedly loved, instead of liking with strong reservations.

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