Serenity (review)

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Deep Space

Damn you, Joss Whedon, you hwoon dahn! Damn you and your honesty and integrity and unwillingness to succumb to Hollywood bullshit and–

Wait. Stop. Rewind. You have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’re in the Firefly cult, which, even though that doomed TV series is just about the biggest selling DVD ever, still means that most moviegoers have no damn idea what Serenity is. And I honestly have no clue whether Serenity will make any sense or hold any appeal to those who haven’t devoured and worshipped those precious few 14 episodes. Because I went into the film feeling like the crew of the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity were people I know and love, for all their faults and flaws and tendencies toward being infuriating and mysterious and impossible to get to know, and I left the theater so utterly shattered that I still can’t think straight. Much of my reaction comes from how well I knew them already. I don’t know what it would feel like to come fresh to Serenity. It is beyond the realm of my ability to be objective. That’s how fiercely I love this world and its people.

Cuz this is total-immersion science fiction. Creator/writer/director/god Joss Whedon throws you in the deep end of the pool, and you either just can’t deal with it and sink, or you’re thrilled to find something so smart and so ready to believe that the audience doesn’t need its hand held and so you swim through it like it’s an alternate aspect of your own reality. (This was true of the TV show, too, but we devotees have had some time to absorb it.) And it’s not like Whedon merely gives us a sweeping, complex vision of a human future without explaining too much of it and then drops a conventional story in front of it. No: we are hip-deep in this sprawling, interplanetary society, where the tendrils of history reach deeply and often painfully into characters’ psyches. Where tapestries of political machinations collide in ways that are only just beginning to fall out. (Confidential to fans: We learn much about what the Alliance was doing to River, and why. Oh, and: Reavers!) Where the dominant English language is jammed with (untranslated) Chinese slang and even the rhythm of speech is different, like you might expect it to be 500 years in the future.

But the one thing that isn’t different — and this is what makes Whedon so brilliant — is that his future does not require that human nature change. Firefly is the anti-Star Trek. The ‘verse here ain’t no place where money has been eliminated and people are just plain nice to one another; there’s no room for that pleasant fantasy here. In fact, a salient point of Whedon’s story here is that that kind of world — a “world without sin” — is not only too dull to be tolerated but a sheer human impossibility. It simply is not within us, and disaster lies in the attempt to find it.

That kind of harsh, gritty, cynical realism may well be the thing that draws in a certain select new audience… and it will absolutely thrill fans of the TV series. Because we, many of us, were desperately worried that the moral complications and spectacularly unclichéd structure of Whedon’s tales would get flattened out by the steamroller of Hollywood monotony. Our “hero,” for instance, is Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, who could be a huge star if he wanted to be), the pirate and the scoundrel who owns Serenity and uses it to generally misbehave, robbing from the rich and comfortable and tweaking the noses of the ruling Alliance whenever possible. But Mal ain’t no Hollywood hero, and he does things — expeditious things, pragmatic things — that are shocking, things that you might grudgingly acknowledge as necessary in “real life” but that are rarely allowed to pass in the realm of escapist adventure that Firefly and Serenity fall into. Mal is Han Solo, and Mal would always, always shoot Greedo first.

But Whedon has out-Fireflyed himself — as if he knew we feared he would let himself be watered down, he went in the opposite direction and ramped up the unconventionality of the whole thing. He has taken a series that was too uncompromising for TV and turned it into a movie that so defies expectations that even religiously devoted fans — who worship him precisely for his revolt against the predictable and the ordinary — may find it too devastating. When Very Bad Things happen here, those fans may find themselves at war, half wishing that Whedon is only fooling with us and it’ll all end up being a dream or a virtual reality, anything that allows these bad things not to be true, but knowing that we’d hate Whedon for giving in like that. And he doesn’t — shun-sheng duh gao-wahn, as Mal might say in celebration and awe — he doesn’t. The most stunning thing about Serenity may be that Whedon was allowed to make this film in his own way.

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