The Fan Divide
Ah, so here we are again in familiar territory. Serenity can be counted among those movies for which a rabid fan base has already been pre-built, so there's truly only two ways of receiving it -- either as one of the rabid fans who will expect it to fulfill their every wish of a grand movie, or as an outsider who isn't in on all the fuss and is only looking for something that stands decently on its own. There are many of these movies, mostly within the comic book or science fiction genre, and I know what it feels like to be in on the story.
This time, though, I am fully on the outside. Serenity is based on a television show, Firefly, which didn't even have the chance to air all of its episodes for one season when it was cancelled. Fans of the show were not numerous enough to sustain ratings, but loyal enough for their voices to be heard. The creator of the show, Joss Whedon, has a rabid fan base all his own after his atypical TV-writing style for his show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, landed him hurrahs from critics and the general viewing public.
I haven't seen any episodes of Firefly , and I don't know much about Whedon. From what I've gathered so far, he's applauded for being fairly experimental, and his characters veer from what one might refer to as classical depictions; they have modern, ironic attitudes, which fuel the humor in his material. Knowing only this little bit and some basics about the premise ("Serenity" is a spaceship in a future world with a young outcast crew who has renegade adventures), I sat down to watch Serenity.
Well, what can I say? Fans of the show may not have much use for my opinion, and I can only guess that the movie has good potential to be quite satisfying for them. It's big and exciting, with an urgent plot and a climax full of danger. There's also plenty of that ironic humor to go around; the movie has a sense of play about it that actually doesn't clash too badly with its serious side, although it does tend to stick out.
For myself, though, certain things bothered me. Serenity did feel more like a TV show in a number of aspects, which shouldn't be surprising given that it's the feature directorial debut of Whedon, who previously has directed various episodes of his television shows. This feeling could be expected perhaps, but I didn't think it would hit me as strongly as it did. Much of the way I felt came from the character dynamics, a glib quip-heavy rapport that was no doubt nurtured and therefore more at home on television. This level of acting isn't quite what I'm used to on the big screen. There's a noticeable discrepancy, for example, whenever Chiwetel Ejiofor, the villain introduced for the film, shares the screen with Nathan Fillion, the main hero. One guy comes across like he's acting for a movie, the other feels like he's acting for TV. (On that note, let me at least say that Gina Torres, of the original cast, bridges the divide very well.)
I wonder if Whedon would've been better off handing the directing duties to someone else. But I also know that this would probably be unfathomable to him, as the show, I've heard, is near and dear to his heart. I also know that none of these concerns are going to occur to the most loyal fans of Firefly. For example, much of the criticisms I've leveled here are the same kinds of criticisms raised against my beloved Star Wars series -- the acting's not that good, someone else should have directed, and so forth. But I always found a bigger whole to appreciate. It's easy to do once you're on the right frequency.
Though I'm not on Serenity's frequency, I can at least see that Whedon is onto something -- he's decided not to follow the zeitgeist, opting instead to be a creative force in the directions it goes. That's admirable, and, thus, what I can say for Serenity is that it felt different -- even if certain elements of the movie seemed familiar individually, the whole of the enterprise feels different. It's a different voice and approach, and different is good -- at least for the Firefly uninitiated. For fans in on the story, though, it's the familiarity with these differences that counts. I would be surpised if the movie doesn't win over the majority of those fans.
(Released by Universal and rated "PG-13" for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.