Revisiting Serenity

As you may, or may not know I have been watching Firefly lately. Actually, watching is the wrong word here. I have been savoring them. Normally when I find a show that I really like I gorge on it like an uncivilized beast. I plunge myself into the show, and watch 4-5 episodes per day forsaking sleep and other worldly pleasures such as my video games, side projects and scouring my collection of RSS feeds for funny pictures and quotes to put on /dev/random. I immerse myself wholly in that show until I run out of episodes.

But with Firefly it was different. I knew from the start that I only had 14 episodes to work with. So I paced myself. I took my time. I fell in love with the Firefly universe! I fell in love with the characters! And I enjoyed every second of this wonderful show.

Once I was done I could not believe there was no more episodes. I wanted more! I needed more! It was unfair. And then I remembered about the movie. Since the first and last time I have seen it was two years ago I decided to revisit it. I wanted to see how the movie ties into the series while I still had it fresh in my memory.

serenity.jpg

When I saw the movie for the first time I loved it. It had a unique setting, it was funny, sad and moving. It had all the right parts, a good story, snappy dialogs and interesting characters. I was hooked.

Watching it the second time, as a fledgling browncoat I saw it very differently. It seemed a rushed, haphazard attempt to tie all the loose ends from the series as well as introduce new viewers to the universe, the crew and the mystery of the series. It failed to captivate me the way the series did. It had the same characters, the same universe but the magic was somehow gone. The pacing with which Firefly would build the tension up and intersperse it with humor was off. It did not flow the right way. And I think I understand why.

When Joss Whedon scored the movie deal he had a choice to either shoot a big budget, 2 hour episode of Firefly that resolves nothing or neatly wrap up the series and give the fans some closure. He obviously opted for the later and I don’t blame him for it. But as it turns out, 2 hours is hardly enough time to say everything Whedon wanted to say. Some compromises had to be made and some loose ends had to remain untied. Others could not be given the time they deserved. If you are a fan (even new one like me) this will eat at you.

Let me give you some examples. In Serenity the slow cooking mystery of River’s past is condensed and compressed into a palpable form comprehensible to first time viewers. It seems rushed and uninspired. Firefly was very subtle about dropping hints about Rivers past. For example you don’t start seeing the “Blue Sun” company logo everywhere until your second or third viewing. That’s when you make the connection between it and the Academy where River was held, and the “Hands of Blue” men who pursue her. All of a sudden you understand why she was ripping off the Blue Sun labels of the cans in the mess hall, or why she attacked Jayne who was wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt.

In Serenity the all present Blue Sun company is marginalized. The mysterious and sinister “Hands of Blue” men are gone – completely ignored without even a mention. River’s origin story is explained in the first 15 minutes in a lengthy exposition/flashback scene. I don’t know about you but I liked the subtlety and mystery. This direct, up-front approach worked great when I didn’t know anything about the series. But on the second viewing of the movie it was quite shocking. It almost seems like a retcon too – since Simon manages to have a lengthy conversation about River’s condition with the head doctor before he springs her out. Hmm…

Similar thing happens to the Reavers. In the series they are a complete mystery. We can see their ships, and the carnage they leave behind but they are never shown on the screen. They are a huge unknown and most people seriously doubt their existence. Simon for example considered them to be a myth before he joined the crew of Serenity. No one knows where they came from, or where will they strike next. That’s what made them scary. I remember a scene from the show when Serenity is passing a lonely Reaver ship in space and everyone on board is pretty much holding their breath hoping they won’t pursue them. Just seeing their ship pass in a distance was a tense moment for the crew.

In the movie their origins are explained and they get plenty of screen time. In fact, you see bunch of them straight away in the first act. Furthermore, they are portrayed as mindless zombie like beasts – disposable cannon fodder to be hurled at the heroes by truckload. Mal and the crew kill so many of them in the 2 hours you literally lose count. Furthermore they graduate from a myth to a known and persistent danger. For example Wash and Zoe somehow know about certain areas in space where they tend to congregate. Its a huge change, and IMHO for worse! I much preferred the mysterious and scary Reavers that you run away from, than the mindless, zombie like Reavers you shoot en masse.

Serenity also introduces real copout supporting characters. Mr. Universe for example should be called Mr. Plot Device. When I originally saw the movie assumed that he was one of those corny, obligatory hax0r characters that every series introduces sooner or later. It seemed plausible at the time that there crew of Serenity would have worked with this walking stereotype and reusing him to play a key role in the movie was a clever move by Joss Whedon. Upon revisiting the movie I realized that I gave him more credit he deserved. Mr. Universe was obviously a blatant plot device character – introduced just so that the crew had access to a pirate broadcasting station. It’s a very heavy handed move and possibly the weakest part of the movie.

And of course there are the deaths. I know that in Whedon’s shows main characters often die. There is a difference though between a dramatic and meaningful death scene and a gratuitous one. IMHO, Wash died needlessly. It was just so… Random and uncalled for. Yes, life is random and unfair as well but I felt that there was just nothing to accomplish there by killing him off. It was not a dignified death. Not a heroic death. It was pretty much an accident.

Whedon tried to kill two birds with one stone. He aimed to create a good standalone movie that could be successful in theaters. One that would tell a complete story, with a begging and an end that would be accessible to people who have never seen the series. In that he succeed. He also tried to appease the fans of the show, and write a fitting ending they could live with. It was a good attempt but it fell short of the mark. Due to the various compromises, shortcuts and omissions it fares well as a stand-alone film but it just doesn’t live up to the high standards set by the series and fan expectations.

The worst part is that the movie definitively rules out a possibility for the series to be ever renewed. The story has been told, the mysteries have been resolved (or hand waved away and brushed under the carpet) and crucial characters have been killed. The Firefly saga has been wrapped up and closed forever. I almost wish this movie was never made. This way I could have kept hoping for another season or two – and an ending that was not rushed and simplified for new viewers. But alas, if there was no Serenity movie I would probably never get into Firefly and that would probably be even worse.

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7 Responses to Revisiting Serenity

  1. FlipX AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think it’s time to crack out the “Firefly” DVDs again… Thanks for the inspiration! :o)

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  2. Mack UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    I gave up halfway through serenity. It was rubbish. The entire character set were just.. obnoxious weirdos. Even the reaver chase scenes weren’t that good, for all the setting and dementedness with knives. Nothing in the damn film made any sense. I quit it at about 40 mins in, thinking, “Who are these people? What the hell do they want? Do I care?”

    AeonFlux was bettaaaaa.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Mack: I actually did not care for AeonFlux.

    Interesting though that we had such different reactions to the same movie. Reading your post made me think once again how much better off they would be if they went the miniseries route with this the way Farscape did.

    Farscape was similarly, prematurely canceled but a little bit later in the life of the series. We got stuck with a major cliffhanger at the end of season 4 of the series with no resolution in sight. The creators managed to get 3 (or 4, I don’t remember) hour long episodes out of the network in order to wrap up the series and give it a proper ending. If Whedon did that we might have had something better. As evidenced by your post Serenity did not appeal to a wider audience. :P

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  4. Mack UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Too true

    Aeonflux I liked because of my idiosyncracies more than anything else. I like bodymodification/posthumanist ideals, a la Stelarc the bio artist and Dan Simmons Fall of Hyperion posthuman mentalness, so the Hands = Feet thing was pretty cool for me. Right now I’m doing a degree in Product Design, so things like intelligent ballbearings and needlegun fruit get me thinking about the mechanics of such things. AeonFlux as a movie was decent B movie, but what made it interesting was the design pieces that the concept guys wanted to show off more than the characters/plot setting. Whenever I lost interest, it threw something new at me, like the tissue engineering med pacs, which, whether by coincidence or on purpose, are exactly the same as ones way back in Blake 7 in a certain episode. I mean, how awesome is that

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You know, you are right. Aeon Flux had some pretty cool gadget ideas and neat visual effects but the plot was kida weak. You can read my review here but you may disagree with it. :P

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  6. Jon NORWAY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    For those who really loved this show and wonder about the Blue sun/hands of blue. (You actually see them in the scene where simon rescues river) The reason Blue sun and hand of blue isn’t in the film is explained in the comic that was released before Serenity. This is a must have for all Firefly fans. This also explain the reason Book and Inara isn’t on the ship any more. (amozonlink to the comic here)
    There is also another comic about serenity.

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  7. Lian UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “That’s when you make the connection between it and the Academy where River was held, and the “Hands of Blue” men who pursue her. All of a sudden you understand why she was ripping off the Blue Sun labels of the cans in the mess hall, or why she attacked Jayne who was wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt.”

    I never noticed that until now… Weird since I’ve watched both show and movie several times. Oh Joss Whedon, so full of layers and subtext.

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