Reading Jim Schembri’s review of this film hit home to me just how subjective the world is. A film can come along that you love deeply and completely, and to someone else it’ll be the sort of scum that they only expect to find lodged in hard-to-get-to areas of their bathroom. You’ve already read Andy’s review, so you already know that Serenity was an awesome film. But I can’t deny that it’s possible that some folk out there wouldn’t enjoy it. Let us consider these peculiar bastards for a while. What is it they lack that makes them lesser human beings?1

Part of it is character. Not theirs, but the people on the screen. There’s a few ways to represent the complexities of a human being on the screen. Some are more common in movies, some more common in television. The characters in Firefly, Six Feet Under and The West Wing are pretty different people, but the style of presentation seems to me quite similar. Mostly realistic, with perhaps a slightly higher than normal spattering of wit, and a tendency to subvert drama with comedy, and vice-versa.

There’s a few other methods more common in film. One is to wrap every character up in a central theme and repeat it constantly. Or for added complexity, wrap each relationship between two characters up in a central theme. “Be mindful of your surroundings.” “I’m a good person.” “What do we do when we fall over?”2 In your more adult films — the ones not necessarily based on comic books, which is a weird idea so I’ll give you this aside to get over it — things are different again. The character might be improvised by the actor, or the surroundings of the character are shot to give you insights into their nature, or you get narration, or any one of a hundred techniques.3

Serenity falls, as one would expect from a film written by Joss Whedon, into the first camp. As Andy alluded to last week, this makes a refreshing change from a few of the genre films that have been around recently. The film has ten major characters, and so characterisation needs to be economical; from a pacing point of view it’s worth comparing with Ocean’s Eleven. All the crew are given a few choice lines and moments that sum up their positions neatly, but as the film progresses, it has to choose who to really focus on. As many have commented in the flurry of reviews and interviews recently,4 Serenity is about two characters: River Tam, the abused young girl who harbours a terrible secret about the worlds of the film, and Captain Mal Reynolds, a rogue in the grand mould of Han Solo.

Some have compared River to Whedon’s Buffy Summers. This, naturally, is because she kicks people a bit and can use weapons. Summer Glau, an ex-ballerina, plays River with an impressive level of vulnerability — even though she is rather good at the old fisticuffs, she still feels like a frightened, upset, nervous girl (with a fantastic streak of dark humour, every now and then). Most of the cliches of the gibbering, broken genius figure are derided on the way to discovering just what it is that haunts her so.

The man who will help her do this, and lead her into danger in order to find her answers, is Mal. I’ve mentioned that he’s Han Solo-esque: it’s been suggested by Whedon that Firefly was the story of what would have happened to Han if that weirdo and the farm-boy hadn’t wandered into the cantina. But he’s got a touch more than that. While his trappings and life are very much Solo, his character has a solid splash of Indiana Jones in it, too.5 Nathan Fillion’s Mal is not perfectly self-assured: he’s occasionally nervous, self-deprecating, angry, and impressively good at getting beaten up. But just like Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he believes in something, he has an ideal that he will die for. Jones was history; Mal’s is freedom, and I’m not talking about a variety of hot chip. Freedom is an idea that’s getting splashed about a bit recently, and Whedon takes a good look at the choices a society has to make about accountability and disclosure.

All the other characters from the series are back, and it feels remiss not to mention them all, albeit briefly. So this is my geek-out paragraph. Inara remains silent for a lot of the film, but her passionate looks are straight out of a good Jane Austen adaptation and tell volumes. Kaylee is still reminding us that nice girls can like sex a lot too, and being generally adorable. Simon gets to be a shade cooler than he ever managed in the past, especially in the opening flashback. Shepherd Book gets a reduced role, but a very solid, mentor-ish one. Wash is still Wash — the most normal person on board, and always the funniest. Zoe remains all stoic, sometimes beautifully so. Jayne is still perfectly shallow, and gets most of the best lines. And I should mention Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operative — menacing, delicate, amoral, dedicated.

I mentioned before Raiders of the Lost Ark — this film feels very much part of the tradition of Raiders, of the original Star Wars trilogy, and others. It’s fun, it’s full of adventure, brilliant jokes, horrific sadness, brutal violence, and ordinary people being thrust into extraordinary events, which I never get tired of. All the characters, while being occasionally outlandish, have a strong level of ordinariness that makes you really feel about them and care for them. There’s no James-Bond-esque level of safety here. They’re desperate, they make mistakes, they bleed. And it’s great to watch.

  1. I was going to be all neutral and balanced on this film but then I didn’t. These things happen.
  2. Don’t get me wrong — I loved Batman Begins.
  3. I’m not a film student or anything, so I couldn’t go much further than that. Perhaps that whole paragraph was a mistake. Ah well, it’s done now.
  4. I believe Joss Whedon interviews now rival pornography for most pages on the web.
  5. Nathan Fillion himself has said that he’s really trying to be Harrison Ford.
Can I suggest something that doesn't involve violence, or is this the wrong crowd for that?— Wash

8 Responses to “Serenity”

  1. so much effort has gone into this site!

    well done.

  2. thanks ooger booger. It couldn’t have been done without me and waxwerk. That guy is amazing. Did you hear about the time he singlehandedly rescued Napoleon from his exile in St Helena and made love to several beautiful women allt he same time?

    Tom, posting a comment in the second review makes a link to the first review on the main page for that comment.

  3. Yeah, fixed that now.

    I also thank you, Ooger Booger. I never went to St Helena but I did more work than Waxwerk and this loony.

  4. Fixed it have we? Try looking at your review and clicking on the comments link there.

  5. Curse you!

    That’s fixed too. Anything else? Or would someone like to talk about my review?

  6. Could you fix me some dinner?

    Maybe Jim didn’t like the bad guy. I’ve heard some objections to him based, mostly about him not being one dimensionally evil. I think they were disturbed that he could be persuaded otherwise.

  7. That seems odd. I’m sure there was a time not so long ago when films were criticised for having one-dimensional baddies. Do you think that prevailing political attitudes are against the idea that our enemies could be reasoned with?

    I fixed you some dinner and left it in your letterbox. Did you get it?

  8. Here’s an interesting perspective on the film. Although I haven’t seen Alien: Resurrection so it’s a bit hard to follow.