Moriarty Finds A Little SERENITY! But Will The Fans'!
Published at: Sept. 24, 2006, 11:02 p.m. CST by headgeek
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
SERENITY fans scare me.
I’ve enjoyed Joss Whedon’s work for a while now. When I first met Hercules The Strong, the first thing that we bonded over was BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, which we both confessed a fondness for. At the time, the show was in its fourth year, I think, and there was still the feeling that it was this underrated secret happening on Tuesday nights. Running into another fan was fun because you could finally talk about it without having people stare at you like you’d just shit in their hands. I had a wildly mixed reaction to ANGEL during its time on the air, but I think its last season was one of the best things on TV that year, and it really allowed the show to go out on a high note.
When FIREFLY hit the air, I didn’t watch it. I tried one episode, but the way Fox scheduled it and the way they treated it in subsequent weeks kept me from tuning in again. It seemed like too much work to even find the thing, much less to sort out the chronology of something that had obviously been gooched by the network from day one. It wasn’t until they put the series out on DVD that I was able to give it a chance...
... and I liked it. A lot. In fact, that Christmas, I ended up giving away ten or twelve copies of the box set to friends and family so that they could give it a chance themselves. I’ve been a voracious reader of science-fiction since I was a kid, and for the most part, SF on TV has always been for children. I had to laugh when Harry listed off the shows he thought were superior to FIREFLY the other day, like AUTOMAN or MAN FROM ATLANTIS or MISFITS OF SCIENCE. TV has been a wasteland for science-fiction for much of my life, and that sort of juvenile lowest-common-denominator dreck is exactly why. FIREFLY was obviously inspired by SF literature, and not previous TV shows. The approach to history, culture, and science in the show was impressive, and I liked that it was dense. You had to really pay attention to mine all the information in each episode, and it rewarded repeat viewings.
Hercules and I were invited to visit the set of SERENITY when they were shooting the film at Universal, and it was admittedly pretty cool to tour the actual ship set, a fairly massive fully-encompassing environment. I’m used to sets that are broken up so that they don’t feel real when you stand on them. That wasn’t the case with the Serenity, though. You could walk from one end to the other, and then walk across a set into another much larger set, and all of it felt interconnected. The day we were there, we saw them shooting the scene where River (Summer Glau) sees a video screen with something on it, and it triggers a very particular reaction in her. I’m tiptoeing around the spoiler because it’s a pretty big moment in the movie. As we watched, we talked with Nathan Fillion, who plays Mal, the ship’s captain, and also with Joss and with producer Barry Mandel. Watching Herc wheel himself around the sets, seeing him face to face with Joss Whedon, it was a pretty remarkable moment. He was a happy, happy man. He was definitely the most outwardly expressive Whedon fan on the set that day.
In the months since then, as they’ve done the sneak screenings on these movies around the country and the... god, do I really have to call you “Browncoats”? Even “Trekkie” has more dignity as a nomenclature. Whatever you call yourselves, you’ve spent the time since the first screening slowly but surely poisoning the rest of fandom with an aggressive, obnoxious zeal that makes even the most heavily made-up dude speaking Klingon at a convention at the Ramada seem middle-of-the-road and normal. You’ve had some truly horrific spokespeople preaching the gospel of SERENITY in a way that had almost convinced me not to even see it before opening weekend, so I could just sit this one out. Once the invite came for the all-media, though, I knew I wanted to see it there, hoping that, for once, a theater full of media reporters would be the perfect atmosphere.
Ultimately, I think SERENITY will appeal most directly to those who are already converted. I don’t think this is going to transform everyone into raving SERENITY lunatics. This isn’t going to be a white-hot cultural phenomenon. This isn’t going to be breaking any records. But it may spawn some sequels, and it will definitely keep the SERENITY cult alive and well for a while, and if Universal’s done their job right setting up this weekend, it might even open to a surprising number.
As a fan of FIREFLY, I thought the film did a really nice job of expanding and enhancing the mythology of the show that already exists. As an impartial observer, I thought the opening ten minutes did a nice job of setting up what the uninitiated need to know, even if it is a bit dense with exposition. As a fan, I liked what they did with almost every character. The only places that felt like they were just shoehorned in were the romantic moments between Kaylee (Jewel Staite) and Simon (Sean Maher) and between Mal and Inara (Morena Baccarin). This is not a long film. Every scene is pushing the story forward. Those interludes feel too calculated to really carry any impact in the film. I know, I know... if Whedon didn’t include them, half his fanbase would have torn up the theater seats and slashed the screens in fury. He writes great soap opera, and I’d have more respect for the hardest of the hardcore if they would admit that the soap opera is what keeps them hooked like crackheads. It’s always been Whedon’s secret weapon on his TV shows. The reason BUFFY Seasons Two and Three are generally the best liked of the entire run is because it’s the most intense blend of soap opera and horror, with the end of the whole Giles/Jenny arc giving Joss his first truly defining moment. His work depends on you building long-term relationships with the characters, so that when he abuses them and when he torments them and when he tests them, you empathize deeply. You can’t help it. You’re completely sucked in, and it’s the soap opera of it, the “Ohmygodnohedidn’tjustdothat” of it. Still, I think the film would have been stronger if it had been implied more than overt. It’s the one place where newcomers to the material are really going to feel like they’ve walked in on the middle of something.
Again... treading lightly so as not to ruin whatever surprises there are for you as a viewer, I’ll say that I like that the movie plays rough. Still, it only really affects me as a FIREFLY fan. As an impartial observer, I’d have to say that I wasn’t really sure why the particular deaths that may or may not happen, as many or as few as there might be, don’t strike me that hard because not enough time was spent in the film setting up why these relationships, whatever they are, are important. As a fan, I was really surprised by some of the choices, and I like that there’s a permanence here that no comic book or early Whedon TV show would have promised. I get the feeling that people stay dead in the world of SERENITY.
Jack Green, who shot the film, does a heck of a good job of trying to spice up Whedon’s shooting style, and there are many places where it works. There’s a different energy here than on Whedon’s TV shows. There’s a different sort of propulsive quality to his style. The best set pieces really cut together nicely, like an early escape from a Reaver ship after a robbery. It’s a little bit STAGECOACH, it’s a little bit RETURN OF THE JEDI. There are all sorts of obvious influences in this picture, everything from BLADE RUNNER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT to WWII films. Whedon’s not a blatant thief, though. He’s just a guy who loves a lot of the same things I do, and who’s definitely running his own riffs on certain ideas. It seems like the comic book world supports this sort of creativity most. It’s what made Frank Miller famous. Kurt Busiek’s ASTRO CITY is one of my favorite ongoing examples. Alan Moore is sort of the gold standard of this kind of writer. They take characters or archetypes and they bend and twist them to see what happens. It’s a reaction to pop culture that actually contributes something new instead of just being a regurgitation. For that alone, I think Whedon deserves some credit. I don’t think this is anywhere near as sweeping or epic as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE tried to be. That film was aiming at 2001 as the high watermark to match or even beat. With STAR TREK 2, though, they were working to launch a film franchise. They wanted to get new viewers onboard, and they wanted to make you care, and they wanted to get you hooked into the larger story of what’s going to happen to all these characters, and they had to survive on their own, mavericks, completely out from anyone else’s control. That’s the sort of film that SERENITY wants to be, and as such, I think it’s pretty successful. I don’t think SERENITY’s had time to build the same size cult as STAR TREK, and I can only imagine how much more obnoxious you’re going to be if that does happen, so for now, I don’t think this is going to cross over to quite the same size of mainstream acceptance.
But give it some time. This is a rich world. There are so many things that sell me on it. I love the use of the Chinese slang. It says a lot about what sort of political or economic changes the world may have been through before the events of this film even began. It’s a great way to make the world more persuasive, and that sort of attention to detail is what sells the reality for me.
I think the third act sort of stinks, and while I like the idea of Mr. Universe as a character, David Krumholtz is deeply miscast. I don’t believe him as this guy connected to everything, watching everything. He’s too young, too sane, too unaffected. I wish the film had played with the character and the idea of the signal in a smarter way, like an intergalactic NETWORK. Mal and his crew are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Instead, it devolves into a fist fight and a gun fight, and while both are staged well, neither ultimately worked for me. I thought it was too much sound and fury when the film should be getting down to its big ideas, some real human drama. It seems like the build-up is all so cool, so interesting, that it almost can’t help but be a disappointment when it turns into just another action movie.
I had a good time. I enjoyed most of the film. My gripes are small gripes, and it’s more a reaction to the things I liked than it is any major complaint. I just wanted more. I wanted it to be a great movie, and not just a good one. I think it’s a heck of an extension of what’s come before, and I hope the fanbase is enough to make the film a modest hit in theaters and a continual hit on DVD. I hope the fanbase is enough for us to get a second movie, since I think this cast is just warming up, and telling a story without having to handle all the introductions could set them free to do something much cooler. And having said all of that, the “Browncoats” are still going to be abusive and unpleasant and pushy and belligerent in the Talkback below. If they’re not, I’ll be openly amazed. They’ve hijacked Talkback after Talkback on wildly unrelated topics, so I’m sure they’ll do the same here. That’s a shame, and if anything keeps people away from theaters this weekend, it will be the zealotry of a fanbase that makes others feel unwelcome, even if they’re enjoying the same thing you are.
I’ve still got to finish transcribing my Cronenberg interview, so I’ll get back to that. Until then...