Burb Rocking
Saturday, October 01, 2005
  Serenity: Dark Angel Meets Han Solo Meets Josey Wales
This is a review of the movie Serenity, but let's forget that for a moment so I can ask you a question. Do you have a favorite western? Maybe one where a challenge to John Wayne runs, "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"? (If you remember that line - from True Grit - then do you recall Rooster Cogburn's response? "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!") Or one where Eli Wallach, having just shot dead a man who spent too much time gloating over finding him "helpless" in a bathtub, admonishes his deceased would-be assassin, "When you have to shoot, shoot - don't talk!"? (Wallach's bandit character Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for anyone who may have failed to catch such a classic.) Or, in response to a bounty hunter justifying his hostile intentions as an attempt "to earn a living," Eastwood's, "Dyin' ain't much of a living, boy"? (That would be the outlaw Josey Wales in the awesome western of the same name.) How about: "You said you wanted to be around when I made a mistake, well, this could be it, sweetheart," or "What an incredible smell you've discovered," or "That's 'cause a droid don't pull people's arms out of their sockets when they lose - Wookiees are known to do that"? Wait a minute, you're saying, those last quotes aren't from any western - they're Han Solo's lines from Star Wars!

Well, you're right. Probably pushed my luck a bit with that very last quote.

It's not saying anything new to point out that the horse opera was eventually replaced with the space opera. Lucas understood as much when he launched his Star Wars saga with a young farm-boy raised on the desert rim of a planet deep in the galaxy's outback. There are smugglers, bounty-hunters, desert bandits, prospectors and scavengers all trying to eke out a living while avoiding the scrutiny of an overweening big government and its soldiery - not to mention the simple folk working hard and hoping not to be interfered with by the merciless and uncaring Powers That Be. Han Solo has more of a hold on the audience than Luke Skywalker because he's someone we know from of old. It's no stretch at all to imagine him delivering Tuco's line: "If you have to shoot, shoot - don't talk!" That the story morphs into some hybrid of the French Revolution and World War II later on changes none of that. Space adventure science fiction is, as Roddenberry noted, about a frontier, and therefore owes a big debt to the previous frontier: the Old West.

Enter Joss Whedon, creator of the acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, which became the flagship TV show for the brand-new and struggling WB network. Who also created the successful spin-off series Angel, which ran for five seasons. Whedon, also one of Hollywood's top script-doctors, was now a proven television genius, writing and directing excellent material for that medium. So when he approached Fox with an idea for a space western, where the science fiction would pay tribute to and draw from the western genre, Fox warily committed itself to a handful of episodes. The network was clearly hoping, with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series both being wrapped up, that the loyal fan-base for those shows would be transferred to Whedon's latest effort, the television series called Firefly.

In Firefly, as in many westerns, a civil war casts its long shadow over events in the evolving story. In this case, it is an interplanetary civil war, which ended six years earlier with the Alliance government (also known as the Union of Allied Planets) of the more "civilized" Core Planets claiming victory. People unhappy with that victory, or merely unhappy with restrictions imposed by close proximity to the central government - or those unhappy with both - can be found on the frontier worlds at the edge of the system. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, a veteran of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series), formerly an officer for the Independents who lost the civil war, is one of those who falls into both categories. He has scraped together enough funds to purchase an out-of-date Firefly-class spaceship, named Serenity after the final battle of the civil war, and has also put together a crew: Zoë (Gina Torres of Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions), his amazonian comrade-in-arms from the war and his second in command; ace pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk of Dodgeball and I, Robot), witty but not a warrior, yet married to Zoë; cute mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a country girl who never spent much time at school but who has a knack for fixing things; Jayne (Adam Baldwin of Full Metal Jacket), a big tough mercenary more interested in gold and saving his own skin than anything else. Aside from smuggling jobs, Mal keeps his ship flying by taking aboard some passengers: a preacher known as Shepherd Book (Barney Miller's Ron Glass); Inara Serra (Morena Boccarin), a high-class courtesan; Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher); River Tam (Summer Glau), Simon's sister. These are the folk who make up the wagon-train in a solar system sporting dozens of planets and hundreds of moons, terraformed and colonized by Earth some five centuries from now. In case anyone's still wondering, Captain Mal is Serenity's Captain Solo, cocky, funny, tough, resourceful, but also darker and more vengeful. The war really isn't over for him, as should be obvious from the name of his ship.

What happened to Firefly? The show was expensive to produce, running over $2 million an episode, and Fox expected Whedon's loyal fan-base to transfer almost immediately. But there's this thing about loyal fan-bases: you lose their loyalty the second they feel they've been betrayed. Which is what happened. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel had not yet ceased production, and the fans resented Whedon devoting his energy and talent to a new show at the expense of his old ones. They didn't flock to Firefly. The program was aired on Friday nights - death to most television shows. Then the episodes were aired out of sequence, with the pilot actually being shown last. Only 11 of the 14 episodes produced for the series were even shown on Fox, often pre-empted by baseball games. So it was cancelled, and the smell of failure combined with its expense kept other networks from going anywhere near it.

And then along came Universal looking to work on a movie project with Joss Whedon, and the movie Serenity was born. As hinted in the series, half-crazy River Tam has some deep dark secrets, and they're the reason she's no longer quite "all there." She was the most successful product of a secret project to create a human super-weapon. Her native psychic abilities were enhanced - she's a "reader" - and she was given the best training in hand-to-hand combat the Alliance had to offer. Always several steps ahead of anyone foolish enough to go up against her, she is the ultimate assassin and cannot be defeated by any human opponent. Now, with her brother's help, she has taken refuge aboard Serenity. The Alliance, however, regards her as stolen property and will stop at nothing to get River Tam and her secrets back. By now you may have noticed some parallels between River and Dark Angel. There is also homage paid to animé here, where battle becomes ballet (so don't be surprised to learn Summer Glau is a trained ballerina).

And all that is background no one really needs to know to enjoy the movie. Serenity opens immediately with action, and we meet The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a relentless agent working for the Alliance, who believes in everything the Alliance stands for and will do anything in its name (a remorseless polar opposite to the Man with No Name, made famous by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood). Simon and River have become too great a burden for the ship Serenity to bear much longer. Malcolm Reynolds has sworn off fighting for lost causes, which protecting River Tam certainly seems to be. But River is a vessel of secrets, and has one which will change everything. It will bring down upon Serenity's crew the fury of the mindless and bloodthirsty Reavers - humans driven insane at the edge of the system when confronted with the abyss of space - as well as the ruthless Operative and the military might of the Alliance which stands behind him. Captain Malcolm Reynolds is about to discover that even in infinite space you can only run so far till there's nowhere left to run.

So is that all the movie is about? Resurrecting a cancelled television show? A chase across space? A terrible secret? No, it's about a whole lot more than that. It's about what it means to be human in any time, whether back in the Old West or out on the edge of the galaxy. This is an adventure yarn in an old style which never really goes out of style. What do you believe in? What are you willing to fight for, even die for? If Serenity fails to rouse something deep in your soul, then that's ice-water, and not blood, in your veins.

So I'll close with a line from The Outlaw Josey Wales, with which this movie has more in common than it might seem at first glance, delivered by Chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson):

It's sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carry the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life... or death. It shall be life.

That's what this movie is all about.
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