Burb Rocking
Sunday, October 02, 2005
  SERENITY: Return of the Western Hero

(A shorter review, one that's actually about the movie this time - promise!)

Serenity is a fantastic western, written and directed by Joss Whedon, creator of the WB's hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. A western which happens to take place five centuries from now in a newly colonized solar system. You've got a hero - Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion - who was on the losing side of a civil war a few short years ago, who knows the war's over and lost, who has walked away from the battlefield without surrendering. You've got him and others helping each other through the war's aftermath, creating a makeshift family out of wrecked lives left in the war's wake - some who, like our hero, have lost friends and family of their own one way or another. But, when you tell yourself a war's over, then make a family and a home somewhere, only to have those on the other side come to hunt that family down, can the war really be over? Not for you or anyone, not if you're even half a hero.

Hard to go wrong with a story like that, which is why I can't resist invoking comparisons to The Outlaw Josey Wales. And Whedon knows how to tell a good story. With one short, riveting, adrenaline-charged scene, followed by a tracking shot through Malcolm Reynolds' spaceship Serenity, the exposition is beautifully and effortlessly put behind us. We understand there are a half dozen or so characters on a smuggler's ship, defying the authority of the central government of the Alliance, that one of them is a fugitive from that Alliance and very much sought-after. And we're racing off with our heroes on some extra-legal business, the action and the momentum unbroken and never missing a beat. As Adam Baldwin's mercenary Jayne sums it up: "Let's be bad guys."

If Serenity's crew might occasionally be bad guys, then Chiwetel Ejiofor's Operative, hunting them down on behalf of the Alliance, is as cool and deadly a James Bond character as we've seen on film in a long, long time. He has depth and charm, as well as ideals - though no principles. He has beliefs, but no rules, and it's a struggle not to like the man who is nevertheless determined to destroy the family of characters living and working aboard Serenity. A real writer understands that the hero and his opponent ultimately define one another - Whedon is first and foremost a real writer.

And Whedon's character River (Summer Glau) is a "reader," gifted with an intuitive genius which transcends ordinary intelligence and gives her insight into people's thoughts and actions - those occurring now, and those which have not yet occurred. Honed by the Alliance to become its greatest human weapon, so that combat comes as easily to her as breathing, always knowing her opponents' moves in advance, she is an unstoppable killing machine. She's also done too much "reading," and knows things she shouldn't know. The Alliance will have her back or have her dead. Very likely both.

In a regular western, River would be the girl who knows where the greatest treasure in the New World is hidden, who holds the key to a holy hoard of Indian gold. She not only can name El Dorado and recite its truest, deepest lore, but she can find it on a map. She also knows a treasure greater than gold waits there. She will breathe its name.

As if that weren't enough and more than any of us could expect from a good old-fashioned adventure at the theater, there's also plenty of wit and humor, well exceeding the glimpses offered in the trailers. (Not taking anything from what the previews offer, such as: "This landing is gonna get pretty interesting," "Define 'interesting,'" "'Oh, God, oh, God, we're all going to die'?") Whedon's finely crafted writing and his love for his characters shines through from the movie's rocketing start to its gut-wrenching finish. Woven through the suicidal heroics, heart-pumping action enough for several lifetimes and a number of worlds, and ties broken and reforged in the incandescent heat of battle, is something being said about the human condition. It never changes, we're always tested, you can't hide from who you are, and who you are is in the end defined by what you've chosen to believe.

Sadly, I can only give it a three-and-a-half star rating: ***1/2.

Of course, that's on a scale where the highest possible rating is two stars.

A couple of reviews worth checking out (just possibly better than this one):

The Rachel Show>>Movie Review: 'Serenity' now! by Rachel Campbell (Journal Times)

'Serenity' Now! by J. Scott Wilson (NBC30)

There's also Rotten Tomatoes - Serenity (2005) - plenty of reviews there (the movie is currently flying at a very fresh altitude of 80% on the Tomatometer). For trailers, try:

Serenity International Trailer (UK)
Apple -Trailers - Serenity (Quicktime)
or Movie Trailers and Previews on Videodetective - Serenity (Windows Media Player)
 
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