Serenity directed by Joss Whedon. Review by Gordon Long
If you don't know the background, Joss Whedon's marvelous SF series, Firefly generated a small following of fanatic fans, but failed to appeal to a larger audience. Possibly he aimed for too small a target audience. In TV ratings, this means death; the series was canceled. However, Whedon is not a quitter, and he had this whole spaceship set already built, so he searched for another way to keep his dream alive. A movie version seemed the solution.
Unfortunately, the movie is a very uneven work. I cannot understand how a writer of Whedon's talent could have allowed such lame plot elements into his script.
The story continues where the TV series left off. Malcolm Reynolds—a fascinating combination of much that is good and bad in the typical American father-figure (or president)—continues to pilot his starship, Serenity, through the outer fringes of civilization, paternalistically self-centering every conflict. Mal's main focus is always, "My ship, my crew, me." Mal has all the benevolent-dictator qualities of the small-town sheriff in a B-Western.
The plot unfolds when River, the damaged genius teenager on the run from the Alliance, discovers new depths within herself, including the single fact which explains the Alliance's continued search for her. She knows something. All she has to do is figure out what it is, find it, and bring the whole weight of the Alliance and the Reavers to bear on the little Firefly.
Now we come to the lame part. Right in the middle of everything, out of nowhere, somebody says, "We have to go see Mr. Universe." I would remind Mr. Whedon of the Rule of Three. If you're going to need some outside element at an important point in your story, you must mention it at least twice beforehand. The third time, the audience will accept it. Dropping it into the story only when you need it is like a cup of cold water on a sunbather. It throws us completely out of our engagement with the story and characters, suddenly aware of writer manipulation. A further complaint about the inaptly-named and nerdy Mr. Universe. His studio of TV screens was mickey-mouse to the nth degree. It looked like twenty TV monitors hung around a college dorm room. Surely the minds that created the Reaver fleet could come up with a better communications hub than that.
Another wish-fulfillment which rings hollow is River's sudden cure. One of the continuing pleasures of the TV series was watching the baby steps she made toward… not adulthood… not a cure… but toward being something wonderful. To be cured by simply remembering one suppressed fact was anticlimactic. Her emerging unscathed in her little ballerina costume from a battle with about twenty fully-armed maniacs was a bit of a stretch as well.
Sorry if this review sounds like sour grapes—it is. I loved the series, and wish there were twenty more episodes. I really enjoyed Whedon's quirky dialogue and characters, especially the cultured, self-aware villain.
A flawed almost-masterpiece.
Gordon Long is a novelist, playwright, director and acting teacher in Vancouver, British Columbia. He will soon be publishing a young adult fantasy novel, The Power to Serve in e-book, with several more novels to come.