October 18, 2013

Movie Review: Serenity (2005)

”So me and mine gotta lay down and die... so you can live in your better world?” – Captain Malcom Reynolds (Nathan Fillion)

Director: Joss Whedon

Writers: Joss Whedon

Producer: Barry Mendel

Studio: Universal

Major Stars: Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres, Summer Glau

I liked Serenity. A lot. Which I know can be controversial with fans of the show it's based upon (Firefly) because of some storyline choices. But I think you need to take it on its own. That is how the film was designed - to be accessible to newcomers.

It's an action-packed sci-fi flick with a Western flavor that never drags, is coherent in its story and entertains the whole way.

In the 26th Century, humanity has colonized the stars. There is a core of strong, advanced worlds called the Alliance. The worlds on the fringe are called Independents. When the Alliance decides to "enlighten" the Independents, there is a war that the Alliance wins.

One of the heroes of the losing side, Captain Malcom "Mal" Reynolds, now captains a ship called the Serenity. He runs jobs with his crew on both sides of the law, doing what it takes to maintain his independence in a galaxy the Alliance is trying to make perfect by any means necessary.

He takes onto his ship a brother and sister, Simon and River Tam. Simon is a doctor. River is something altogether different; an experiment of the Alliance. A living weapon who knows a secret the Alliance doesn't want anyone else to hear. And when Simon and River escape on the Serenity, the Alliance sends an Operative (think uber bad-ass ninja/assassin/warrior-philosopher) to find River no matter the cost.

And that is the basic plot of the film. Mal discovers what the secret is and wants the rest of the galaxy to hear it. The Operative does anything and everything he can to stop him. It's a strong spine that allows the story to be told simply and entertainingly.

It's a strong cast. Nathan Fillion as Mal convincingly plays a man who wants to be amoral but can't help doing the right thing when it counts. Alan Tudyk and Gina Torres are the husband/wife team of Wash and Zoe. Wash is the pilot and Zoe is a former member of Mal's squad during the war. Adam Baldwin plays Jayne, a mercenary hired by the crew. Jewel Staite plays Kaylee, the engineer of the Serenity and someone who seems way too sweet to be in such a dangerous universe. Sean Maher and Summer Glau play Simon and River Tam. They are the center of the film, River in particular.

Following them is Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative. He plays it great, a true believer in the system who knows he is a monster doing bad things for "the greater good."

The universe Serenity takes place in is as much a character as the cast. Joss Whedon did a fantastic job bringing it to life. Cities can be shiny and clean or grimy and dangerous. There are no hand-held lasers or photon beams; people use guns and, in the case of The Operative, a sword. The language is a mix of English and Chinese, which is a nice touch and completely logical considering the size and growth of China.

Best of all, though, are the Reavers. A threat to everyone in the galaxy, they raid planets in half-broken ships. The Reavers are cannibals and savages, destroying anything and everything they touch. Think of a human version of the Magog from the television series Andromeda, completely insane and destroying Humanity where they find it. They are a palpable threat in Serenity and everyone is terrified of them.

The other interesting thing is that there are no aliens in Serenity. Mankind is it, in all its shapes, sizes and attitudes. I like that decision because that is likely how it will work for us if we ever do get into space.

The score is a nice fusion of western and Asian sounds. The special effects are well-done, especially the centerpiece space battle towards the end. And the script is very well-written. The dialogue sounds natural and only hits the very occasional sour note.

Serenity was a film that very easily could have sucked. Good sci-fi source material doesn't automatically translate into a good sci-fi movie. I think Wing Commander would be "Exhibit A" in that regard. But it's obvious that Joss Whedon loved this creation of his and brought that love to the screen. This is one of the best action/space opera sci-fi films I have seen. It definitely deserves to be on this list.


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