Serenity

The Spoony One | Aug 10 2009 | more notation(s) | 
The Protector

A Review by Noah Antwiler

Here's how it is.

Buffy got stuck up, so he dreamed up a whole new series of vampire shows. Some were rich and full of smart dialogue and new characters. Some, not so much. The central audience, them as formed the Fanboys felt that Joss Whedon could do no wrong and waged war whenever anyone told the truth about their dull, uninteresting vampire-whacking dramedys. A few idiots tried to fight it, among them myself. I'm Noah Antwiler, writer of A Gamer's Rant. I got a good gig: fighting cheese where I see it. You got a movie, I can savage it. Don't much care what it is.

Sci-fi doesn't sell. Never has. Even when a network has a success on their hands, they tend not to believe that it'll last very long, or that it's appeal will extend far beyond its cult following. Such is the tragic tale of Firefly. I was never a fan of the "aw shucks!" quirkiness of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or the slightly more-brooding spinoff Angel; I felt that the chirpy, chipper quips rather undermined any real chance at drama the shows might have had, and in Buffy's case, that the series was fundamentally flawed in execution. Why did none of the vampires carry guns? Buffy can know all the mallrat kung-fu in the world, and it won't save her from me if I got a Tec-9. And if they know that the one Slayer is in Sunnydale, why don't they just, y'know...leave? But I'm an angry old curmudgeon, and I was probably the only one around not watching the shows.

I know. I was too lazy to take scren captures.

Even so, nothing good lasts forever, and so once Sunnydale was saved and Angel had run off to slay his dragon, all that remained was Firefly. The Fox network had been handed a bolt from Olympus from one of the hottest television writers around in the form of a sci-fi/western. What did they do with it? They screwed Firefly like it'd dropped the soap. Not only did they can the series after a partial run, they aired the shows out of order. It seems that history repeats itself like with J. Michael Straczynski's (praised be His name) Babylon 5 spinoff, Crusade. Never mind that Fox actually had a good show out of Whedon (for once), but that he was the best thing that ever happened to The WB and UPN. They didn't give him the benefit of the doubt, tinkered with his series, and sabotaged any chance Firefly had at success.

So it is with rising bile in my gorge and a steaming plate of crow that I tell you this now, even though it sickens me to do so: Firefly is probably the best sci-fi show in the last ten years (perhaps more). It's ten times the show that Enterprise could ever pray to be, and shows like Stargate: Atlantis and Voyager should be ashamed to even pollute the same medium. Why? Because it brings the one thing that's been lacking from the entire sci-fi genre ever since the Empire struck back: originality. Star Trek has never changed. For a time, that was the show's greatest strength, but as in evolution a lack of change also promotes stagnation. By changing the entire way that we see far-future space travel as a throwback frontier culture instead of some glistening sterile utopia, Firefly spares us the damning boredom of intergalactic politics, the never ending barrage of technobabble, and aliens whose only distinguishing features are the ridge patterns on their noses and foreheads. By minimizing the scale of the show to a skeleton crew of mercenaries in the brink of extinction, somehow the stakes involved become greater than yet another Borg cube or a Romulan plot to breach the Neutral Zone.

I personally enjoy the show for bucking so many accepted sci-fi conventions. Like the films of Takashi Miike, even if I don't like what I'm seeing, I can at least respect it for being rebellious and showing me something new. There are no dilithium crystals, no Jeffries Tubes, no positronic matrices, no aliens, and no warp speed limits. Hell, I don't even really know how the Serenity's "Go Real Fast" drive works, but I don't really care. Who would have thought you'd have a space show with horses and sixguns? No laser beams? I'm loving it. I even love the little touches. No sound in space? Have you seen any movie or television show ever that allowed the vacuum of space to remain silent other than 2001: A Space Odyssey? This is the kind of innovation that's so sorely lacking from television, when our current media's basic tactic is to latch onto some fad that's drawn some minor appeal, and mass-produce it until you're sick of even hearing the title (like, oh I don't know...Lost? Invasion? Surface?).

She always did love to ice dance.

So you can all put your torches and pitchforks down, folks. At least for today. While I'm not signing up for any fan clubs, I have to give credit where it's due. Serenity is a better sci-fi film than any Star Wars prequel was, or crummy Aeon Flux adaptation is ever going to be. It ain't pretty, and it sure ain't artwork, but it doesn't have to be. It's a good time. You don't need to be a fan of the television show to enjoy the space opera at work, but if you're not, the movie doesn't really have time to remind you what drives the characters. At best, it puts the characters in black hats and white hats, no matter how hard they try to stay in gray ones. The opening narration was a necessity to inform the neophyte about the setting, but without exposure to the history, it all boils down to "Alliance bad, Serenity good."

The Alliance is a monolithic collective of Orwellian Lawful Good core worlds that've got it in their heads that everyone should join up with them and play nice, whether they like it or not. Like early American belief in Manifest Destiny, it doesn't really matter if the independent worlds oppose being annexed, because they're uncivilized and they'll understand later when they're taught how people are supposed to act. And like the Native American tribes, the Independents gave it a good shot, but were ultimately crushed under the wheels of progress. Only the Alliance doesn't want to stop there; they're not satisfied with people swearing allegiance and not really meaning it. They've got an ideal civilization of Shiny Happy People that they want to make, and by hook or by crook, they'll get it.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the junk freighter Serenity is being forced to deal with the Alliance's two main instruments to realize that plan: a black ops commando known only as The Operative, and River Tam, a waifish girl exposed to a nightmare battery of scientific experiments that have transformed her into a psychic kung-fu buzzsaw with a fractured mind. When the Serenity crew rescues River, they forget to grab her instruction manual and realize too late that she's far more than a harmless twitchy piece of baggage that spouts odd Vorlon wisdom every once in a while. Instead, while the Serenity is docked at an all-neon port-of-call pulled straight out of Blade Runner, she manages to singlehandedly dismantle an entire bar full of spacers and half the Serenity crew the instant she sees the Powerpuff Girls on the television. Actually I kind of understand that urge.

You can't take the ce-ment pond from meeee...

Wisely, Mal locks River in a closet and takes the remote control to the TV away while they plot what to do next. Their usual plan sounds pretty good (hide on some anonymous dirtball until the trouble blows over), so that's what they do. The Operative, rather interestingly, doesn't really care about River as Alliance property, or as some superweapon. All he cares about is the notion that she's psychic and may have been privy to certain government secrets from key parliament members that would cause trouble if made public. Stuff like the secret ingredient of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the reason why anyone thought it was a good idea for JBL to be WWE Champion for a year.

Mal tries to hide, but soon finds that he can't run forever. The Operative is ruthless and efficient, dynamiting every hidey-hole the Serenity's ever used in the past and killing every friend they ever had. The general consensus is that Mal & The Gang are righteously hosed, because The Operative believes what he's doing is right. One of the main messages of this film is that the power of belief is a force that can make anything possible. It soon becomes clear what the Shepherd's been trying to pry into Mal's thick skull all this time. He's not really talking about God. "I don't care what you believe," he says, "just that you believe in something." I think Fletch said it best: "I believe in a God that doesn't need heavy financing."

So begins the real journey of Serenity's crew. Until that moment they'd been content to float by and survive, but upon seeing the true horrifying lengths the Alliance would go to for true thought control, they needed to commit. If you ever saw Demolition Man, you could summarize the Alliance's fatal flaw with the memorable phrase, "You can't take away people's right to be a**h**es!" Though Mal's philosophy could be more politely summarized by "Don't tread on me." I tried thinking of my own ethos, but all I could come up with was "where's the beef." This is why I'm not a writer!

Again, I have to give credit to the storytelling. I was pleasantly surprised at how much the outcome of the movie was in doubt, when usually you know that no matter what, the characters are invincible simply because they're important to the plot. There was a moment quite late in the movie where I thought the film would end on a rather melancholy Butch and Sundance last stand. If I'm genuinely convinced that the characters in a long-running series are prepared and quite likely to die in the next coming minutes, that's some special storytelling right there. It's not like some comic book or lame Trek sequel where nobody stays dead, and there are a half-dozen outs to resurrect them if they need to tease a cast departure during sweeps week. If any of you believe for a moment that Data is staying dead, I've got a bridge I'd love to sell you.

Malcolm Reynolds loads up the mule to seek tighter pants.

To tell you the truth, I probably would have avoided Serenity if not for the Gamer's Rant. I felt obligated by duty to report on what could be the biggest gamer movie event of the year (at least until DOOM comes out! First-person Smackdown!), but you can imagine my reluctance since I consider myself to be the biggest Buffy-hater on the planet. I do hope this satisfies all my gorram detractors and their mantra "You don't like anything," because I liked this, and I speak to anyone who might be in the same boat with me when it comes to a certain vampire slayer: you'll like it too. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go set alight my cauldrons of pitch so I can burn all those Reaver-lookin' fanboys trying to get into my house for all those mean things I said about Voyager.

Worst. Trek. Ever.

All images blatantly stolen from a terrific RottenTomatoes Photoshop contest. Unfortunately I don't have the creators' names, so if you'd like to take credit for your work, e-mail me and I'll make sure your work is recognized.

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