Saturday, October 01, 2005


So after some problems along the way, I've finally gotten to see Joss Whedon's directorial debut, Serenity. Back in January, I watched the whole Firefly series, and enjoyed it. Whedon's work is most notable because the way that he allows characters and plots to develop and evolve over the years. That's why with both Angel and Buffy it was years towards the end of the series, (5 and 6 respectively) that were my favorites. We knew the characters so well, and they held so much baggage, it was riveting to watch that conflict unfold.

Firefly had a better start than either Angel or Buffy, the pilot was great, and though there were some rough patches in the middle, they really seemed to have things together by the end, and we were looking at a lot of potentially interesting stuff ahead. Alas, the series was cut down thirteen episodes in, and with this film we get a chance to see what could have been.

I was a bit surprised by how successful the film was at reconciling the need to simultaneously make sense to new viewers and appeal to fans. I never felt like there was really obvious exposition, even the stuff at the beginning with River was new to series viewers. Some points might have been hit a little too hard, like Kaylee's feelings for Simon, but that's acceptable and doesn't really take away from the film. I loved the long tracking shot that introduced all the characters, it recalls the bravura steadicam in the season premiere of Angel: Year Five.

The film moved really well, unlike a lot of recent action movies, it actually told a developed story, it wasn't just jumping from one fight scene to another. But at the same time, there was always a feeling that the characters were in peril, either from the Alliance or from River. And as the film built to its conclusion there was a great sense of escalating tension, particularly with Wash's sudden death.

My favorite part of the film was River and her unhinged fighting talent. Like Joss, I love female action heroes who fight in a graceful, stylish way. I loved her fight in the bar and the way it was as much an element of visual spectacle as narrative. Like the fight scenes in The Matrix it's largely about just showing off cool choreography.

The only element preventing it from reaching the heights of the best stylized fight scenes was the music, which was servicable, but never outright cool unto itself. Now, there's a school of thought that holds that score music should be invisible, the same goes for visual technique, but I think it's best when the music is simultaneously serving the story and cool unto itself, as in something like Oldboy. If they had a score on the level of Oldboy's, this movie would have been even better, but Joss was clearly aiming for a score that was subtle, not calling attention to itself. And I did like the fact that the show's theme song returns for the end credits.

I liked the fact that it felt like all the characters had a reason to be in the movie. A lot of times in a film that's based off an existing property you end up with characters who are there because the fans demand it, but have no reason to be in the movie, like in the X-Men films. However, here everyone has something to do, and the gradual introduction of Inara and Book meant that they actually had a more important role to play in the story than if they'd been there from the beginning.

Visually, the film was quite cool. The effects weren't always completely convincing, but the most important was that the visuals they were creating were great. I loved the 3-D hologram of River and Simon at the beginning, and the worlds they moved in were all interesting to look at. Clearly creating a world is important to Joss and this film does that.

I really liked the new villain, 'The Operative.' He reminded me of Lilah in the sense that there's a mutual respect even as our heroes know that what he/she fights for is wrong and has to be opposed. And the final confontation between him and Mal was great, though was overshadowed by the great fight in the tunnels versus the Reavers. I love the image of River with the ax standing over the dead bodies.

Still, it was not a perfect film. Joss' work gave me a much greater appreciation of the virtues of longform serial storytelling, to the point that the traditional three act story film seems woefully underdeveloped. A couple of years ago, my love of film split down two paths. I look to features for style and great filmmaking, with people like Wong Kar-Wai, while I look to TV stuff for stories. It's not a strict divide, but after experiencing Buffy, a film like Spider-Man 2 seems woefully underdeveloped when addressing the same themes.

So, compared to Joss' other work, a lot of the character stuff in this film seems strictly by the book screenplay writing, set up a character's problem, have them go through stuff, then resolve it. Kaylee's arc is a great example of this, here her desire for the doctor is easily resolved and we end at the point where the series would start to go deeper and explore the issue surrounding this new creature, her relationship. But as in film, a kiss at the fadeout is code for a presumed happy ending. Similarly, the Alliance threat isn't exactly easily dispatched, but it doesn't have the epic feel of a Buffy season ender. The film was a great ride, but it lacks the issues and subtext of Whedon's best work.

I can understand wanting the respect of working in features, but considering the fact that Whedon's primary strength is as a writer, a storyteller, he's just not able to do as much in film. Watching a lot of series made me realize that having a single main character is woefully inadaquete, because the people around him frequently have equally interesting stories, and to focus on a single narrative misses that. That's why I love something like Magnolia, because it explores the lives of a whole bunch of characters. The stuff I've written recently all has a whole bunch of characters, I'll create someone to serve a plot point, but as I write I 'discover' their story, and I have to write it in, and the beauty of serial storytelling is that you have the freedom to do this, to write in additional people.

But it's difficult to criticize a film what it didn't do. Serenity finds the right balance between satisfying new viewers without alienating viewers of the series. As much as I love Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, it's a film that's so exclusive, referring to detailed aspects from all episodes of the series on top of Lynch's already complex storytelling, it's not a film made for mass consumption, and even though this is part of why I love it, it's also something that led to a critical drubbing and Lynch's inability to get financing for his films for five years. Even if Serenity isn't a hit, I think it will show execs that Whedon can make a great action film for a low budget, and that's going to lead to a lot more.

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