Science fiction is probably the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned genre of storytelling. The term conjures images of the extreme end of the spectrum: movies and books that are heavy on the spaceships and gee-whiz dialogue but woefully light on rounded characters, compelling stories, genuine emotions, and all the other things that separate good entertainment from bad. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got a soft spot for the stuff, especially the B-level pictures from the 1980s of my boyhood, lovable dreck like The Last Starfighter, Krull, and Enemy Mine. But that stuff’s just background noise, movies made to glance at while you’re folding laundry on Sunday afternoon or trying to balance the checkbook. As far as conventional science fiction is concerned, the last great film was The Empire Strikes Back, a near-perfect blend of engaging characters caught up in a story fraught with doomed love, coming-of-age heroics, and some deep-seated oedipal issues.
(There’s a whole other kind of science fiction, one that adheres literally to the term in order to tell a story that’s specifically dependent on a certain technology; notable recent entries in this category include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Primer. Both are fantastic films whose stories hinge upon some fictional tool or machinery, whether a low-rent time machine or an in-home memory cleanser. Some of the fans of Sunshine might not be willing to admit that the film qualifies as sci-fi, but it does. Deal.)
When third-generation TV writer Joss Whedon (TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) brought his short-lived “Firefly” to the small screen in 2002, the space Western immediately won a cult following with its emphasis on the human side of sci-fi. Set 500 years in the future, in the aftermath of a galactic civil war, “Firefly” followed the exploits of Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of his ship, Serenity, as they struggle to make money by smuggling goods from one planet to another. Reynolds fought on the losing side of the war and so is always on the lookout for members of the Alliance, the giant, confederated government that now runs things. The ultimate purple-state space soap, “Firefly” extolled both personal freedom and a healthy distaste for big government; it was a show liberals and libertarians could enjoy together. But Fox, apparently eager to make room for shows like “Undeclared,” “Fastlane,” “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” “Wonderfalls,” “Titus,” “Keen Eddie,” “Greg the Bunny,” “Action,” “Skin,” “That ’80s Show,” “Wanda at Large,” “Harsh Realm,” “Get Real,” “Cracking Up,” “Girls Club,” “FreakyLinks,” “Costello,” and so many others that have thrived and truly impacted the nation, canceled the series after 14 episodes were shot, three of which never aired.
But Whedon didn’t give up, and his fans kept clamoring for more Kool-Aid. Universal approved the big-screen adaptation of “Firefly,” to be titled Serenity, late last year. Dozens of screenings were held nationwide last spring, and this weekend marks the release of a film that some people have been anticipating for almost three years. And the wait was well worth it.
The film focuses on a doctor, Simon (Sean Maher), and his younger sister, River (Summer Glau), who have booked passage on Serenity after making enemies with the Alliance. River has psychic abilities and, until Simon sprang her, was being held captive and brainwashed by the Alliance to turn her into a sleeper agent. Now the government has hired an assassin known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track down the siblings and return the girl. Needless to say, being pursued by a calculating psychotic who kills with perfunctory efficiency puts a dent in Mal’s plans to find work, both honest and dishonest, and keep his ship in the air. To make matters worse, everyone has to keep an eye out for the Reavers, a group of wanderers who went insane long ago and now roam the planets raping, killing, and eating anyone they come across.
This is the first feature film Whedon has directed, and he swings for the fences and scores in a big way. I’m almost reluctant to use any of the adjectives that get thrown around too loosely, like “breathless” or “heart-stopping,” but they fully apply here. There’s an exciting chase scene early on, as Mal and some of his crew in a small ground transport are pursued by the Reavers. Whedon proves that he’s a master of pacing, and the near-deaths and hair’s-breadth rescue of the crew left the audience gripping their armrests. Later, a climactic space battle left me alternately slack-jawed and grinning like a fool. I think I even clapped.
As the mentally unbalanced River, Glau, a former ballerina, moves with a lithe grace only dreamed of by the Wachowski brothers; it’s almost thrilling when her memory trigger is activated and she begins to attack people. But it’s the moments when she’s quiet, trying to understand what’s happened to her mind, that she becomes much more human than, say, Trinity. Glau and Maher have an easy body language around one another, the kind only siblings share, and it’s the details of their lives that make the viewer sympathize with River instead of just admiring her physical strength.
Serenity stands in marked contrast with this summer’s other sci-fi actioner, George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (some of you may have heard of this film). When mealy-mouthed Hayden Christensen or bored-looking Ewan McGregor blasted onscreen at the beginning of that movie, the fight was over before it began. There was no attempt on Lucas’ behalf to endow the characters with any unique traits or to make the audience invest in them anew; he was banking on the fact that we liked their predecessors 30 years ago, so we’ll like them now. But Whedon knows that space fantasies like his only work when the characters are as enjoyable as the effects and the mythic scope of the story is matched by the truth of the emotions on a personal level. And in those departments, Whedon excels. There hasn’t been a screenwriter this in love with his own dialogue since Tarantino, but when coupled with characters that Whedon genuinely cares about, the result is a story in which audiences are willing to invest their time and hearts. The story about two fugitives on the run turns into a story about one man’s gradual redemption and, ultimately, about how the world rejects perfection and celebrates diversity of life.
“I believe in a world without sin,” the Operative tells Mal. “I’m a monster,” he admits, but evil must be done to ensure the existence of a peaceful galaxy. This comes on the heels of a rather large discovery I won’t divulge here, except to say that Orwellian measures never work out all that well, and the decay of the “perfect” society is one of the many things that sets Whedon’s plot moving. By the end, Serenity has turned into a truly moving story, and its call for the praise of pluralism is awfully relevant given today’s political climate. It’s a touching, human story, with brilliant action and thrills. In other words, it’s the best sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()