Saturday, October 01, 2005

Serenity

In the past, I've been pretty mean to Joss Whedon here on the blog. I've implied that he's kind of a pompous windbag, that he has only achieved his current status in the entertainment industry because of his family's connections and background, and that his acclaimed TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is more campy than groundbreaking.

Tonight, when I went to Century City to view Joss' new film, Serenity, based on his cancelled TV series "Firefly," I went in without expectations either way. Sure, I'm not really predisposed to liking Joss, but I'll freely admit to mainly ignorance about his work. I saw a bunch of "Buffy" episodes (some friends in college were big fans) and didn't care for them, but I had never seen "Firefly," and Serenity marks the guy's first venture as a big-budget film director. So it's unfair to declare him a failure before he's even had a chance to succeed.

Now that I have seen Serenity, though, I can call him a failure without remorse or doubt. This is the worst mainstream science fiction film I have seen in many years. We're talking Battlefield Earth bad. I'm completely at a loss to explain Mr. Whedon's massive popularity among the geek community. Seriously, those guys should know better.



Whedon, like his father and grandfather before him, started off writing sitcoms, and this is painfully clear from his script for Serenity. Whedon isn't just a slave to standard screenplay format, he's a slave to that tired old sitcom setup-punch format. This isn't just a film where the big story points are telescoped and obvious, it's a film where even the dialogue beats are obvious, where you can see the quips coming a mile away.

And there are a shitload of quips. You would think that a movie based on a TV show that ran for an entire season would have a well-developed character or two, someone with a perspective or something to say. Instead, what we get is like a spaceship populated entirely by failed open-mic comics. Every hair-raising, adventurous situation they encounter is met with not one, not two, not three but as many as five or six snarky, disaffected and sarcastic comments from the crew members.

Here is my impression of every single scene in Serenity:

CHARACTER #1: Are the coming?
CHARACTER #2: I think we lost them.
[Loud banging on the doorthe door]
CHARACTER #1: You thought wrong.
[Even louder banging]
CHARACTER #2: They sound angry.
CHARACTER #1: I'm gonna be angry if we don't get out of here.
[Spaceship blows up in background]
CHARACTER #2: Was it something I said?
[Girl runs through the room doing kung fu movies]
CHARACTER #1: What's she up to?
CHARACTER #2: Oh, I don't know...Saving the world again, maybe?
CHARACTER #1: Saving the world?
CHARACTER #2: Well, saving your ass, anyway.

You get the idea. It's impossible to care about characters who do nothing but quip. In fact, it's impossible to even tell these characters apart. Let's see, there's the sarcastic captain who acts selfish but actually has a heart of gold. The sarcastic pilot who acts stupid but is actually smart. The sarcastic first mate who is a beautiful woman. The sarcastic hired gun who acts tough and mean but is really a softie. The sarcastic doctor looking out for his quiet but occasionally sarcastic and psychic sister. And, of course, all of the sarcastic, insincere people they meet across the stars.

Ugh.

With all this sarcasm, it's a wonder Whedon has time to squeeze in a story at all. He conserves time by not bothering to think up anything original and just pasting together elements from other, better science fiction adventure movies. And this isn't some sort of Tarantino Kill Bill homage to older films, where you need a Leonard Maltin guide and a pause button to spot all the references to obscure cinema. Whedon prefers to rip off genre classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, The Fifth Element and the anime favorite Cowboy Bebop.

Let's break down the set-up of Serenity, shall we?

The story concerns Mal (Nathan Fillion), a veteran of a harsh intergalactic war against a superpower called The Alliance, haunted by a poor decision that led to the death of many men, who survives now as a thief and smuggler operating his own starship.

That's a backstory so stock and familiar, they were making fun of it in Airplane and Airplane II. Remember? Ted Stryker lost it over Macho Grande, and now his safe piloting of the airplane (spaceship) will make up for his old mistake? Also, Mal is clearly based part and parcel on Han Solo, another affable ruffian who opposed a powerful pan-planetary Alliance (known as The Empire) at first as a scoundrel and then as a soldier for the revolutionary underground.

His loyal team is compromised when he allows on board a doctor (Sean Maher) and his strange, psychic sister River (Summer Glau), who have just escaped from the Empire's...(oh, sorry, The Alliance's) clutches. Amazingly, Whedon used to write X-Men comics and yet no one has brought up the fact that River's story exactly mirrors Wolverine's.

They have strange powers, which caused an evil secretive government agency to kidnap them, perform all kinds of wacky experiments on them that wound up giving them crazy powers. Now they have escaped and the same agency that screwed up their wiring in the first place and made them into weapons have to track them down and kill them to prevent the secret from getting out.

River isn't just psychic. She's also capable of dispensing Buffy-like beatdowns to any attacking foes. She doesn't do it all the time, and for a while it seems she's only capable of administering the pain when she's professionally "triggered," but by the end she can turn her bloodlust off and on like a faucet.

Oh, sorry...did I just blow the story of Serenity for you? Well, it's not like you haven't heard it before. It's also the basic conept behind Milla Jovovich's character in The Fifth Element and, I might add, The Iron Giant. Oh, and Towelie on "South Park."

You get what I'm saying here. This material is beyond familiar. That's not to say it couldn't have been elevated. Plenty of great adventure movies have been made from well-worn formulas and old-fashioned storytelling. Hell, I gave a fairly positive review to Sahara, which is composed of nothing but familiar cliches. But that film is light, occasionally funny and above all unassuming. It has no pretensions of being anything other than a goofy thrill ride, and it succeeds (barely) at that modest aim.

Serenity, on the other hand, shoots for emotional science fiction epic, which makes its woeful tedium, repetitiveness and sloppiness all the more noticeable and trying on the patience. It's not just a tired retread of a story, but a bad story poorly told. Whedon lacks any sort of eye for visual storytelling. Serenity is one of the most bland, and even ugly, films I have seen all year. It's not just cheap, TV-style special effects that are the problem, although such effects abound (particularly the poorly-realized "heat waves" emanating from the vehicle's engines, which are wholly unconvincing). It's TV-style framing, where all the characters stand around in a semi-circle and converse. Like in this scene:



LOTS of the movie looks like that. Whedon obviously knew this, so he tries to fancy it up by adding unneccessary elaborate shots just to make the thing feel more cinematic. In one sequence, we spin rapidly around the characters as they stand around in a semi-circle, talking. In another, the camera darts around between characters as they...stand around in a semi-circle, talking. Sometimes, Joss quickly intercuts shots of skeletons or half-remembered action sequences in the midst of scenes where...characters stand around in a semi-circle, talking.

Thankfully, I'm not fooled so easily.

Now, I'm not saying that Whedon's massive rabid fanbase of hardcore admirers are being fooled, neccessarily. There's obviously something about this guy's writing that connects with people that I'm just missing. I don't propose to know what it is. My instinct is to say that people are just starved for science fiction stories, that very few modern filmmakers have demonstrated any real ability to bring mature, intelligent sci-fi to the screen, so fans must make do with either childish movies that play to teenage boys or cheesy, tired retreads like Serenity that at least try in some way to engage an older audience with sexy girls, sidelong political references and one-liners.

But that wouldn't really explain the passion of these fans. What do they see in Serenity that pleases them so?

It can't be the dialogue, which all begins to sound the same after a few minutes. Whedon repeatedly goes back to the same joke concepts over and over again. For example, he loves the bit where a character says something aggressive and bold, then another character does some small gesture to prove his or her superior strength, and the original character backs down.

Like, Mal says, "You want to shoot me. Well go ahead!"
Then his antagonist cocks his or her gun.
Then Mal retorts, "Or, we could keep on talking."

Get it? He thinks the other guy's bluffing, but they're not! Ha ha! Whedon tries this same joke at least 4 times.

And for some reason, all the characters talk like they're auditioning for Season 3 of "Deadwood." Now, I get the "frontier" aspect to the film...Many of these planets are just being settled by humans, so they have kind of an Old West-lawless-frontier feel to them. I'm told, in the show "Firefly," characters even ride horses to make the Western motif more explicit. But it is still the future...Why would language have regressed to the way it was in the 19th Century just because these character's living situation resembled the 19th Century?

One much-discussed aspect of the dialogue is how characters use Chinese slang, presumably because China was the most influential culture in the time when humans left Earth. I only know that from reading reviews. Though characters occasionally mumble under their breath, it's never even made clear during the film that it's in Chinese.

This brings me to the final massive failure of Serenity that I'd like to dissect...It's clearly designed for fans of the TV show and not a mainstream audience unfamiliar with "Firefly." This makes little sense to me. If you want to make something that only appeals to people who have discovered "Firefly" on DVD, why not just bring back the show to television? Or make a "Firefly" mini-series and send it direct-to-DVD or something?

If you're going to put a movie in theaters and sell it as its own entity, it really ought to work as its own entity, right? It doesn't. Whedon's clearly been forced to far simplify his vision for the screen, but it has been so simplified that the universe has no sense of lived-in detail whatsoever. Frankly, it seems to me exactly like the Star Wars universe but with no aliens.

There are lots of isolated, frontier-like planets, most of which resemble Earth deserts. A large despotic and corrupt government runs the majority of the galaxy, centered in a highly populated cluster of planets. Rogues, drifters and criminals operate independent spaceship crews and tool around doing mercenary work for gangsters and syndicates.

And even the physical aspects of what Mal and crew call "The 'Verse" resembles Star Wars. It's a world of futuristic technology but post-industrial, rusting hardware. Lifelike robots provide comic relief. Spaceships have engine malfunctions and other such problems generally related to automobiles. Astoundingly fast interplanetary travel is not only possible but commonplace.

I have no doubt that, in a season's worth of 40-minute episodes, Whedon was able to spice up The Verse, make it feel more like an original creation and less an amalgamation of the usual sci-fi notions of the future of space travel. In Serenity, I'm sad to report that he doesn't even try.

As well, he doesn't really make much of an effort to provide newcomers insight into the characters, even the film's main characters. In the third act, a number of people who I guess were regulars on "Firefly" are killed. It seemed to me, in terms of the film, a last-ditch effort to raise the stakes. The actual workings of the plot don't make a ton of sense - The Alliance needs to keep a secret in order to safeguard their absolute power, yet they are already so totalitarian and militarily dominant, such PR concerns seem unneccessary. So rather than rely on just this thin exposition to invest the audience in the drama, he takes out a few people and threatens the lives of everyone else repeatedly.

There are some scenes in the end here that are absolutely ridiculous. I think Whedon pretends to kill off just about every character in the film by the time the final credits roll. Again, he doesn't have any concept of overkill whatsoever. Fake-out almost kill one character? Effective. Two characters? Bold, but sometimes effective. Three characters? Um...well...probably not worth the risk. Four or more characters? Get the fuck out of here!

From the reactions I heard around me, it seems at least one of the victims was a beloved "Firefly" character. I certainly couldn't tell just from Serenity, where all the characters save Mal and River feel like afterthoughts. Honestly, I couldn't tell you anything about the crew's resident tough guy, Jayne, except that he likes grenades and he's played by a guy named Adam Baldwin who is not related to all the other acting Baldwins.

And even Mal and River aren't really fully-formed, don't ever come alive as people. They're placeholders - he's there to constantly make bad jokes except when things get really dire, and then he's there to squint and run around and grunt and hang from cables. And she's there to look sullen and sunken-eyed and cute in a faraway sort of way, until things get really dire, and then she's there to do bad kung fu kicks and twirl around like Buffy.

This is pathetic. Seriously. A pathetic excuse for science fiction. The generally-reliable Moriarty on Aint It Cool News stated in his review that "Firefly" was informed by "SF literature." I have no way of knowing if this is true. Perhaps "Firefly" was a more literate, astute, intelligent show. If so, I can't help but wonder why fans of the show have so embraced this new film version, which seemingly has no influences that extend beyond A New Hope and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. There's more Card, Gibson, Dick and Heinlein influence in a random episode of "Tiny Toon Adventures" than Serenity.

7 comments:

pajamo said...

Lons,

Well, I'm certainly glad you ave it a chance. Thanks.

As for worst ever? Wow, I really don't see that. Niether do any of the major critics. Hey I'm not saying it's best ever (especially since I've been really sick all week and haven't seen it since the rough cut of nov '04) but I really don't see how the characters didn't endear themselves to you?

Makes me sad.

But you gave him a chance.

If you only loved big great films, I could see where your coming from. But you also have a disdain for those films like Million Dollar Baby an undisputed masterpiece.

anderton said...

I hate Joss Whedon, but I loved Serenity. Loved it, loved it, loved it. That's not the matter at hand.

I did not nearly love it as much as the fucking masterpiece OLDBOY, and, oh yeah, a little flick called SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE. I think Chan-Wook Park is a fucking bonafide cinematic genius, especially now that I have seen the THIRD PART of his trilogy.

I'm just wondering - have you seen Sympathy for Lady Vengeance yet yourself? I'm reaching out to all Chan-Wook Park fans out there to inform them that it is available, one way or another, and it is fan-fucking-tastic.

Oh, and I'm totally with you on Crash. Fuck Paul Haggis right in the face.

Lons said...

Haven't seen "Lady Vengeance" yet. (Is there even a way to see in if one lacks an all-region DVD player?) Looking forward to the U.S. release in 2006 immensely. Look for "Oldboy" and "Mr. Vengeance" to make their appearance on my Best of 2005 List, without a doubt.

anderton said...

I've been burning DVDs of it all week for friends. I just took the Korean NTSC version and burnt it onto Region One DVD-Rs. It's absolutely phenomenal, maybe the best of the three.

Lons said...

Hits American shores this March. I'll most likely have to wait until then...

Anonymous said...

mommy not give you enough hugs when you were growing up? So much anger and bitterness. It's a movie, get over yourself. I loved firefly, serenity was a let down but at the end of the day I am not bothered about it. I have a life and I love cinema, some of its fantastic Old Boy and million dollar baby, some of its just there serenity, sixth sense (oh the guy's DEAD, didn't see that coming) and some of it is used toilet paper. (fast and furious, starship troopers) BUT somebody somewhere loves it and it speaks to them or they wouldn't be able to sell all those tickets and DVDs now, would they? One mans meat..yada yada

Peter L. Winkler said...

"It's impossible to care about characters who do nothing but quip. In fact, it's impossible to even tell these characters apart."

The Gilmore Girls in outer space?