September 30, 2005
Scruffy Space Cowboys Fighting Their Failings
By MANOHLA DARGIS
It probably isn't fair to Joss Whedon's "Serenity" to say that this unassuming science-fiction adventure is superior in almost every respect to George Lucas's aggressively more ambitious "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith." But who cares about fair when there is fun to be had? Scene for scene, "Serenity" is more engaging and certainly better written and acted than any of Mr. Lucas's recent screen entertainments. Mr. Whedon isn't aiming to conquer the pop-culture universe with a branded mythology; he just wants us to hitch a ride to a galaxy far, far away and have a good time. The journey is the message, not him.
As the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," writing the original movie and producing the television series, Mr. Whedon has enjoyed an exalted position in the pop stratosphere. Over the years he has lent his talent, sometimes without credit, to screenplays for "Toy Story," "Speed" and the last and least successful "Alien" film, "Alien: Resurrection." He also writes comic books, including an "X-Men" line. But Mr. Whedon, the son and grandson of television writers, is principally a natural-born small-screen auteur, graced with a quick, idiosyncratic wit and a facility for serial storytelling. In addition to "Buffy," he created that show's spinoff, "Angel," and in 2002, a curious genre hybrid called "Firefly" he had pitched as "Stagecoach" in space.
Fox aired just 11 episodes of "Firefly" before pulling the plug. The network refused to commit, but not so the fans who, as they did with "Buffy," turned this patchwork of fan-boy love and recycled parts into a cult. Evidence of their passion was later reflected in the DVD sales of "Firefly," which were impressive enough for Universal to pony up for a big-screen version. Named after the ramshackle spaceship that hauls Mr. Whedon's characters from one far-out adventure to the next, "Serenity" picks up where the series left off, with these plucky, shambling outsiders fighting oppression against impossible odds. As Mr. Whedon knows, the fastest way to a geek's heart is a story about other geeks, albeit ones with good hair and hot bodies.
The story so far: Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Mal for short, is zipping around 500 years in the future trying to make ends meet by scrounging for freight and hauling passengers. A veteran of a war of independence, Mal fought on the losing side and has yet to cross over to greener, more lucrative pastures. Along with his second in command, Zoe (a ferocious Gina Torres), Mal runs the Serenity with honor, guts and a touch of panic. He is the kind of leader who barks out a rhetorical question - asking if any of the crew want to run the ship - only to be flummoxed when he receives a resounding yes in return. (Mal then stammers to Adam Baldwin's thuggish crew hand that he can't.) Mal's iron glove covers a velvety soft fist.
Mr. Whedon sketches his characters with quick brush strokes, leaving his appealing cast to fill in the holes with banter and serious-looking busywork. Everyone takes to their task well, though only Mal and a fierce Whedonesque creation called River (Summer Glau, a pint-size Barbara Steele) take root. Hot-wired to kill and on the run from her government masters, this spooky beauty floats through the ship in a series of fetching shifts that make her look like an errant Martha Graham dancer, every so often going entertainingly berserk and wreaking Michelle Yeoh-style damage. Underlying River's murderous power - and perhaps her government-induced psychosis - is a lost little girl trying to carve out a place and a self to call her own.
As this scrap of boilerplate narrative suggests, Mr. Whedon is too much of genre savant to take his film anywhere genuinely surprising. He may also be too much of a movie novice to exploit his material as boldly as you might hope. What made "Firefly" stand apart from the usual television dross, beyond Mr. Whedon's chatter and characters, was his fusion of science-fiction tropes with those of the western. Mal wears a gun strapped to his thigh, while a lariat necklace circles Zoe's throat. He peppers his speech with "y'all," and together they travel to dusty towns that look as if they might have been built for a Roy Rogers oater. And just to bring this science-fiction fantasy up to geopolitical speed, every so often somebody spits a curse in Mandarin.
Transposing a western to outer space presented a calculated risk, the stuff of either "Star Trek" legend or kitsch. Yet what was most beautiful about "Firefly" was that Mr. Whedon wasn't afraid of looking silly. Taking its cue from the famous first words of "Star Trek" - "Space, the final frontier" - his show reinvigorated Gene Roddenberry's premise with the sincerity of a true believer. "Star Trek" was born at a time when space travel was cloaked in optimism and cold-war anxiety. "Star Wars," meanwhile, born out of Saturday matinee clichés and in a time of political cynicism, trafficked in a gee-whiz escapism so strong it survived even a recent swerve into realpolitik. In the years since, and for myriad reasons, science fiction, at least in film, has turned Dystopia into a boomtown.
Mr. Whedon shows little interest in recycling the gloom-and-doom scenarios that have become ubiquitous in science-fiction cinema over the last few decades. Mal is no Neo redux; he's closer to Indiana Jones, if absent Harrison Ford's rakishly handsome looks and star magnetism. Like the rest of the cast, Mr. Fillion is a charming performer, but he borrows rather than owns the screen, which dovetails with Mr. Whedon's modest aspirations for this film. As both a writer and a director, he isn't staking a claim on genre; he's just using it for a short while to tell a story about some decent men and women struggling against both the tyranny of bureaucratic control and their own very human failings.
"Serenity" works nicely as a movie, although in blowing his television series up to the big screen, Mr. Whedon has lost some of the woolliness that made "Firefly" such a pleasant oddity. (Alas, he also lost most of the banjos and twangy guitars.) Even with a bigger canvas, Mr. Whedon doesn't do much with the camera. His setups are generally perfunctory: a means to a storytelling end for what is, at heart, a $40 million B-movie. It's too bad there isn't one image here as striking and resonant as the shot that closes the opening-credit sequence in "Firefly," the one with the horses galloping toward the camera as they're buzzed overhead by a spaceship. With this single image, Mr. Whedon announced he had reopened a frontier some of us thought long closed.
"Serenity" is rated PG-13. (Parents strongly cautioned.) Despite some fight scenes, this is a relatively clean PG-13 with little graphic violence and no sexually exploitative snark.
Opens today nationwide.
Written and directed by Joss Whedon; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Lisa Lassek; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Barry Mendel; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 119 minutes.
WITH: Nathan Fillion (Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Summer Glau (River), Sean Maher (Simon), Ron Glass (Book), Chiwetel Ejiofor (the Operative), David Krumholtz (Mr. Universe) and Nectar Rose (Lenore).
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company