I’m craving science fiction films at the moment, so I watched Serenity (2005) today. I haven’t seen it since the movie was first released.
The film is a lot of fun. There are problems, notably it feels like an extended television episode, even though the acting, effects, design, stunts, etc. are all executed to a high standard. And the writing, well, that is pretty shiny.
Still, there is a missing layer in the film, despite its joys and action. I’m being picky, since there is a great deal to enjoy in the film.
I can forgive Serenity a great deal because of the utterly brilliant opening sequence. From a writing point of view Whedon pulls off an wonderful exposition that sets up his world and the dilemma through a series of collapsing narratives: a voiceover back story become a children’s educational vid, which morphs into Summer’s bad dream, which transforms into a breakout, which turns again into the video footage from the escape, and ends up with the beginning of a cleanup for a conspiracy. It’s efficient, engaging, and delivers the essential plot points in a smart manner. Years of toiling at the television coalface has taught Whedon some fantastic narrative tricks and skills.
After this opening is a simple device to describe Serenity–the ship–and its crew. This is handled via a steadycamera that travels along the ship, following Mal, and encounters each of the other characters in his/her environment Of course, Whedon has the ship practically crashing during this part, and has a major argument going on between Mal and Simon. All the scenes are taut, crammed with detail, and interspersed with great dialogue.
It’s in the middle section that the film creaks a little, especially with the ship hopping around to a number of different locations chasing after bits of information. Yet, the characters (and the acting) are charismatic and as long as you go along with the flow it ends up being a rather satisfying ride. At times the dialogue veers a little too much into Western-speak for me, but it never gets too out of hand. Thankfully, Whedon knows when to cut the speeches before they get too sentimental.
A great deal of early science fiction was Wild West In Space, and Whedon cleverly taps into all of those tropes in his ‘verse. I’m not sure if it bears up to too much scrutiny, but Serenity thankfully doesn’t pretend to be high art and keeps its focus on entertainment. It succeeds well on that score.