The Operative: “Are you willing to die for that belief?”
Capt. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds: “I am… but it ain’t exactly Plan A." —Serenity
Passion matters. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from many of the films in the New Cult Canon—specifically the ones that died in theaters, only to find a following down the line—it’s that the passionate few speak louder than the passive many. That may not always register in dollars and cents, but it’s what keeps low-rated TV shows alive, sustains talented artists whose appeal often eludes the mainstream, and tends the garden of cinema history long after blockbusters have faded. In the Internet age, the effect has been amplified tenfold, as nerdy legions have united to wage successful campaigns large and small, from making an 18-year-old Rage Against The Machine song Britain’s No. 1 Christmas single to forcing renewals of struggling shows by sending 20 tons of peanuts to network headquarters (Jericho) or buying Subway sandwiches en masse (Chuck).
Behold the mighty power of the Whedon cult. At any other time, and with any other creator, Joss Whedon’s recent Fox science-fiction show Dollhouse wouldn’t have made it past two or three episodes. The creative tension with the network was very public, and it significantly damaged the show in the early going. The original pilot was scotched, schedulers immediately relegated the show to a doomed Friday slot, and ratings that were unpromising at the beginning slipped to apocalyptic levels as the season wore on. And yet through some metrics unrelated to Nielsen ratings—hoped-for DVD sales, favorable online and DVR numbers, vague demographic targeting—Dollhouse enjoyed a full, improbable second season that allowed Whedon and company to wrap things up on their own terms. (Season two’s brazen refusal to do any handholding was especially notable under the circumstances. Newbies were thrown right into the deep end.)
Had Whedon’s brilliant 2002 space-Western series Firefly been around in the age of Twitter and Facebook and DVRs, perhaps it wouldn’t have been yanked from Fox after 11 of its 14 episodes aired. No matter. The passion index was high enough for Whedon to convince Universal to bankroll a modestly budgeted feature to resolve the questions left unanswered by a failed TV show. And really, there was genuine logic behind it: Firefly’s core fan base—called “The Browncoats,” after the collection of rogue heroes at the show’s center—could be counted on to buy tickets, and their advocacy (not to mention the quality of the material) might persuade the uninitiated to give it a shot. And thus 2005’s Serenity, Whedon’s feature debut as writer-director, found its way into theaters in the dregs of late September, opened to middling business, and fell predictably into the warm embrace of couch potatoes on DVD.
There are two main points I’d like to make about Serenity. 1. It’s about as good an adaptation as anyone had a right to expect, swiftly paced and full of the humor, adventure, and irreverence that made Firefly so special. 2. Whenever I’m inclined to think the ’00s were far more exciting for TV than for cinema, Serenity is Exhibit B. (Exhibit A being The Wire, of course.) For Whedon, converting Firefly into a two-hour movie is an act of compression, not expansion. The film’s effects are splashier and the choreography is more elaborate, but the job of squeezing in a season’s worth of mythology—and bringing the story to a real conclusion—is virtually impossible to pull off. Whedon’s task was not unlike the recent Star Trek reboot, in that he had to reintroduce a cast of TV characters. But it was much harder, because Firefly was never part of the cultural lexicon, and thus more difficult to shorthand.
So Serenity has to do two things at once: Satisfy fans who already know these characters and are looking for payoffs and closure, and bring an entirely new audience into the fold. Whedon does a near-miraculous job negotiating this impossible balance, particularly in the early going, which swiftly, elegantly sets up the Firefly universe, introduces most of the main characters, and puts Serenity’s plot in motion. In what’s later revealed to be propaganda-as-history, spoon-fed to impressionable schoolchildren, a video tells of humanity outgrowing Earth and resettling on dozens of terraformed planets and hundreds of moons in a new solar system. This sliver of the galaxy is controlled by the Alliance, which won a victory over “the Independents” to ensure (so the video says) that “everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.”
The Alliance controls six “Central Planets,” but the outer planets are a dusty haven for Old West-style lawlessness and the occasional raid by a breed of cannibal savages called the Reavers. On the rickety-but-true ship known as Firefly, war vet Captain Malcolm Reynolds (better known simply as “Mal”) and his band of outlaws thieve and scavenge their black-market bounty, living in proud defiance of the government. Played with rascally charm by Nathan Fillion—who leads a cast many have likened to Star Wars populated entirely by Han Solos—Mal “aims to misbehave,” and his loyal crew follows suit, including pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) and his ass-kicking wife Zöe (Gina Torres), shifty mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the adorable (and affection-starved) mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and sometime escort Inara (Morena Baccarin), who starts the movie off-ship. The wildcards in the bunch are Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor, and his unstable, psychic sister River (Summer Glau), who’s been programmed by the Alliance as a very dangerous weapon. How dangerous? This dangerous:
Because there’s so much heavy lifting to be done in the introductions alone, Whedon wisely keeps the plotting simple: The government wants River back at all costs—as much for the secrets she knows as her potential for destruction—and they’ve sent The Operative, a Man With No Name-type played with sinister bloodlessness by Chiwetel Ejiofor, to track her down. Finding out the big secret the Alliance is hiding—a whopper, and one with a strong connection to the technology-as-tool-of-oppression theme of Dollhouse—is the lynchpin to the Firefly series, and Whedon delivers that revelation with the full force it deserves. A strong vein of libertarian paranoia runs through Whedon’s work (“People don’t like to be meddled with,” says young River. “We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right”) and Serenity sees it through to a future where a totalitarian government, in seeking to calm and appease the masses, robs them of their humanity.
Yet the need to drive the narrative forward and turn Serenity into a thrilling space adventure—which, again, it definitely is—often betrays the laconic charm of the TV show. Though it had its share of narrative through-lines and mini-arcs, Firefly was slightly more episodic than other Whedon shows, content to follow Mal and the gang on various missions of the week on the outer planets. It was a relaxed, funny, smartly conceived hour with occasional bursts of action, building its tone around Fillion’s old-school toughness and way with a one-liner. And with all that time to stretch out, Firefly was democratic in giving all the players their due; it’s the nature (and boundless promise) of television that shows can take advantage of the limitless space for character development, and that’s something Whedon has understood from the beginning, well before the current wave of novelistic TV shows. So there’s a divide inherent in Serenity: The Browncoats have a tremendous amount of investment in these characters, but their fates are probably not so urgent to people who are only just learning their names. Hard as he tries to bring general audiences into the fold, Whedon doesn’t entirely solve this dilemma, and winds up hanging onto several “for fans only” developments that never would have made the cut in a stand-alone film.
Whedon puts too much of a gloss over relationships that reprise the romantic tensions of the TV show without advancing them much, like the frisky interplay between Mal and Inara (who’s peripheral to the film’s story), and Kaylee’s pining over Simon, who was always too hung up with his sister to pay much attention to her. (Though Kaylee has one of my favorite lines in the film, when she openly admits, “Goin’ on a year now, I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!”) More inexplicable is the brief appearance of Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), whom Firefly fans remember fondly as a former passenger of mysterious origin, and non-fans know as some guy whose heroic martyrdom is given inexplicable weight. Even the death of a major character in Serenity opens up a rift: on opening night, I heard plenty of gasps and sniffles from the Browncoats (some of whom did indeed show up in the garb). But outside of the initial shock—Whedon has been known to kill off characters swiftly, and this one is breathtakingly fast—the mourning is left to the die-hards.
Then again, Whedon may be inclined to play to fans anyway; that’s what happened in the second season of Dollhouse, and he can really only do so much handholding before losing everyone. The key to enjoying Serenity—and I clearly have had my struggles—is to appreciate how much Whedon tries to make a movie here, not just a special double episode of an unjustly cancelled TV show. While I missed the relative longueurs of Firefly, with its balance of space-Western adventure and hang-out time, the action in Serenity is exciting and purposeful, and its rebellious, anti-establishment essence survives intact. Between the Reavers and Ejiofor’s deliciously mercenary villain, Mal and the gang are forced to slip between threats both savage and smart, but Whedon keeps the tone light and irreverent, and nobody writes better wise-ass dialogue. Witness this typically sharp exchange between Mal and The Operative:
For whatever reason—let’s just say the general suckiness of humanity—Serenity wasn’t a box-office smash, which dispelled for a while any hope that Whedon would carry George Lucas’ populist science-fiction mantle into an infinitely cooler future. But it realizes a fantasy that advocates of other brilliant-but-cancelled TV shows usually only experience in fan fiction: It brings a beloved series to a natural, satisfying close. (Let’s face it: Even successful TV series don’t often come in for a graceful ending. Most of them overstay their welcome or peter out meekly.) And the only way to account for that is passion. A few loud voices raised in unison sounded like a much larger chorus to a studio, and with Serenity, Whedon and his followers got away with something.
March 18: Glengarry Glen Ross
April 1: Hard-Boiled
April 15: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover