Friday, October 07, 2005


Because if I review it, people will stop asking me if I'm going to review it.

Serenity is, of course, the film version of Joss Whedon's abortive sci-fi-western TV show Firefly, which got cancelled in America 11 episodes into its first season. The upside was that they sold a hell of a lot of DVDs, as the loyal audience of hardcore fans had to buy the box set to see the rest of the story. I believe the whole first season aired in the UK, but only on the Sci-Fi Channel or some other such fringe station. Which, come to think of it, is odd, since Buffy and Angel were consistently top performers for Sky One, so you'd think they'd want this show.

Anyway, I've never seen the TV show so, like most of the audience (they hope), I'm coming to this cold. Whedon faces the obvious difficulty that he's already halfway through his story, but recaps his set-up material concisely in the opening scenes. It's the far future, it's another solar system, there's been a war with obvious similarities to the American Civil War, the Serenity crew were on the losing side, and somewhere along the line they've picked up River, a mentally ill psychic who's wanted by the government. Clear enough. Oh, and there are space zombies too.

You can tell this started out as a planned storyline for a TV show. The plot is actually fairly straightforward - the Serenity crew investigate what's bugging River, while an infuriatingly calm and ruthless government agent pursues them at every turn - but it's packed with events in a way that suggests that Whedon is cramming five or six episodes of TV into two hours. The pace is a touch episodic, and it's easy to imagine each sequence being expanded into a whole episode of TV in its own right. Budget considerations aside, it would probably have been better at TV pace, but in this format it's certainly got breakneck speed on its side. It doesn't slow down, simply because it never has time to.

As an action film, it's good stuff, building to a suitably excessive finale. Whedon's still got his knack for snappy dialogue, and the ability to flesh out a large ensemble cast efficiently and concisely - strictly speaking he doesn't really need all of these characters for this story, but dammit, they're here, so he's going to find something for them to do.

Where it falters slightly, for newcomers, is that it never really fleshes out the Alliance government, and what the central worlds are actually like. There's an Alliance villain, but he makes pretty clear that he's a black ops type and doesn't consider himself representative of values back home; there are Alliance soldiers, who for the most part just obey orders and do as they're told; and it's evident that the government has some dodgy projects on the side. But this is standard stuff for most governments in genre fiction, and we don't really get a sense of what the culture is like for the general public. Which is kind of important, because the culture clash seems to be a key theme for Firefly, and at times we're almost left to take it on trust that certain things will strike at the heart of the Alliance. The coda, blatantly leaving the way clear for a sequel, begs the question: "Hold on, what did they just achieve...?"

Even so, I liked the film. It's remarkably accessible for something that follows fourteen episodes of Firefly, and even when it doesn't quite manage that, it left me kind of wanting to see the show, instead of just feeling baffled. The hardcore fans will no doubt praise it as a work of genius, but it's certainly a superior, intelligent and fun sci-fi film, ahead of the competition.