Sunday, October 02, 2005

Serenity - a review

With all the extensive coverage that Serenity got on the blogosphere (see these posts by Dan Drezner: here, here and finally here) and Joss Wheldon’s impeccable TV pedigree (Buffy, Angel), I was a little disappointed with Serenity, Wheldon’s movie version of his short-lived Fox series Firefly. Now to be fair, I have never watched Firefly (although people who did keep raving about it). Yet even as I watched Serenity, I couldn’t help feeling: this stuff would be better on TV. No, let me change that – this stuff would be awesome on TV.

What’s the difference between a movie and TV series? Television episodes are heavy on plot and light on action – clearly no one watches a one-hour episode to watch a 15 minute ship-battle sequence. (Also clearly, TV doesn’t have the budget for that kind of thing). The problem is: Wheldon has no idea of how to shoot a space-ship battle. Serenity’s finale has a whopping 20 minute battle and it is easily the movie’s poorest – not even the editor probably knows what’s going on. (I loved Wheldon’s shots of people swaying because of centrifugal forces, no movie I remember has ever had that!).

What Wheldon knows – and knows damn well – are his genres; in Serenity he fuses the western and the space opera conventions remarkably. The result is a giddy Flash Gordon-like adventure story. Serenity reminded me of the first two Star Wars movies (well, episodes 4 and 5, to be precise) – unaffected and completely enjoyable. The problem with Star Wars was that Lucas got bogged down when he started making episodes 1 to 3. Whereas the early Wars movies were fun for fun’s sake, the prequels got mired in their own symbolism, their attempt to be “serious” rather than fun. It didn’t help, of course, that Lucas is a hideously bad writer. (A friend of mine remarked after seeing the Revenge of the Sith: if the first two prequels felt like dying by crucifixion, then the third one felt like dying by poison!)

Wheldon however writes great dialogue (he plays with genre conventions with his quips, the lines in this movie will probably become legends). In the opening scenes of the movie, the exposition, which probably took an episode or two in Firefly, is brilliantly done, with a minimum of shots and fuss. The problem with Serenity is its plot. The kind of suspense that Serenity generates in the first half, when the psychic River has hallucination after hallucination, premonition after premonition, builds expectations up to a breaking point. But the revelation itself – the thing we have been looking for all the while – is a complete let-down; it could have fitted in right at the end of a Firefly episode.

A dense plot would have made the movie too long, and reduced the time for wham-bam action scenes (and this clearly matters to the studios if they want to get teenagers to watch Serenity). So Wheldon probably took one of his ideas for an episode and used that for the movie, with a few modifications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. But, hell, I’m going right out and getting my hands on the Firefly DVD set. If it’s anything like Serenity, that’s one hell of a TV show.

Note: This post by Dan Drezner has a got a lot of links, if you want to read about Serenity.

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