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Serenity (2005)

[Serenity] Serenity
Universal Studios, 2005
Rated: PG-13 in the USA, 15 in the UK
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Joss Whedon
Producer: Barry Mendel
Amazon.com: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.ca: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.co.uk: PAL DVD
Recommended by: Greg Slade

I have a deep, dark secret: Despite the fact that I have been pushing to get more "media SF" content at VCON, I'm not all that fond of science fiction movies. In fact, I think most of them are rubbish, a few are "okay" as light and fluffy space operas (space operettas?) as long as I can keep my inner nitpicker sedated, and precious few (maybe once every five years or so) are well-crafted, with decent writing, good acting, believable effects, and a minimum of scientific howlers. The truth is that I keep going to see the bad stuff because I keep hoping that Hollywood will get the message that there is a market for science fiction movies, and, just for the sake of trying something new and different, put out a decent one for a change.

I'm not alone. Any number of fans complain about flicks in which plot and characterisation are sacrificed for the sake of special effects (I don't need to name names, because you will all have your own favourite examples), or flicks in which the "science" is utter balderdash (which is pretty frightening, since all too many people accept the "science" that Hollywood dishes up as accurate), or flicks which actually attempt to deal with some of the big ideas with which written science fiction deals so very well, but are changed from serious films into unintentional comedies because they're made on such shoestring budgets that the effects are a joke.

Well, fellow grumblers, Serenity has come out, and it is definitely not rubbish.

Granted, it's not exactly diamond hard SF. In fact, it doesn't even qualify as bronze. Yes, I know my orbital mechanics as well as the next guy, and better than most, so I know that the scenario presented in the opening sequence is completely impossible. And I can tell you why Mal's direction finder can't possibly work. And I can tell you why Mr. Universe would have to be the dumbest hacker in the universe. I freely grant all the scientific impossibilities. Take that as read. Although I do think that Joss Whedon at least deserves extra points for realising that, in space, nobody can hear you go "whoosh." However, even though Serenity is space opera, rather than serious science fiction, it is definitely worth paying attention to it.

First, the writing is witty. The movie is just dripping with lines which are utterly hilarious, although, as with Lois McMaster Bujold's writing, the lines don't actually sound funny taken by themselves, but take on comic significance because of the characters and the situation. (Thus, if I tell you that Jayne says, "I know that now," or Mal says "Yes, I have read a poem. Try not to faint," or Book says, "Coming from you, that means almost nothing," you aren't likely to see the humour in the lines, unless you have seen the movie, and understand the context.)

Second, Whedon's writing is very subversive. He is always overthrowing the conventions of the genres he works in, and the audience is frequently caught by surprise. When you watch Whedon, you're tempted to say, any number of times, "You can't do that," only to wonder a moment later, "well, why not?" It is only once the convention is subverted that you see how silly it was all along.

Third, there is deeper truth underneath the action (although the action is more than sufficient to carry the story.) After you have seen the movie enough times, you will come to see that River's apparently psychotic ramblings are actually stark truth, although everybody around her (and probably most people in the audience) is inclined to dismiss her statements as meaningless.

So, this was a test for us fans. All along, we've been whining that Hollywood keeps giving us drivel. Whedon let it be known that the studio was paying attention to the numbers on Serenity, and if tickets sales in the first two weeks had satisfied them, they would have greenlighted two more movies. Much more specifically than is usually the case, we had the opportunity send a message to Hollywood. If we want to see science fiction movies which are driven by character, rather than by special effects, then we need to prove to the studio that character-driven stories sell to science fiction fans. Unfortunately, not enough fans voted with their wallets on this one, so we'll be back to eye candy for another five years or so. (July, 2006)

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