(spoilers present a little further in, but you’ll be warned)
I went into Serenity expecting a really good, double-length Firefly episode writ large. It was that and more—it exceeded my expectations, and transported me entirely while I was watching. The quibbles didn’t occur to me until afterward.
So the film is a solid bet for any Firefly fan worth his or her salt, but that’s not surprising—the real question is how it will play with the unwashed masses. That’s a closer call, though anyone who doesn’t come out of it thinking it’s at least a pretty good movie is probably critically impaired. Still, I’m having trouble deciding what to recommend to friends who have yet to be exposed to the ‘Verse—go ahead and watch the movie? Or watch Firefly first? If it’s an option, I think watching the series first is certainly preferable. Despite all the expositional juggling that Joss Whedon performs to make the film an independent, separate entity—and he does deserve some sort of award for Most Artful and Riveting Insertion of a Wagonload of Exposition in the First Fifteen Minutes of a Film—the story is still very much a continuation of the plot of the series, and the scenes are rife with nuance that only those who already know the characters will catch.
If you don’t know the first thing about Firefly, the basic story of the series, its premature cancellation, and resurrection as a feature film can be found just as easily as actual reviews of the film these days. If you’re still mildly suspicious about the whole thing—maybe because the trailer made it seem like a made-for-TV movie with people who talk funny—then keep in mind these two things:
1. It’s the Language, Stupid—Characters in Firefly and Serenity do talk funny. Hear it long enough and you’ll realize that it’s a rich, detailed, internally consistent patois that’s a mix of Old West, South, Chinese, and that peculiar something that fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer having been calling “Whedonspeak” for years. Like all good invented languages it is buttressed by a fictional setting that has also been thought out in detail—it lives in a world that breathes. And Whedon just has a knack for the witty banter and the snappy exchange.
2. It’s the Story, Stupid—It’s not a bundle of character sketches with a plot that’s incidental. It’s not a paint-by-numbers formulaic tale of action. It’s not a self-referential winkfest that mistakes being ironic for being clever. Those things are as common as mud in modern storytelling. This is an honest-to-goodness good old fashioned story, and that’s a rare thing.
All the rest—the fact that it takes place on a spaceship, that it’s some sort of weird sci-fi/western hybrid—make the show and the film interesting, but it’s basic stuff like 1) and 2) that make them great.
So, the quibbles. There was one point about two-thirds of the way through the film, as our heroes are approaching a strange new planet, that the pacing gets a little off and the wind starts to go out of the plot’s sails. And this point happens to be at the same time that in this new setting—the strange new planet—the set seems very made-for-TV. A little spare, a little low-budget. I didn’t have any problems with the special effects in the film, but at this point especially and in a few others, the fact that Serenity was made on a very tight budget (at least, for a Hollywood sci-fi action flick) showed through.
And the plot, at a certain level, is is horrendously, even ridiculously rushed. Whedon takes the story he had started to tell over the course of at least one season of TV, and reintroduces it and then resolves it in the space of two hours. As someone who was eager to see the resolution of that story, this didn’t bother me overmuch, and didn’t even register while I was in the theater. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others like the film less because it feels like a TV story that’s been squeezed into a shorter span.
Note that I’m not using “TV story” pejoratively. TV, not film, is the medium where you have a shot at accomplishing the breadth and depth of story that you find in good novels. Films, simply because of their length, can only ever be short stories. The real win here will be if the box office success of Serenity leads to the reincarnation of Firefly.
And now for some spoiler-heavy observations. Stop reading here if you want to remain spoiler-free.