A Dream Come True for Firefly Fans

Han Solo? Your ship has flown. Indiana Jones? Move over.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds is the big screen’s most engaging and heroic rogue in decades, and Nathan Fillion, the actor who plays him, is the most qualified candidate to fill Harrison Ford’s big shoes for the next generations of adventure fans.

Fans of slapdash, smart-talking, thrill-a-minute, serial-adventure films — the kind that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revived in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — have been hard-pressed to find satisfaction in recent years. There have been glimmers in the films “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the “X-Men” franchise, and “Spider-man 2.” But you can bet they’ll be rooting for “Serenity” to become the next blockbuster sci-fi franchise after they catch “Firefly fever.” Writer/director Joss Whedon, the man responsible for the clever dialogue of “Toy Story,” “Speed,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has made matinee-going fun again.

And he did it his way: by defying the television network that canceled his fantastic, innovative adventure series “Firefly” just as it was getting started.

The Fox network blew “Firefly” out of the sky in December 2002, when only 11 of the 13 episodes had played. But the show’s flop wasn’t Whedon’s fault. Fox scheduled “Firefly” in an impossible slot, promoted it poorly, played the episodes out of order, and bumped some for World Series games. The few who caught the show caused a ruckus when it was cut, and the series became a cult sensation. When the DVDs became available, sales went through the roof. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon tirelessly hunted for a way to bring the show back, and Universal Studios saw the potential. They gave him more money than he’d ever expected to make “Serenity,” a two-hour big-screen series finale, resolving many unfinished plot threads.

The best possible outcome, which looks likely, is that this “finale” will succeed and earn itself some sequels, fulfilling the dreams of its fans.

But It’s Not Just for Firefly Fans

In “Serenity,” Whedon transfers the strengths of the television show to the big screen seamlessly. While the cast participated in several differing projects during the two-year interim, here it’s as if they never stepped out of character or costume. And that should come as a huge relief to fans, who are familiar with the jolting inconsistencies that are commonplace when television properties are re-made for the screen.

But does that mean “Serenity” just for fans of the short-lived television show? Not at all.

Newcomers to this story will also be swept up into the action by the myriad of distinct, delightful personalities, the barbed and relentless humor, and by the surprisingly thoughtful — and, dare I say, relevant — storytelling. (There are more laughs in “Serenity” than in the year’s funniest comedy.)

But if you want to get all of the jokes, understand the characters better and know their histories, and feel the full impact of some of the storyline’s twists and turns, hurry to your local video store to rent or purchase the box of 13 “Firefly” episodes. Consider them first-rate mini-prequels.

“Firefly” and “Serenity” is clearly the work of an imagination weaned on the Skywalker stories, the journeys of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, and old Westerns such as “Stagecoach.” It picks up right where George Lucas’s original space trilogy left off, with heroes who have no business being at the center of an epic. It also thrives on the sarcastic banter that was curiously absent from Lucas’s “prequels.” It steers clear of the simple, mythic, “good-versus-evil” paradigm of “Star Wars,” exploring complicated moral dilemmas instead, and focusing on heroes who grow inch-by-inch instead of in sudden, transformative, spiritual epiphanies.

Some will discount the comparison to “Star Wars,” saying “Serenity” deserves to be taken as its own original thing. And it’s true that Whedon introduces no shortage of clever new ideas. But just as no analysis of “Star Wars” is complete without references to the elements of “Buck Rogers” and Akira Kurosawa films that provided the building materials for Lucas’s work, so no discussion of “Firefly” is complete without taking into account its primary inspirations. (Whedon himself admits that “Star Wars” and Westerns were far more influential for him than “Star Trek.”)

But “Serenity” does have a distinct aesthetic, thanks to its Old West accoutrements. Instead of John Williams’ bombastic fanfares, there’s a trace of twangy guitar in the soundtrack. For Whedon’s motley crew, space is truly the final “frontier,” an expanse bustling with bank robbers and cattle rustlers who work below the radar of an oppressive empire. (To confuse “Star Wars” fans even further, this empire doesn’t fight the Alliance. It is the Alliance.)

Unfortunately, like his fellow pop-culture hero Kevin Smith, Whedon does not have a particularly artful visual imagination. While he has a strong instinct for casting, his television shows, and now his big screen directorial debut, demonstrate that he could use a course in direction from Spielberg, Jackson, or Raimi.

The Plot — A Quest to Uncover the Truth

The film begins with a quick recap of the basics: 500 years from now, in a solar system where humanity took refuge after Earth became too crowded, the Alliance has won a war for supremacy and is chasing down rebellious “Independents” while it prepares planets for human residence — a process called “terra-forming.” Meanwhile, the scattered remnants of the war’s losing side make their way below the radar, speaking in frontier English and cussing in colorful Chinese expressions.

Two survivors from the losing side of the war, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres), tend to the bruises of their wartime experience while they engage in a life of crime, smuggling illegal cargo on their rickety Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. Mal, a kindred spirit to Star Wars’ Han Solo, is a brusque, tactless, but deeply principled gunslinger. He knows when to negotiate and when to come out shooting. (It’s almost as if Whedon created him as a defiant objection to Lucas’s famously misguided “special edition,” nice-guy makeover of Solo’s character.) He lives to make a fair and honest dollar while dodging any questions about God or a higher calling. Zoe, his muscular, exotically beautiful partner-in-crime, is the one who can stop him before his impulses throw them into too much trouble.

But they’re not a “couple.” Zoe’s married to the ship’s pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk), who seems to steer the ship as much with his wit as with his wisdom. Their marriage is one of the series’ most remarkable aspects: it’s an engaging, funny, sexy relationship, a notable and valuable rarity.

A gutsy tomboy mechanic named Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps the engines oiled and fueled. Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the wisecracking human equivalent of a pit bill, keeps the weapons loaded for confrontations, deals gone bad, and quick escapes from the space-cannibals called Reavers. Filling the role of another archetype, the dazzling Inara (Morena Baccarin) is the virtuous prostitute who often takes refuge on the ship. She clearly loves the good captain, but her vocation is the controversial obstacle that keeps them apart. (If you remember TV’s “Moonlighting,” you can imagine the chemistry between these two.)

Keeping a low profile on this elusive spaceship, two mysterious fugitives bait the Alliance into hot pursuit. Simon (Sean Maher) is a young doctor who watches over his sister River Summer Glau), a psychological wreck he rescued from an Alliance lab. River may be missing a few marbles, but she’s developed some remarkable psychic abilities, and she’s about to stun everyone with some spectacular battle skills that would make Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess stand back in awe.

Another crew member from the series, a Christian preacher named Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), is planet-bound during the film, “shepherding” a community; but of course, the crew pays him a visit. As always, his words prod at other characters’ consciences, nudging them toward Whedon’s primary focus in this film–belief, and the moral focus and purpose that it brings. While Book’s role in this film is surprisingly small, his words are the very heart of the story.

That’s a lot of characters for newcomers to accept, but Whedon’s triumph is his efficiency in introducing and establishing each one. And the cast are to be applauded for such feisty, enthusiastic turns. Fillion deserves to be a big screen star from here on out, and any number of his co-stars could enjoy rapidly expanding careers the way members of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien “fellowship” have done. All of them score memorable points over the course of the film, although fans are sure to argue with some of Whedon’s choices regarding character development.

In this episode, the spotlight falls primarily on Mal, as he wrestles with whether to mount a resistance based on conscience or else run for the hills, and River, as she slowly remembers why it is that the Alliance wants her dead. The evil empire has sent a dangerous killer called “the Operative” after River, to eliminate her quietly before she remembers why they scrambled her brain. The Operative (played with soul and menace by “Amistad’s” Chiwetel Eijofor) is special because he silences his mind and conscience in order to carry out the Alliance’s dirty work. It’s just a job, and his dispassionate demeanor makes him a unique and interesting villain — the anti-Darth Vader.

Political? Personal? Profound?

Thus, the story echoes a familiar theme, the same one that fueled Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Fernando Mereilles’ “The Constant Gardener, or even Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Its heroes strive to document and publish information that exposes a government’s scandalous activities for the whole solar system to see.

Is “Serenity” a political commentary, then? Perhaps on some level. After all, most attacks on the present U.S. administration involve broadcasting evidence of our leaders’ alleged misbehaviors, to prove that a regime-change is in order. (Of course, “Serenity” offers us heroes whose leadership might be appealing, whereas most who bitterly bash the Bush administration are hard-pressed to offer candidates who might be more responsible in their place.) But it could just as well be a critique of societies elsewhere in the world, like the societies the U.S. has sought to liberate, in which tyrants impose even fiercer and more limiting restrictions upon their suffering masses.

But it’s more likely that the plot deliberately reflects Joss Whedon’s passion to save a brilliant piece of pop-culture mythmaking from extinction. Consider the Alliance as the studio that looked only at the numbers and sentenced a good crew to elimination. Consider the heroes to represent Joss and Company, tirelessly searching for a way to let the people know about the show, so that viewers can make up their own mind about its fate. You’ll lose track of the moments in the film when the characters observe that this may indeed be their last endeavor together; this mission will either crash-land and explode, or by some sort of miracle, give these characters a new lease on life.

Beyond that, it’s remarkable how Whedon, who denies any personal religion, takes on questions about character and spirituality head-on, and many of his stories conclude with lessons learned that will resonate with Christian viewers. Despite the fact that they’re running from the law, the crew of the starship “Serenity” are loyal, driven by conscience, growing and changing in their moral convictions. Their ideal is freedom from oppression, and their guiding light is love. They’re learning that while the safest path is sometimes the selfish one, the best path is to put one’s life on the line for a larger cause.

Interestingly, the villain himself is a “believer” who serves what he believes to be a “larger cause.” But the Operative’s cause requires forcefully altering the lives of others to conform to a certain ideal–”a world without sin”–disallowing them the freedom to manifest their flaws. This is the opposite of Christ’s approach. Christ never forced people to behave a certain way. He didn’t just go around saying, “Sin is bad, so stop it!” He taught the rewards of virtue. He exemplified the beauty of righteousness. He inspired an appetite for goodness, rather than rashly punishing bad-ness. This encourages people tochoose life, rather than merely stifle sin.

The story of “Serenity” brilliantly illustrates how forcing others to stifle their human weaknesses leads to nasty side-effects. You cannot uproot evil by treating merely the visible evidence of it. This leads to nasty side-effects. Better to allow people the freedom to find their way through and past their flaws. (Similarly, last year’s filmKinsey, for all of its misguided ideas, did score one point for truth: that if you force people to silence their questions and conceal their confusion, this does nothing to cultivate peace and health. It just forces the messy reality below ground, where it festers and worsens.)

Besides the ideal of freedom, Whedon also wants to celebrate the virtue of belief. “It doesn’t matter what you believe,” Shepherd Book says to Mal. “Just believe.” This is a helpful, positive message. Indeed, to believe in nothing is, in fact, a belief — a belief that all is meaningless, which leads to despair. Book wants Mal to believe in something greater than himself, because that gives him moral focus, and shapes him into a principled leader. Mal must do just that, as “Serenity” reaches its final act. He must ask his crew to join him is putting their lives on the line so that the whole solar system might know the truth.

Nevertheless, contrary to what Book says, it does matter what we believe, and that is the fundamental flaw of Whedon’s message. After all, terrorists who fly airplanes into tall buildings are doing so because they firmly believe in something greater than themselves. If Whedon’s heroes merely believe, they might choose a flawed ideal, which will lead to disaster. Fortunately, as the story plays itself out, they choose to believe in love, which requires humility and a willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, instead of enforcing their beliefs on others by threatening or taking their lives.

Whedon does not profess a particular religion; like Mal, he seems disinterested in God, favoring a focus on morality as if it is merely a human resource. Alas, moral codes have never proven sufficient to redeem humanity from its baser tendencies. (It will be interesting to see if Whedon’s storytelling ever explores the possible source of morality, since the demands of love run counter to the demands of survival and mere evolution.) The enduring appeal of Christianity is in its promise that God himself is benevolent, that there is a higher power that can save us from ourselves, and that believing in his promises–perfectly demonstrated in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection–we become more like him. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see such soul-searching and such an aggressive inquiry into ethics in the midst of popular entertainment.

Victory for the Independents

The fans may or may not realize how much “Firefly”’s lasting power stems from Whedon’s strong spiritual inclinations. They’re just glad to have a new batch of scrappy, smart-aleck heroes that consistently surprise, challenge, and inspire them. “Serenity” proves that you don’t need to saturate your science fiction with CGI and hyper-violence to hold an audience’s attention. All you need is a story that reflects truth, engaging characters, and the kind of dialogue that people will quote to each other fondly for years to come.

Yes, “Serenity”’s mediocre visual style is a weakness. And Whedon faced an insurmountable problem of introducing newcomers to a fully-developed world and a host of previously established characters. Near the end, many major developments alter the chemistry of the team permanently, and it all happens so quickly that it feels like an extended-edition DVD might be in order so that these events have more opportunity to resonate.

But all in all, for scripting, humor, and characters you care about, “Serenity”’s got the other recent action franchises beat. You can feel the passion this team has for their project, and while the form itself is more popular entertainment then art, that passion makes this more satisfying than many more sophisticated films. Whedon clearly shares the desires of so many film buffs for a return to the sharp, cantankerous, comedy-laced adventure writing of yesteryear, and he’s brought this spirit back to the screen with a vengeance, with a cast that knows how to bulls-eye every line. But he also wants to share with us the burning questions on his mind and heart, to go where no sci-fi epic has gone before.

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