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May 2005
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Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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by Kathi Maio

It Looks Larger In A Small Box

WHEN telling a story that is futuristic or fantastical, it is useful to keep it familiar as well. Without an adequate frame of reference, the reader or viewer won't be able to "relate." And as much as sf and fantasy fans want to experience new realms and possibilities, we also want any brave new world to speak to the world we know. We want the form of the tale to be recognizable, and we want to see ourselves reflected in even an alien creature or wee elf.

Creating something at once familiar and fresh is the hard part.

Sf filmmakers attempt this feat by putting a new spin on familiar formulas. And because film is their medium, the formulas they utilize have less to do with the traditions of science fiction novels than they do with the conventions of moviemaking. Film genres that have been in heavy rotation since the days of silent cinema are simply customized with monstrous creatures and space men.

Although the costumes and makeup might be different, and the stated time period might be way before or far beyond the present day, most science fiction films (if you strip away the prehistoric or space age props) are extraordinarily reminiscent of age-old movie formulas like the swashbuckler adventure, the cowboy western, and the brothers-in-arms war drama.

Of course, when most filmmakers change a sword to a light saber, they are hoping you won't notice that they are basically remaking a movie that came out in 1922. But I think if you're going to steal, be honest about it. Which is why I enjoyed Joss Whedon's short-lived Fox television series, Firefly, as well as its hero.

Whedon, who is best known as the creative force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, went in a much different direction with Firefly, which was a space cowboys adventure series set five hundred years in the future.

And when I say space cowboys, I mean it. Whedon—who admits to having been inspired by Michael Shaara's Pulitzer prize-winning novel about Gettysburg and the American Civil War, The Killer Angels—makes no pretense about the hodgepodge of formulas he utilizes in his series. Primary among them is the great American Western yarn. And if you had any doubt that the series' hero, Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is basically a futuristic version of the standard non-conforming, reluctantly heroic, two-fisted brawling cowpoke hero, Whedon and his team spell it out in no uncertain terms. Mal wears britches and boots and a long duster coat, and keeps his six-shooter strapped to his hip. And his misadventures include an occasional foray into cattle-rustling (transporting cattle from one planet to another) and the shoot-out defense of a beleaguered desert brothel (against a prairie town strongman who uses a laser gun and a hovercraft). All set to a score of bluegrass-laden world music!

Whedon and his writing team also had fun mixing in additional genres like the battlefront buddy drama, and exhibited a consistently playful attitude toward the anachronisms of their weekly tales.

For those of you who never saw Firefly during its on-again, off-again broadcasts in the fall of 2002, and who have yet to buy or rent the DVDs of the series, more explanation is in order.

As humans spread throughout the universe, settling and "terraforming" barren moons and planets, two dominant human cultures, American and Chinese, formed the basis of a new world order "Alliance" of intergalactic government hegemony. During the War for Unification, "Independents" tried to resist Alliance social control. Mal Reynolds had been a valiant soldier for the Independents. As was his always-got-yer-back buddy from the trenches, Zoe Alleyn (Gina Torres).

As a surviving and cynical loser in a civil war, Mal can't accept life on the civilized and heavily controlled "Core" planets. Instead, he refurbishes an old space transport ship, a member of the Firefly class that he dubs Serenity. Then he takes to a life of petty crime and semi-ethical skullduggery shuttling between various less-controlled outer rim planets. (These dusty planets and their inhabitants lead hardscrabble lives that look amazingly like that of the Wild West of American movie lore.)

Mal's crew and shipboard family consists of his right-hand woman Zoe, her husband, a less-than-macho ace pilot named Wash (Alan Tudyk), a former farmgirl and brilliant mechanic named Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a tough-as-nails and more than a little mercenary sharpshooter named Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and a fellow traveler, in her own lusciously appointed and semi-detached shuttle, a courtesan or "companion" called Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). And, finally, while taking on passengers for a little extra money, the crew expands to include a celibate man of the cloth, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and a formerly privileged young doctor, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who became a fugitive after freeing his genius but seriously disturbed teenaged sister, River (Summer Glau), from a secret government program. (River also boards the Serenity.)

That's a lot of characters to develop and keep busy, but despite Fox Network pressures to keep the action dominant, Whedon and writing cohorts Tim Minear, Ben Edlund, Jose Molina, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenherg, Cheryl Cain, and Brett Matthews kept the fist fights, shoot-outs, and chase scenes nicely balanced with comedy and drama, fleshing out their nine-person ensemble as they went along.

The overt fusion of cultures (characters speak in twangy English and curse in Mandarin) and filmic formulas somehow worked in Firefly. The result was an entertaining and even endearing series that few people ever saw.

Fans being what they are, the small community of Firefly devotees (who called themselves Browncoats, in honor of their hero's rebel outerwear), didn't calmly accept the writing on the wall as Fox preempted and then canceled the series. (Three of the fourteen completed episodes never aired.) They blogged, rallied at sf and comic conventions, created internet forums and letter writing campaigns, and even bought ads advocating for the show's renewal, pick up by another network, or transfer to the large screen.

As any Trekker can testify, the power of an enthusiastic fan base should not be underestimated. And as any Douglas Adams fan must admit, neither can it be overestimated. A reliable group of devotees can guarantee you a good opening weekend, but a movie will not succeed—monetarily or culturally—unless it can also attract and engross viewers beyond pre-ordained fanatics.

So, the Browncoats helped Joss Whedon get his Firefly saga to Universal, who greenlighted a modestly budgeted feature. But the Browncoats could not make the resulting Autumn 2005 movie, Serenity, a hit.

Folks in the business of explaining away failure would probably say that Serenity fizzled in theaters because it had no big name stars. And, indeed, that might be part of the problem. Hollywood features these days are star vehicles—which is why untalented people like Tom Cruise get paid so much money for their middling performances.

But the real reason Serenity didn't pack in audiences is that it's not a very good movie. As someone who has watched every episode of the Firefly series (even the three that never aired but which are included on the DVD set), I'll readily admit that the film has its moments. And the plot, which involves much of the backstory of young River's psychotic breaks, as well as nefarious government experiments on a mysterious far-off planet that helped create the series' bogeymen, the cannibalistic Reavers, is not completely uninteresting.

But if I hadn't been familiar with the Captain and his crew, and witnessed their previous outcast adventures, I would have found Serenity to be a pedestrian space western with too much dizzying action and not nearly enough character development.

It's almost as if Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed Serenity in his feature debut, knew that he didn't have time to elucidate all nine of his lead characters. A couple, like the beauteous Inara, are kept off-ship for most of the movie, and are given only blips of single scenes in what amounts to bit parts. Others (spoiler alert!) are given short shrift and then are summarily killed off.

Except for Captain Reynolds, and possibly the troubled River (who has unaccountably become a ninja-on-speed warrior since we saw her last), there is no character explication to speak of. And that's a disservice not only to new viewers, but also for Firefly fans who know how engaging and well cast this group of characters is.

All that Captain fixation got me feeling quite cranky after a while. If I wanted to see a Star Trek movie, I'd watch one. In a Firefly film I wanted the ensemble to work together fully in service of their story.

To be fair, even if the regular cast members got to do little more than stand around, scowling and bleeding, at least there were a couple of new characters who were introduced in the movie and are worthy of comment. One is the villain of the piece, a government operative/assassin played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was so good in Dirty, Pretty Things). This calm and courtly man is a self-acknowledged "monster" who is willing to do anything to support his government, which he truly believes is working to make a better world. (There must be a lesson here. Make a note, somebody.)

The other intriguing character is just a bit part, but a lively and entertaining one. And that is David Krumholtz (CBS's brilliant Numb3rs mathematician), who appears briefly as Mr. Universe, a media hacker who believes that "you can't stop the signal."

But two new characters can't make up for the lack of quality time with the regular cast. And there was no time for them because of the need for non-stop sword-guttings and widespread slaughter.

Sadly, it seems certain that Whedon listened too carefully to the suits at Fox who told him to pump up the action. No doubt the folks at Universal made the same pointed suggestion. Hence, tiny underfed River becomes something out of a hopped-up version of The Matrix. She kicks and slashes her way through a couple dozen very large and fierce Reavers until there's nothing but a pile of bodies on the floor. And as for the spaceship chase scenes and dogfights, Whedon's preference for zooming and jittery handheld camera work—occasionally used in the TV series—is now full-blown and completely stomach-churning.

The unremitting violence and action don't make for a better story or a better movie, they simply make Serenity come off like every other two-bit steroid-pumped sf adventure movie you've ever seen.

I wanted to see the Firefly series get a second chance—until I saw how Joss Whedon compromised his vision, translating it to the big screen. The leisurely pace of a dramatic series suited Whedon's concept and characters. The show filled the small screen and made a real impact—even if it was, originally, on too small a group of audience members.

But that's the great thing about DVD. Now folks who missed their very brief chance to catch the series when it aired can rent or buy the entire set of DVDs and work their way through all fourteen quite entertaining episodes. Watch the follow-up film afterward, if you must. But do yourself a favor; don't start with the movie, Serenity.

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