October 01, 2005

You still can't take the sky from me

The 2002 Fox/Joss Whedon (Buffy) SF series Firefly is one of those cult TV phenomena that probably got more press after the fact than during its unfortunately short run. And that's too bad.

For those unfortunate souls who never saw Firefly: 500 years in the future, humanity has abandoned earth and colonized another star system comprising well over a hundred terraformed planets and moons. Ten years prior to the series' setting, the Anglo-Sino Alliance representing the central planets attempted to assert a hegemony over all inhabited space, leading to a war of independence between the Alliance and the "Browncoats."

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a Browncoat officer, and hence on the losing side. After the war ended, he purchased a secondhand Firefly-class cargo ship, Serenity (named after the decisive battle of the war), crewed by Zoe (Gina Torres), who fought with him in the war; Hoban "Wash" Washburn (Alan Tudyk), Zoe's husband and a skilled, wisecracking pilot; Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), hired muscle of Very Small Brain and an unusual name; Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), a farmgirl with unusual and intuitive mechanical aptitude; and Inara Serra (Morina Baccarin), an aristocratic sex professional, or Companion. They travel from planet to planet on the fringes of inhabited space, where the people are poor and the technology of the Alliance is not in evidence, looking for work - sometimes legal, sometimes less than legal.

In the series' pilot, Mal acquires two passengers: a wandering preacher, "Shepherd" Derrial Book (Ron Glass) and a gifted young doctor, Simon Tam (Sean Maher). They later discover that Simon smuggled aboard his younger sister River (Summer Glau), who is even more brilliant than him, profoundly disturbed, gifted in ways only hinted at, and apparently a fugitive from a government facility where they were experimenting on her. River is the series' MacGuffin: much of the plot (and the on-board conflict, particularly where the opportunistic and jealous Jayne is concerned) is driven by the tension between finding work and not attracting unnecessary attention to Simon and River.

The series was wonderful: it looked good, it was well-acted, had rounded characters and a plot line that made it far superior to anything in the Star Trek franchise. Given a chance it could have outshone even the redoubtable Babylon 5. Then Fox decided its ratings weren't good enough and cancelled it after 11 episodes. Of course, they completely botched the broadcast order of the episodes and frequently pre-empted Firefly for baseball games, so a good part of the ratings slump was arguably their own fault. What the hell were they thinking?

Fortunately, someone was thinking, only it was the good people at Universal Studios, not 20th Century Fox, that saw the promise of a feature-length sequel and greenlighted Serenity. Thus Universal's fanfare, not Fox's, introduces this movie. Some Fox executives are kicking their own ankles raw right about now. So far, this is the best SF film I have seen this year. Yes, better than Revenge of the Sith and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, even - and I was anticipating both of those just as eagerly, if not more.

Serenity picks up eight months after the beginning of Firefly. It begins with a flashback to Simon's rescue of River, in the form of a holographic recording being viewed a high-ranking government operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He reveals the reason the Alliance wants River back so badly: she is an experimental human weapon whose abilities include mind-reading. Key members of Parliament were unwisely given access to her; thus the likelihood exists that River has learned some secrets from them must never be revealed.

Meanwhile, on Serenity, Mal and crew are, as always, needing money. On some backwater planet where the Alliance doesn't care much and hires a private security company to keep the peace, Serenity's crew plans a simple heist of their payroll. Mal decides it's high time River started earning her passage, so they bring her along hoping her sixth sense might give them a tactical advantage. And it does: During the heist, she senses that the town is being attacked by Reavers - atavistic, cannibalistic raiders who, confronted by the nothingness of deep space, went completely stark raving berzerk - and suddenly the chance of easy money is secondary to survival.

Later, while Mal pays off debts to some of his contacts, a subliminal message on a video screen triggers River into a spectacular martial-arts fight that practically destroys the bar where the deal is conducted. Simon is able to subdue her with a post-hypnotic "safe word," but not before the security cameras take her picture and grab the attention of The Operative.

The main reason that I always preferred the first six Star Trek movies to any other Trek incarnation, was that the budget and length of the feature film format allows for stories of a broader scope than your typical 48-minute television episode. The same goes for Serenity. It isn't just an extended TV show. After Whedon brings the newbies up to speed with the backstory and some typical Firefly action, he launches right into a full-bore conspiracy story, the true depth of which was only just touched upon in the series with the barest of hints. And as you, my faithful readers, already ought to know by now, I just love a good conspiracy story.

The world of Serenity probably has more in common with that of Ridley Scott's 1982 cult film Blade Runner than the more familiar socialist utopia of Star Trek. Sure, the Federation has its shadier side (e.g. Section 31), but for the most part it is, as Khan put it, "one big happy fleet." Not the Anglo-Sino Alliance. They are hegemonic and expansionist, self-serving, and Machiavellian. After winning a civil war to centralize control of human space, they don't really care too much about the colonies on the fringes, allowing them to languish in relative poverty while the core worlds enjoy an easy, high-tech civilization. Think The X-Files in space. Yeah, it's a bit over the top, but Joss Whedon's pessimistic view of the universe is at least more realistic than Gene Roddenberry's optimistic one.

Fillion as Mal wisecracks his way through this movie, just as he did the series. I can't imagine that it's easy to navigate the cowboy-talk-cum-technobabble-cum-Chinese that is the patois of the Alliance, but he seems pretty comfortable with it. Joss Whedon is a killer dialogue writer, and the one-liners in Serenity fly fast and furious from all sides. But even though Mal appears in nearly every scene, this movie is really Summer Glau's, her portrayal of the damaged River Tam getting an order of magnitude more depth than 15-odd hours of Firefly ever gave it. Glau is a ballerina by training, and she puts all that flexibility to good use in a couple of spectacular fight scenes. It's hard to believe that the 24-year-old actress was unheard of less than four years ago. Most of the rest of the ensemble cast put in a good job as well, most notably Tudyk as Wash and Baldwin as Jayne, respectively as smartass and dumb as ever.

Unfortunately, however, Glass' appearance as Shepherd Book is little more than a cameo. This is an injustice, as Book is the most enigmatic character - Whedon dropped many hints that the easygoing missionary was better connected than he ought to have been. Sadly, all that intrigue just doesn't pay off in the end. But when Ejiofor's cold, amoral, and professional Operative is on screen, all is forgiven anyway.

Mal Reynold's world looks far better on the big screen than it did on TV, and there is a space battle near the end that puts even Revenge of the Sith's swashbuckling to shame. Serenity ties up all the major loose ends of the series in a satisfying payoff - I would love to discuss some of those themes here, but it would give away too much of the story. It offers a hint, too, of a possible sequel (even if no specific promises have been made by the creators). If you enjoyed Firefly, you must go see Serenity. If not, then first buy or rent the series DVDs, watch them, then go see Serenity. Otherwise, you're just missing out.