Michael C. Dougherty | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English
It’s quite understandable if you haven’t heard of Browncoats: Redemption (well, other than for me mentioning it a month ago — pay attention!). In short, it’s an officially-okayed Firefly/Serenity fan film for the benefit of charity. There’s no doubting the enthusiasm and heart of the cast & crew of Redemption — on those factors they score a perfect 5 — but as a film in its own right… well…
It feels wrong to criticise a fan production for charity — it’s like berating a small child who on December 1st excitedly tells mummy what Christmas present she’s getting — but this is a film review blog, and so review it as a film I must.
Set a few months after the end of Serenity, Browncoats deals slightly with the fall out from that film’s revelation of the planet Miranda. Wisely we’re not following re-cast versions of Serenity (the ship)’s crew here, but the all-new crew of the ship Redemption, who get caught up in the Alliance’s desire to make a show of smuggler types in the wake of Mal & co’s actions. There’s also the issue of the murky past of Redemption’s captain…
The story idea is a solid one. It’s nicely spun out of Serenity without forcing an impossible re-cast of that film’s players. It requires knowledge of the film, and to a lesser extent the TV series, but as this is a fan film and therefore made with a fan-only audience in mind, that’s no problem. The main plot is little underdeveloped perhaps, coming across a bit flat in the telling, and it could do with better subplots for the extensive cast. This is a problem that easily blights a film where you have to feature the whole cast of a ship, and in a TV series you can get away with it — if someone’s not in an episode much, their own one is coming soon — but less so in a film. Serenity managed it with aplomb, but then that was created by an experienced TV & film professional rather than a group of fans.
The characters are, thankfully, not carbon copies of Firefly’s cast — some effort has clearly been made to differentiate the line-up, and that goes beyond inverting most of the genders. They’re surely cut from the same cloth though, but that’s understandable: this isn’t trying to be radical with Whedon’s ‘verse, it’s trying to emulate it for the fans, and the fans like what they’ve already seen. Ironically, despite being the most obviously gender-swapped, it’s Redemption’s female captain who’s most like her Serenity counterpart: Laura is, to be blunt, Mal with breasts. Her backstory is at least completely different, but the end result — the character we meet in the film — is more or less the same. When your leads are too similar it can override how different the rest of the cast may be.
Sadly, the acting is uniformly weak. Occasionally a decent line delivery will emerge, but only now and then. The cast aren’t helped by a script too keen to emulate the highly mannered style of Whedon’s original. The way these actors struggle to wrap themselves around the dialogue just shows how talented the original cast were to make it sound so natural. Even the extras are under-directed — obviously background artists (or whatever they’re officially called these days) shouldn’t be noticeable, but here they sometimes are because of what they’re doing or, more often, not doing.
The rest of Browncoats’s direction is a typical fan film minefield. Dougherty’s work is awkwardly flat: it’s all master shots and few close-ups; some sets are shot from the same two angles (and no more) in every scene; it ignores basic rules, like the 180 degree line; the camera is handheld or mounted indiscriminately; it’s loosely framed and poorly lit. And it’s loosely edited too, with some bits allowed to run indulgently long. There may be some places where it’s not so bad, but generally this is the work of someone who knows how to point a camera and press record, rather than direct.
Worse is the audio quality, which is simply appalling. Dialogue clarity and volume varies across a single line, never mind scene — there are several instances where you can hear the actor turn away from the microphone. There’s no sound effects work to speak of — we’re talking basic stuff like punches in a fight or papers dropping on a table (the lack of sound in space, on the other hand, is a Firefly-derived artistic choice). Music is indiscriminately applied and often drowns dialogue out. The wholly-original score is very professional and appropriately emulates the music of the series and movie, but it feels slapped on just so there’s some sound and doesn’t always fit the scene.
The supporting technical elements are all very good, however. As well as the solid score there’s an array of appropriate costumes, a surprisingly proficient spaceship set (considering the production’s scale & budget — it’s not going to rival professional work), good location work, and the handful of CG shots are above regular direct-to-DVD standards. Indeed, while much of Browncoats is below the level of even The Asylum’s work, its CGI puts theirs to shame.
I’ve seen many people online flat-out slag Browncoats off, which is patently unfair. Maybe it’s a generational thing: having been a Doctor Who fan during The Wilderness Years, I was aware of fan films long before anyone could realistically edit video on their computer, never mind use them to add CGI effects or upload it to the internet or film it in HD or master a Blu-ray release. Those who look at the trailer expecting something that looks like a bang-on continuation of Firefly and Serenity are plain foolish. In fan film terms, there are better and more professional examples than Browncoats, but the vast majority are a lot worse. As a super low budget independent film (another label the makers (less often) attach to it), it’s hard to deny that it looks amateurish. Comparisons to super-cheap productions like El Mariachi or Primer do have it coming up short. But then, we don’t see the surely hundreds (if not more) of similarly-budgeted independent features that are so poorly made — and lacking an in-built fanbase — to receive wider distribution than local friends-and-family screenings. It’s the exceptional ones that break through; and while it does mean that, yes, you can make a “proper film” for that kind of money, and so Browncoats’ makers could have done better, this is still (as a fan film) a respectable effort.
Undoubtedly the greatest thing about this project — fans coming together to celebrate and recreate something they love in aid of charity — is down to producer Dougherty’s thought and organisation. Sadly, the worst things about it — the writing and direction — are also his responsibility. We must be forgiving — it is made by amateurs, and for charity — but it’s a shame someone(s) more proficient weren’t found for the important creative roles.
If I scored films for effort, or for heart-in-the-right-place-ness, then this would be an easy 5/5. I just hope no one involved is hoping they can launch a career in ‘real’ film or TV off the back of it, because it doesn’t make that grade. (They’re trying the same thing again, at least, this time with an original zombie movie (because there aren’t enough of those) called Z*Con.) But as a for-the-fans nostalgia-driven charity project… well, it’s raised over $113,000. Shiny.
This was originally posted on the sixth anniversary of Serenity being released in the UK (crikey, time flies).