Serenity (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #82

They aim to misbehave.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 29th September 2005 (Australia)
US Release: 30th September 2005
UK Release: 7th October 2005
First Seen: cinema, 7th October 2005

Stars
Nathan Fillion (Waitress, Super)
Summer Glau (The Initiation of Sarah, Knights of Badassdom)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave)

Director
Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Much Ado About Nothing)

Screenwriter
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story)

Based on
Firefly, a TV series created by Joss Whedon.

The Story
In the far future, a crew of renegades harbour a fugitive who knows a terrible secret about the totalitarian rulers. When a ruthless assassin comes for them, their only hope becomes to seek out the truth behind one of the regime’s darkest acts…

Our Heroes
The crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Led by Captain Mal Reynolds, they’re a gang of rogues and thieves, but are also honourable sorts (well, mostly) forced into that life by a harsh universe. They’ve recently taken onboard Dr Simon Tam and his mysterious sister, River, who has certain skills…

Our Villains
The Operative, an efficient and moral assassin sent by the Alliance, the universe’s ruling body, to retrieve River — at any cost. But if he’s the rock then there’s also a hard place: Reavers, bloodthirsty perverted cannibals who stalk the uncharted regions our heroes will need to venture into.

Best Supporting Character
Shepherd Book, a preacher and former member of Serenity’s crew, now living on the appropriately-named planet of Haven. Has some very insightful words of advice for Mal.

Memorable Quote
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” — Shepherd Book

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Shiny” — as a synonym of “great”.

Quote Most Likely To Be Found on a T-Shirt
“I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” — Wash

Memorable Scene
After the history-lesson-within-a-dream-within-a-hologram-within-a-scene pre-titles, Whedon introduces us to the crew and their titular ship with a four-and-a-half-minute unbroken tracking shot. I do love a long single take, and this one excels by introducing us to all the main heroes, their personalities, their situations, their relationships — all at the same time — while also establishing the geography of the ship; and, by extension, the incredible set, which featured the entire interior of the ship built across just two sections (there’s an invisible cut in the middle of the shot to transition between sets).

Technical Wizardry
I created this category to highlight any elements of production that were especially striking — things like cinematography, editing, design, costumes… No offence to any of them (and considering the film was produced for a slight-for-a-sci-fi-blockbuster $40 million, they all do a super job), but the real star is Whedon’s screenplay. Packed to the gills with the literate, witty dialogue he’s famed for, it also manages to be emotionally affecting, make points about governments and their power, engage with themes of belief and the importance of freedom, and weave in a subtext that reflects the real-life story of Firefly’s death and rebirth — though Whedon claims that last one was an accident.

Letting the Side Down
The public. It didn’t gross enough; there weren’t any sequels. Damn you, mankind!

Making of
Talking of the impressive Serenity set (see: Memorable Scene), it was built in the same way for Firefly, but the blueprints were lost between Fox destroying the series’ sets and production on the movie beginning. When Nathan Fillion learnt this at a production meeting, he was able to supply the blueprints himself — he’d been so excited to be on the show, he’d taken photos of all the pre-production material he’d seen, including the set blueprints.

Previously on…
Serenity continues and, to an extent, concludes Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived TV series Firefly. Mismarketed by US network Fox, the series wasn’t a success on original broadcast, leading to cancellation after just 11 episodes had aired. Thanks to word-of-mouth and availability on DVD, it has developed a massive following since.

Next time…
Despite the distinct and disappointing dearth of sequels, the Firefly/Serenity franchise has continued on, mostly in the form of various comic books, which have plugged gaps in continuity, revealed long-awaited character histories, and even continued the story after the movie.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Supporting Actress (Summer Glau))
1 Saturn nomination (Science Fiction Film)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“With its Hawksian attention to group dynamics and its skilful definition of character through action, this supremely entertaining hybrid-movie plays like Rio Bravo in space. The textured narrative is peopled by precisely delineated characters who employ a salty retro-future-speak, in which twenty-fifth century slang is morphed with frontier Western archaisms (‘take umbrage’, ‘confound these bungers’). The settings and tone are hyper-real, yet the human behaviour is grounded and credible, the moral conflicts complex and involving. Shiny, intelligent fun.” — Nick Funnell, Time Out London

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring.” — Ian Farrington

Verdict

Regular readers may have picked up that I don’t re-watch films much (I can’t identify at all with people who claim to have seen the same film dozens or hundreds of times). Despite that, I saw Serenity in the cinema four times, two of them back-to-back. Such is the genius of writer-director Joss Whedon, and the quality of the Firefly universe — it’s a situation where every element just clicked to make a perfect result. (Well, every element except the original TV network, anyway.) No doubt Serenity is best viewed as a capper to the fourteen-hour TV series — that extra investment in the characters and universe makes the film’s best bits sing — but it’s accessible to newcomers also, being so cleverly structured and packed with all the information you’d need.

It was named “Film of the Year” by the BBC’s Film programme; it topped an SFX poll for the best science-fiction film of all time; and its DVD is a permanent resident on the International Space Station to entertain the crews. Cào nǐ, Fox.

#83 will… get busy living or get busy dying.

Browncoats: Redemption (2010)

2011 #77
Michael C. Dougherty | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English

Browncoats RedemptionIt’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.

ChessThe 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.

Chatting in the cargo bayThe 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.

Speechy villainI’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.

Redemption flies onIf 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.

2 out of 5

This was originally posted on the sixth anniversary of Serenity being released in the UK (crikey, time flies).

August 2011

Dear fans of Firefly and Serenity,

[The following was all irrelevant soon after I posted it, never mind now in 2015. But hey-ho, the repostathon rolls on…]

In case you’ve not heard of it, I just want to quickly draw your attention to Browncoats: Redemption, a fan film about a bunch of original characters in the ‘verse that takes place in the wake of the events of Serenity. What makes this one notable is that it’s been officially sanctioned by creator Joss Whedon and the appropriate Firefly/Serenity rightsholders to be sold on DVD and Blu-ray in aid of charity. But only until September 1st, which (as the handy countdown on the website tells us) means it will only ever be available for order for another 29 hours*.

I’d meant to review the film sooner to give it a proper push, but me being me I only just watched it. I’ll still aim to get a review up sometime, obviously, but for what it’s worth I’ll be giving it 2 out of 5. Hardly a glowing promotion I know, but I’m scoring this next to all the other films I’ve watched and, honestly, it’s a fan film and it plays like one. That said, as examples go it’s a pretty well-made one. Though the acting, screenplay and direction would be kindly described as “well-meaning”, some of the production values are surprisingly good: there’s a decent spaceship set, well-realised location work, solid costumes, decent fight choreography, professional music, some good-quality CGI, and so on. It’s no Serenity 2, and considering the “proper movie” quality of some zero-budget films (like, say, Primer or El Mariachi (both of which cost less)) it’s obviously a labour of love rather than of emerging talent. But for die-hard, sympathetic fans of Whedon’s series, it’s a passable little trip back to the ‘verse. Full marks for effort, at least.

Plus, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, the DVD & Blu-ray versions come with a host of extras: an audio commentary by the writer/director/producer, the best part of an hour on the making of Redemption, over an hour and a half of interviews with cast and crew from Firefly and Serenity, and a full soundtrack CD.

More importantly than all of that, and why I’m mentioning it despite my rating, is that all profits go to five charities supported by Firefly/Serenity cast & crew: Equality Now, Kids Need to Read, the Dyslexia Foundation, the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. With just 29 hours left to be able to own the film (unless you’re attending Dragon*Con, anyway), I thought that was worth a mention.


* at the time of posting, hence why this round-up is about 24 hours earlier than normal.


Now back to your regularly scheduled monthly round-up…

After that, I’ll just get on with it. Should I watch anything else in the next 24 hours I’ll sneak it on the end later.

#72 Sucker Punch: Extended Cut (2011)
#73 Source Code (2011)
#74 Glorious 39 (2009)
#75 Nirvana (1997)
#76 The House on 92nd Street (1945)
#77 Browncoats: Redemption (2010)


Next time on the all-new 100 Films in a Year monthly update…

September marks the final third of the year. With under a quarter of films to go, that’s not too shabby… even if I’m still not getting very far with posting reviews.

But hey, tomorrow is another day…

Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity (2006)

2008 #16
Jeremy Neish, Brian Wiser, Jared Nelson, Tony Hadlock and Jason Heppler | 79 mins | DVD

Done the ImpossibleOne of the more recent entries in the “fan documentary” sub-genre (which also includes the likes of Starwoids and Ringers: Lord of the Fans), Done the Impossible investigates the cult sparked by the prematurely-cancelled TV series Firefly and its continuation movie, Serenity — a movie that only exists thanks to the fans’ dedication.

The activism, and success, of Firefly’s fans (known as Browncoats) makes for a key difference from other fan docs: these aren’t just people who queue for obscene amounts of time to see something they like; these are people who helped turn a cancelled TV show into a DVD hit, and then a successful movie too. As such, as well as touching on the basics of fandom (forums, conventions, fanfic, and so on), this documentary is the tale of the rise and fall of the TV show and the making of the movie, but from the perspective of the fans rather than the filmmakers. That said, a noteworthy number of those involved in the film are interviewed, discussing their love for both the show and its fans, and often confessing to be fans themselves. These include six of the lead cast (one of whom hosts the documentary, and another narrates the DVD’s extras), writers and directors, and creator/writer/director (and God to fans) Joss Whedon.

As a film, Done the Impossible has a nicely loose structure, on the whole following the thread of the production story through to around the time of Serenity’s premiere, but taking time for diversions into personal recollections and general areas of Browncoatism. Actually having a story to tell gives the film an advantage over other fan docs (Ringers rather lacked one, for example) — even though there are diversions, there’s always a narrative to keep things moving forward. It certainly stops things from seeming too slow or repetitive.

Whatever you may think of them, Firefly and Serenity broke the rules, and in the process helped pave the way for other cancelled properties being revived by fan support. With its emphasis on personal recollections alongside the minutiae of fandom, Done the Impossible is undoubtedly of primary interest to fellow Browncoats, and perhaps anthropologists. But there should be broader interest in the story of a dedicated and unfailingly hopeful mass of people who came together, refused to give up, and, against all the odds, actually won.

4 out of 5