Tuesday, October 04, 2005

There's no place I can be

I've re-viewed Serenity and want to write about it. Spoilers abound, so look away in shame if you have not yet seem the film.

I arrived at the theater around 3:30 for a 4:30 showing and felt like a fool. Nobody was there. Camera 12 is a pretty cool theater, though, so I walked around Paseo de San Antonio a bit and then hung around inside the theater. Some other hard-core fans arrived just as the previous screening ended and we made our way in. The theater slowly filled, but there were probably just around 50 people in there when it started. Granted, 4:30 will not be the most popular time (most would want the cheaper matinees or the more traditional evening shows), but still, between it being opening weekend and being in the heart of Silicon Valley, I had been expecting more sci-fi fans to appear.

The final cut is basically identical to what I saw back in June. I think they may have tweaked the sound a bit - I believe there were more fiddles this time around - but I'm pretty sure everything else, including the CGI, was complete.

Watching the film felt very different this time around. I had gone into the preview screening expecting a big damn adventure flick, and felt like I was being repeatedly punched in the gut every few minutes. This time I knew what I was getting into, so I enjoyed the moments of humor and action without feeling betrayed when the story plunged into tragedy.

I've been reading a lot of reviews before and after seeing it again, so some of the issues they bring up are on my mind. A lot of people say that Whedon is obviously more used to directing on the small screen than a movie. Maybe, I guess. I don't claim to be a cinematography expert by any means, but it felt plenty expansive to me. I mean, he didn't do the Lucas-style panoramic vista sweep, so maybe that's what they were referring to. The space scenes, the brawls and the pursuits felt big to me, like we were in a broad world. Even the Serenity scenes, on a set originally designed for television, felt more open than on TV, most clearly in the opening tour but even in later scenes; people stumbled between rooms and, with just a few exceptions, did not do the conversation-around-a-table thing that was more common in the series.

And I am utterly befuddled by the few (stupid) reviews I've read that praise Whedon's smart "pop-culture references." The hell? I've seen the movie twice now and, maybe I'm just dense, but I can't remember a single pop-culture reference at all. I can see why people would think of this, since what I've seen of Whedon's other TV work has been extremely pop-culture dense, but seriously, did these people even see the movie? (And these were positive reviews, too, in major American newspapers. Utterly perplexing.)

Back to my own thoughts. Whedon is a little like Kevin Smith in that he writes phenomenal scripts and is (supposedly) incredibly easy to get along with. I thought that the script for Serenity was just amazing. It's incredibly difficult to satisfy the two different audiences: those who have spent 13 hours with the characters and want more, and those who have no idea who these people are, what universe they inhabit, or why people carry six-shooters. The opening sequence (from the Universal logo until Serenity lands) is one of the most efficient pieces of film I've seen: it sets up the universe, the plot of the movie, the ship, and the main characters, all in a few minutes while, incredibly, telling a story instead of pure exposition. That was well done, and reminds me of how the Lord of the Rings folks accomplished the similarly impossible task of filming the prologue for Fellowship of the Ring.

One thing I noticed this time around was how Jayne, not Wash, has become the center of humor. Sure, Wash had some good lines ("Oh God Oh God we're all going to die?" and "Yeah, but remember the part where it's a trap?"), but Jayne got all the best ones ("Gee, sure would be nice to have some GRENADES right about now!", "Cutting on yourself. When does that get fun?" "I only kill if it's a fair fight. Or the other guy's going to start a fair fight. Or if I'm getting paid. Or if there's a woman..." "Do you want to be Captain?/Yes!" etc. etc.) By the end it's pretty clear why this shift happened, but it still feels odd to me. Jayne was always a dangerous character in the series, certainly comic at times, but he was someone you had to keep an eye on and who often seemed more likely to hurt the crew than the actual villain. His arc was one of my favorites in the show, and I guess it's natural for him to have changed like that. Still, it makes me a little sad even when I'm laughing.

Having a space fight was a lot of fun. Since Serenity doesn't carry any guns (usually) it hasn't felt like a cop-out to have avoided it until now, but that whole sequence was just really enjoyable. It's also great to see what the Alliance boats look like in action; usually they're just ominously floating, and occasionally chasing someone.

I'm kind of surprised more people haven't written about this, but there are too many similarities between the Operative and Jubal Early for it to be a coincidence. To me, it feels like two very different people who both have the same one-sentence summary: "Deadly black hunter with a mysterious past who pursues River Tam." And yet, the Operative is utterly fascinating as a person, with his deep belief and utter devotion to the eradication of sin. Jubal Early, in contrast, was mostly interesting in the abstract, almost more of a primal force than a character. If you haven't already listened to Whedon's commentary track on "Objects in Space," it's very illuminating.

Perhaps the best thing this movie will have done, long-term, is establish the Firefly universe. I keep using that word, sorry if it bothers you... I think of "universe" as being the stage in which a work of fiction takes place. So by "universe" I don't mean all the stars and stuff, I mean where the action takes place together with the culture, the people, and the rules. Anyways... one of the most distressing things for me with the Matrix sequels was not just that they weren't very good movies, it was that the universe got very complicated and constricted; it became less fun to imagine other stories taking place in there (although, oddly, the Animatrix had the opposite effect). With the movie, the universe feels like it's in place. Not just because they finally explain how the planets and moons relate to one another (we now know that it's one solar system, so they probably aren't using faster-than-light travel), but there's also more information about the government (the vague "alliance" is now headed by a parliament), the economy and more. It feels more real. It now seems like if they wanted to they'd be able to launch a role-playing or video game set in the 'verse and have it still feel authentic.

One remarkable thing to me about the series is the great variety in tone between different episodes. Some, like "War Stories" and "Bushwhacked," are very dark and violent; others, like "Jaynestown" and "Shindig", have a lot of humor; still more, like "Ariel" and "The Train Job," feel like pure adventure. So, if there is a sequel, I'll be very curious in what direction the tone goes. I feel like after "Serenity" we may take a break and have something a little more loose the next time around.

People were pretty quiet leaving the theater. Nobody complained, but I understood how they felt; as fans, it's hard to stomach all the changes in the movie.

I found out yesterday that Serenity opened as the #2 movie, almost exactly meeting expectations. Like a lot of fans, I felt disappointed; I'd hoped that the combination of a hard-core (albeit tiny) fanbase and widespread critical acclaim (80% on Rotten Tomatoes) would propel this picture further. I guess there's some hope that word of mouth will help it out, but honestly, I don't think this will be the breakout people had hoped for.

Why didn't it do so well? The answers are all obvious: it's based on a failed TV series that, except for the pilot, didn't crack the Nielson 100. (Yes, this is largely Fox's fault, but it's still true.) It has no stars in it; Alan Tudyk is probably the most famous actor in there, which isn't saying much. It's hard to promote; Universal chose to promote it as a sci-fi picture, although it's different from what a lot of people would expect.

In the end, I have to wonder if Universal could have done a better job at promoting it. Their campaign in the final week was interesting but peculiar. They didn't explain the story, introduce the actors, or other conventional strategies; instead, they largely promoted it based on the "buzz" that it has received. Simply put, their message was "Lots of nerds love this movie. This Friday, find out why!" So, who knows. If they had opened at #1 I would be calling them brilliant right now. As it stands, I think there might have been a better strategy.

Still, when all is said and done Universal made a smart move in buying the movie. This is a fan base that will clean out the DVDs as soon as they come out, and the licensing options will be tempting as well (last week I saw Serenity action figures at the Metreon). I doubt there will be enough profit for our dream scenario, a bidding war to restart the TV series, but with luck we will get the Big Damn Trilogy made.

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