Monday 30 January 2012

A closer look at Serenity -- Why didn't it save Firefly?

After the Fox TV network lost faith in the show they'd ordered and coldly watched it die, both fans and the cast and crew of Firefly were heartbroken, but the good vibes surrounding the show were strong enough for the almost-impossible to happen: A major feature film was made.

Serenity was creator Joss Whedon's vision, pure and unfiltered (for the most part), without any of the meddling executives. Unlike Fox, Universal actually wanted to see more Firefly.

The feature film version (named, for legal reasons, Serenity after the central ship), was an opportunity for everyone who believed in the show to prove the world (and especially Fox), that it shouldn't have been cancelled, that its universe did hold widespread appeal. Fans on both sides of the camera hoped that this could be the new Star Wars. Some wryly speculated that its success might even spawn a TV spin-off...

Except none of that happened.

Despite garnering critical praise and winning numerous awards, Serenity was a flop at the cinema, and, although DVD sales helped put the movie into the black, they weren't high enough to create interest in a sequel.

Initially there were some grumbles about how the film had been marketed, but after all this time, was that the only reason it failed to set the world alight? Were there flaws within the film itself?

After recently working my through all 14 episodes of the Firefly TV series, and falling in love with it all over again, I viewed the film with fresh eyes, made a few notes... and came to the conclusion that, yes, I think there may have been a few issues with the movie itself.

Note: This isn't a "review" of Serenity, it's a critical look at what I see as its major faults, with a specific focus on how someone new to the Firefly universe might perceive them (it was them who needed to be won over, after all). And while the film did successfully convert me to a Firefly (and Joss Whedon) fan, it never managed to cross-over to a larger market, and I wanted to know why.

Here's what I see as the film's undeniable problems...

Best. Opening. Ever.

Ok, so this is the opposite of a problem, but watching the film again for this piece, it struck me how Serenity has just about the best opening 10 minutes of any sc-fi film ever. It's smart, gripping, exciting, it's near perfect. After it's finished, the title appears, and a wonderful, lifting score kicks in. It's goosebump city.

A portion of the audience has already decided that this film is utterly amazing (I was in that portion). Just as you think it can't get any better, a chunk of metal flies off the spaceship, and with a quick cut, before we can even laugh, we see the Captain turn to his pilot. "What was that?" And so begins the story proper. And so, unfortunately, do the problems.

We're introduced to our protagonists, the crew of Serenity, through a long scene without any cuts. According to writer/director Whedon, this was done to try and give the audience a sense that they were on "solid ground" after all that jumping around in time and space. In other words, this ship just got real. (Sorry.)

I love continuous takes as much as the next continuous takes fan, but there's a time and place for them, and this one doesn't really work for a number of reasons. For a start, it didn't make me feel on "solid ground". It's actually very frantic, we're pummelled with lots of information, and lots of camera movements. That could be fine by itself, but definitely doesn't do what Whedon hoped it would.

There's a bigger problem as a result of this shooting choice, however, and that's the fact that we don't get all the information we need. Dramatic moments do not have much available film language with which to give them any weight. You can't cut to someone's reaction, for example, you can only swing the camera around as fast as you can. With film, the camera should be part-narrator, helping to tell the same story the actors are.

Using long takes seems to work best when you're in a scene where you know who everyone is, and what the stakes are going in (see Crimes and Misdemeanors), but it definitely works against you when you're trying to impart lots of information. You can't easily inform the audience about what's important, and what's non-essential (but amusing) chit chat, and it's possibly because of these limitations that the Simon and Mal confrontation doesn't work as well as it should. It's a great moment on paper, but it doesn't work for someone new to the characters because the film language doesn't give any indication of its importance.

Also, rather unfortunately, the ADR work on the scene (where actors dubbing their lines in a studio afterwards to hide the clomping the camera crew in the background) was very poorly done, making us feel even less "connected" to what's happening. (The opposite of what Joss said he wanted.)

And unfortunately the problems are just the beginning for the newbies...

The Chase Sequence

Our first major force of conflict appears, they are known as "Reavers". We don't know anything about them, but in order for them to be a legitimate threat the audience has to believe one thing: The Reavers are a very real and very terrifying danger. Even if you're a group of fully-armed war-vets and mercenaries, it's pant-wetting time. The audience needs to believe this for not only the chase sequence to work, but also for the story to work as a whole. After they've been introduced, the idea of meeting one again should haunt the audience.

Whedon attempts to sell this necessary fear in a simple (and you might say, classic) way: If all the characters are scared at the mere mention of Reavers, then not only must they be something worth being scared of, but it's left up to the audience to decide exactly why.

This can be a very effective trick, as I'm sure we all know. A viewer's imagination can tailor a movie monster's menacing qualities to their own idiosyncratic fears, in theory creating a scarier threat for themselves. All it takes is a sense of creeping danger to get audiences' creative fear-juices flowing...

Unfortunately, when the Reavers appear, the viewer is completely in a comfort zone: A bank-heist that's actually going well, and is highly amusing to boot. There's no real sense of threat, and no reason to believe the characters can't handle anything the universe throws their way. It's even broad daylight, in a populated area. There's nothing to help germinate a sense of fear in the audience (although I think Whedon was hoping the jump from funny to fearful would be unsettling).

Outwardly there's even less to fear: Our heroes carry guns, while the Reavers are apparently too feral for that. We're never actually shown how ineffective four people with guns could be against a horde of Reavers. Hell, we never even see a horde of Reavers, we only really see about three, but surely guns could take them out?

We also don't actually know how tough our characters are. If we'd already seen them kick ass against a terrifying foe, but then act afraid of Reavers, we may be able to gauge that this new enemy was a very serious threat (this is how they were introduced in the series). But we don't. Our protagonists have only tackled a group of country-bumpkins, and since they've just committed a crime, it's natural to think that they'd like to leave ASAP anyway, Reavers or no Reavers.

This lack of terror hurts the movie immediately, and is felt so strongly that, when we see a townsman run towards our gang, begging to be taken with them, my immediate thought was not, "He wants to get away from the Reavers", it was, "Poor guy, stuck on this backwoods world, wants to go on space adventures with some space bandits". (I did get what Whedon wanted me to get, just not immediately.)

And the damage continues: In the ensuing chase sequence, our heroes are escaping from... what? A bunch of stunt men in make-up? A ship covered in red paint? It's hard to feel emotionally involved because we have no reason to feel our protagonists are in any real danger. Also, it's not very well directed, sad to say. (Joss Whedon is apparently very aware of d├ębut directorial short-comings on the film's Blu-ray, admitting he'd completely re-shoot the whole scene if he could.)

The chase's climax is also falls limp; Our hearts should already be pounding when a final bit of flaming debris nearly slices Mal in two (this "second shock" trick worked brilliantly in Die Hard), but not only is our heart beating calmly, but the debris looks far too flimsy as it bounces along the deck. It's a huge shame, as the script is tight and the story beats are good.

We're then back on Serenity, with the crew and their ill-gotten gains, and we've learned a lot about the characters and their relationship to one another, that's good. (Watchers of the original series will have note that Mal has returned to his infinitely more interesting "hardened" self from the original pilot.)

Unfortunately there's one more problem...

The Bar Fight

In a bar, that classic Western/sci-fi staple, we learn that the successful bank-heist has turned somewhat sour. Mal is being forced to give up 15% of his crew's earnings, but in an odd editing choice, we're not allowed to hear the justification as to why. A few words from his shady employers explaining that they're taking the extra percentage simply because they can, would have been all that was needed, and indeed this dialogue was filmed, but it was cut (presumably in order to try and make the viewer focus more on River -- a controversial choice).

So we're left wondering what's going on, why the one plot thread they've been introduced to has been yanked out of earshot, when River suddenly gets "activated". The inevitable bar fight ensues.

Although Summer Glau's flexible fighting skills are incredible, the brawl itself doesn't emotionally engage with the audience because there's no context: Why are the people in the bar fighting with her? If they're under threat, why aren't people trying to escape?

When Luke Skywalker had his scuffle with the ugly man with the death mark on three systems, the rest of the bar acted in a way we could understand: Avoid a fight, hope it will go away on its own. In Serenity it becomes a Wrestlemania cage fight for no apparent reason.

I'm fairly certain that the idea was supposed to be that a dispassionate and indiscriminate killing machine had just been released into a public space, but once again there's not a sense of immediate danger because the exit appears to be available to everyone in the bar, and hardly anyone is shown making a break for it. If these people want to stay and fight and get their asses kicked, then you can't help but feel that's their problem. Sure, some people try and leave, but the set design and direction never makes us feel as though River is holding people these people against their will: A lot of them seem to be attacking her.

What are we supposed to be feeling here? Are we supposed to feel bad for the patrons as River is taking them down? (Are they all thugs? Are they normal tax payers looking for a quiet night out? Do they want to escape? If they want to fight, why do they want to fight? Out if pride? Out of ego? Out of a desire to prove how manly they are? Out of self-defence? For the enjoyment of a battle? To see if they could best her? We don't know.)

Compare this again with the cantina in Star Wars. That venue had a vibe. You expected trouble there. You felt like you knew the patrons, that they weren't faceless nobodies. You could probably can imagine how they would react in this situation. Can anyone say the same about the patrons of the Serenity bar? Were they hard-working, innocent miners looking for a drink after a long day drilling? Were they all smugglers and bandits making shady deals? Were they deadly mercenaries? We don't know: They were just more stuntmen in generic costumes.

This confusion about who is attacking who and why is a shame because it hurts the final shot of the fight; Mal slowly putting down his weapon, his heart racing. This would have worked much better if it we'd felt he was in danger against his will. Instead we're wondering why this cold, selfish man didn't run out the bar's open exit. (Although it's possible he was trying to protect the patrons of the bar, it doesn't seem to be in keeping with his character -- although maybe I'm wrong there.) This problem isn't as bad as the audience not fearing the Reavers, but it also wasn't as engaging directed as it was written, and so another opportunity to engage the audience was lost.

Either way, the audience should have had two big jolts of adrenaline at this point in the movie. They should also be secretly hoping that the Reavers aren't going to come back.

If they'd had those things, I think the film would have been largely fine at this point. Everything would have been set up so the subsequent story turns would have had all the weight and resonance they needed.

Well, apart from one other minor hiccup before we reach the end: Shepherd Book.

Everyone unfamiliar with Firefly had no idea who the hell he was, and it felt like we should have (I was one of them). The scene with Mal and Book was pointless and weird, and didn't help explain who this man was or why the crew were there. Or what his relationship with them was. But hey, that's pretty minor compared to these other problems.

(Note: Shepherd Book was originally on Serenity throughout the film, and it was another unknown character they sought refuge with. When Whedon was forced to write Book out of the story, it made sense to switch the characters -- the crew did have a relationship with him, after all. At least for fans of the show -- those new to the party were wondering why such weight was given to his scenes.)

The Ending

Ok, I lied. There is actually one final big problem: The triumph of the protagonists is not something we, the audience, can easily relate to. Consider, once again, the final battle in Star Wars or The Matrix. When our heroes win, we feel their victory, we feel their triumph. In Serenity, their (most obvious) successes are felt by unknown people across the universe. People we don't care about. Our heroes survive, but they also suffered serious losses, and this "down" feeling is what we're left with. Yes, I believe that more people felt and related to Zoe's pain, than Mal or River's salvation.

You big whiner! So you're saying Serenity failed as a movie?

Absolutely not, at least not for fans of the series. Upon watching it an additional time for this blog post (to make sure I wasn't totally wrong about the problems I'd identified), I noticed that it actually works as a perfect ending for the series itself.

For the first time I saw really Mal's story. And not Mal's story from the beginning of the film, but his story from the beginning of the series. In the very first scene of the series, we watch Mal lose all faith as he has everything he believes in taken away from him. In the final scene of the film, we see man restored, optimistic about the future, with something to believe in again. (And, aptly enough, the first episode of the show shares the title of the movie.)

This layer means that the passengers we watched Mal take onboard at the beginning of the series, Simon, River, and Book, actually held the key to his own personal salvation. This character arc is in the film, but Whedon buried it deep.

If you missed it, consider Shepherd Book's dying words. A man of faith talking to a man without any: "I don't care what you believe. Just believe it."

Likewise, thanks to River, Mal discovers a truth that leads to him finally seeing something bigger than himself (self-obsession is usually the cause of nihilism). By the end of the film he's a whole person again, his heart no longer dead.

In the process of re-developing his own belief system he shatters that of his nemesis, The Operative, who is the ultimate nihilist. (His final words, after Mal tells him he'd better not see him again, "You won't. There is nothing left to see.")

River also finds her salvation through Serenity, finally finding peace at the end of the film thanks, not just to the love of her brother, and the family she's found on the ship, but to Mal for helping her excise her demons (in the original script it's made clear that a large part of her mental problems stem from the horrible truth about Miranda).

Serenity is Mal's and River's story, of how they saved each other, and if there's ever a sequel, we'll be seeing a different side to them than we've ever seen before. (Note: There's never going to be a sequel.)

In this way, it's actually an utterly fantastic and rewarding script. But we knew the problem was never going to be on the page, didn't we?


Unfortunately it took me five watches to see Mal's journey. As a first-time viewer I wasn't left with a sense of joy, or even success, it was pain and loss. Hell, it wasn't even bittersweet. Our losses as a viewer were too great, and the gains too small, too hidden. Joss cut us too deeply to notice the salve he tried to apply. And yes, Wash's death is a big part of that.

(Interestingly, Whedon justifies his decision to kill Wash on the Serenity Blu-ray commentary, making the point that if the audience is upset, it means he did the right thing. The obvious response to that is: Dear Joss, if you killed off Willow, you would probably have to go into hiding. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do -- it just means you made us care. Signed, Everyone.)

Wouldn't you have just loved the movie even more if Wash and Book survived? I know I would have. And indeed that's exactly what happened in Whedon's original 190 page "kitchen sink" version of the script (available online, Firefly fans!). And don't forget that Whedon revealed that he had every intention of resurrecting both characters if there was a sequel. (There won't be a sequel.)

That original script also featured this wonderful piece of dialogue between Zoe and Simon, that really helps the audience become aware that Mal's spiritual salvation is an important part of the story:

You were in that same war. But
you live almost like a person
might; you have an actual
relationship — a marriage. You
didn't turn into some... Gorgon...

I'm career Army, my whole family
is. I was already in when the war
started. Mal volunteered. He
joined the fight because he
believed. He believed his planet
should be left alone. Believed we
would win if we gave our hearts to
it, that his generals wouldn't lay
down arms while his men were still
dying around him... that God would
help us in our darkest place.

She cinches a knot tight, moves to the next body.

See, that's the difference between
Mal and me. All I ever lost was a war.

So, when all is said and done, we finally have a complete understanding as to why we won't be seeing any more Firefly: Because the executives at Fox sold us all down the river.

The end.