Serenity : revisited review – 11 out of 9 stars

The Avengers comes out on Friday. Rather than revisit all the superhero flicks that led up to it, I thought it’d be more fun to revisit the only other film Joss Whedon has made thus far. I mean, Serenity juggles an ensemble, and offers action sequences and epic visuals … sooo… why not prepare to measure it against Avengers? See if Whedon has notably grown as a filmmaker?

(I know serenity had a small budget. I’m sure it’s a little unfair. but, whatever. it’s fun).

I say 11 out of 9, because I loved the movie even more (than a 10 out of 10), but also noticed some new shortcomings (it’s more of 9 point scale movie than a 10 point scale. maybe). Also, I’m trying too hard to be tricksy.

The other reason to re-review this movie is: I’ve had a lot of fun in the past few months reading high brow dissection(s) of Whedon’s oeuvre. And watching interviews, Q&A sessions, and speeches he’s given. Also spent some time trying to understand what the hell a Humanist is. and an Existentialist. and Sartre’s specific flavor of existentialism as a humanism (which Whedon most likely is most influenced by, since he’s mentioned Sartre many times as an influence).

DIGRESSION: (might want to skip this section, actually…)

I must admit that I don’t understand Sartre. I’ve read a few Wikipedia summaries of his thoughts/words, and they made zero fucking sense. (specifically, my mind shut down when someone claimed Sartre defines “despair” as the “optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible.” well, that is technically hope.? Which I would define as the opposite of despair… so … what the fuck? Either Sartre was a smarmy punk rock asshole trying to confuse people, or he’s just being badly explained/translated on Wikipedia.). I read half of his Nausea book and decided I’d … come back to it when I wasn’t in such a good mood.
like maybe in 30 years when my physical and mental suffering is so horrible that I’m praying for a clean death. maybe then. MAYBE.

anywho. Whedon’s acceptance speech (and followup Q&A) for Harvard’s Humanist award was amazing (even though it’s 90 minutes long and not well shot/edited). I think it should be required viewing for any Whedonite who wants to obsesses over the philosophy behind his works. (short summary here)

+ I really enjoyed reading a recent re-telling of his “How I became an existentialist by watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind Special Edition” more than seeing him talk about it live. Something about that whole rant really opened my eyes to taking Existentialism seriously. The idea that the movie is training wheels for the revelatory experience of Existentialism. Which is to say: that reality just happens to you, and you have to assign meaning to each baffling encounter afterwards. And at some point this process may escalate from something trivial into something very important. At at this point, you’ll find yourself drifting away from people (your support network) who refuse to follow you on your journey. I’m not sure to make of the ending of the movie, where he transcends his connection to other human beings? hmm. seems like there are dark messages there… hmm.

+ I had my big radical feminism eye-opening experience a few years ago. So I think of Whedon’s famous Equality Now speech as interesting, but not the best entrance to your first considerations of the varied Feminism ideologies.

Overall, each of these pieces has added up to making me a true believer in what Whedon is doing. he’s offering Populist entertainment (it all seems dumbed down on the surface, in a way any person can easily enjoy gobbling it down). But unlike all the other easy to enjoy drek, his genre work has real meat to sink your teeth into beneath it.

+ For example: the final scene in Cabin the Woods is easy to dismiss after the roller coaster ride of the gore and action. but, i think all that dialogue for those last five minutes is very careful to consistently explore some real issues. It seems like a direct reaction to the much loved Spock speech at the end of Star Trek 2: the wrath of khan.

Contrast this with the villain’s big speech at the end of The Raven (2012, a film experiment which I loathed). This movie hits you over the head with maybe-deep thoughts about the relationship between fans and artists, and how artistic works influence society. but i it all felt like bullshit trying to confuse the viewer. like technobabble, for philosophy. philobabble? I’m not sure if there was some spark of interesting thought swimming around in there (maybe there was!), but i don’t feel like pursuing it. I don’t want to watch that movie again to find out. I don’t trust those writers to be genuine. At least, not like i trust everything Whedon has offered up to be worthy of further thought.


ANYWHO

new SERENITY thoughts:
I think I’ve rambled in the past (in this blog)(?) about all the ways Serenity is a huge dis to the Star Wars Prequels (or a loveletter to the original star wars? a sort of fan fic?). I mean… How the Operative (character) is a jedi (with his elegant sword from better times), mindlessly defending a corrupt empire (Vader). How the movie climaxes with Han Solo beating a jedi nearly to death (so awesome). how princess leia (River) has been driven mad by the death of an entire planet. Obi Wan Book is the retired Jedi, getting back in touch with what really matters (by getting away from the fight). blah blah. Those are the old thoughts.

What struck me about Serenity this time was something deeper.

At its core, the movie is about belief. Specifically, it offers 3 distinct versions of belief, through the eyes and actions of 3 distinct characters.

1) It begins with Captain Mal believing in nothing, even though he’s defending his small surrogate family of friends. But it becomes clear that his lack of belief just isn’t working out for him (this is exemplified by his choice to reject the villager who begs for help during their heist).

2) His preacher buddy (Shepherd Book) believes in god, and manages a small town full of maybe a hundred people.

3) And the villian believes in currently dominant society, and is watching out for the needs of an unknown number of political figures we never even meet (or maybe he’s watching out for the whole human race…?).

So.
In the middle of the movie, when Book is toast (his belief system having failed him? The thought that it isn’t right, having crossed his mind?) – his dying wish is that Mal start to believe in River, the insane little girl he’s been waffling over guarding or dumping.

And so Mal goes for it, to scary lengths. I think this is the key turning point of the whole story.
Mal chooses to believe in one person. He’s jumped into the belief game.

And how do these three different approaches to belief work out for everyone?
– Book, and his town, all die. their belief in god didn’t do anything to save them.
– the operative loses the good fight, in the end. and his belief in society is totally shaken/destroyed. (I think it’s even heavily implied that he will likely turn into a new version of Book. a new convert to religion, trying to sort out his belief system – while hiding out on some ship under a new name). His society, the entire universe, is also notably shaken and changed, by the release of the recording from Miranda.
– But mal wins the day! In the end, it is his unique approach to belief that works out best. (partially because he’s the hero and we love him). His group, his family of friends, is the most intact of any of them. (well, two of them died. Whedon is big on reminding us that nothing good comes easy). His group is still hanging together, and Mal is free to go on living his life on his terms.

This reading of the movie seems much more clear to me now. meh? (Disagree with these thoughts? lemme know below.)

* also. some critcisms/asides about the movie. just to be a jerk.

Regarding the ACTION SCENES:
I noticed the movie didn’t do a great job of capitalizing on it’s action sequences (too many cuts during river’s big gang fight sequences. I like Mal’s fight scenes, because he really looks like they beat the shit out of him. but I think River didn’t come off half as awesome as she was intended. As she could have come across, if those scenes were shot and edited differently. not sure if it’s purely editing.? maybe the actress didn’t pull it off, so they had to cut around it? maybe the didn’t have the budget to cover it as much as they would have liked? i dunno. but I’d bet part of the fault lies on Whedon’s direction. he’s often claimed he hates writing fight scenes. And likes to shoot things as quickly as possible.

I still love the movie. my point is just: I’ll be very interested to see how well The Avengers delivers on it’s action.

Plus, Whedon recently mentioned studying James Cameron’s approach to action scenes. How Cameron’s action presents a clear goal, and the audience can follow each characters attempt to reach that action goal. Which sounds very exciting! Maybe Whedon will deliver great action sequences!… it’s exciting until I realized he might have already known/studied all this before he shot Serenity.

hmm.

Visual Scope
I think Serenity slightly drops the ball visually, in the ways of “conveying scope.” The fx are mostly competent (except maybe for one shot where we zoom in on the companion’s temple? For some reason that shot stuck out as unacceptable).

The problem is that the film doesn’t present the scope of the situation very well in certain scenes. It feels like the most of the movie was shot on small sets. And the rest was shot in sparse undecorated outdoor areas.
This is probably just… true. and due to a small budget. but, I think it’s a valid complaint about the movie which I have been overlooking.

When they setup for their last stand, we never see the outside of that area. We never see a swarm of Reavers climbing over everything, or all over the walls of their chosen choke point. Instead we see a handful of actors running onto their set, repeatedly, and falling over and dying. Whatever. Mal and Jayne toss some grenades down a hallway before the fight, and we get a small flash. Meh. That scene really stands out to me as not reaching its full potential due to the lack of scope. Why do they think they aren’t going to make it? Have they seen something we can’t see?

Also, much earlier in the film they stop in a blade runner town (to dump River and Simon). This sequence starts with a stiff dolly shot of the shithole city, before and after Serenity’s ramp drops. the details within the shot are pretty well done. detailed and colorful and cool. but it’s very clearly a set extension. The camera move fails. And ultimately I don’t buy it as a city. It struck me last night that this short moment is well lit and designed -and was probably meant to evoke a cool Blade Runner-esque environment. But failed to convey the scope that Blade Runner drops every 30 seconds. hmm. and then we cut to inside a bar that is kind of like the Star Wars cantina, and kind of more like a cheesy star trek set. hmmf. shrug. Did they not notice? hmmf.

It almost had that one FUCKING STORM CUM LINE.
Just wanted to note that the final scene of the movie almost drops the worst cliche line in movie history. the one line that dozens of writers thought would perfectly sum up some shit. the line is “A Storm is coming.” I hate this line more than anything. Everytime it pops up, i want to punch the tv. I think it did pop up on Angel years ago. I noted it recently at the end of Sherlock Holmes. It’s in the just released trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. ugh. UGH! fuck that line.

anywho. Whedon didn’t use this line. good. but the final interaction of the movie is something like “storm’s getting worse” “we’ll pass through it soon enough”. this isn’t a criticism so much as a detail that I keep chewing over. wondering at the intent. Probably trying to play the “storm is coming” card without actually going there. hmmf. hmm. blah blah

anywho. these aren’t real complaints.
Just writing some criticisms down so i can obsessively revisit them after viewing The Avengers. All done out of love. (obsession?)

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