I guess I would describe Serenity as a sci-fi action drama about the price of freedom. Or, Citizen Kane with spaceships. I could go either way.
As an unabashed fan of pretty much everything Joss Whedon has written, it should come as no surprise that Serenity is probably my favourite film so far this year. By now pretty much every film critic and media outlet in the world has posted a review, so let me quote Australia’s top film critic David Stratton: “It’s like watching Star Wars almost back in 1977.” I can’t imagine more positive words than that. (Check out the Cinecast podcast for a similarly positive review … there may be one or two others out there as well!).
The core of Serenity is something many big budget feature films miss: solid characterisation, plotting and dialogue. Joss Whedon is, first and foremost, a story teller. He writes people, and writes them well. Sure, they all seem to be imbued with a tad more wit that your run of the mill individuals, but that makes for good dialogue. Serenity has heart; you care about the characters and they face real challenges with, well, very real (and lasting) consequences. While having seen the short-lived series Firefly may enhance the film, it certainly isn’t necessary and Joss does a great job of writing enough exposition to let the film stand alone, while not boring the fans. Each character has a story, and with such an ensemble cast it’s impressive that you care about every one (“I am a leaf on the wind…”). On the downside, this is also clearly the first feature film Joss has directed: it is shot more like a TV show, with lots of tighter and functional shots, with the odd wider shot here and there more indicative of budget than planning. That’s a small complaint, and didn’t really impact my viewing pleasure much (it does, however, seem to be the biggest criticism I’ve read elsewhere.) In a nutshell, though, this is a clever film, with real characters, real dialogue, dealing with actual issues (more on that below) and doing so in a heartfelt and frequently hilarious way.
Serenity is remarkable not just as a film, but for the fact that it got to be a film at all. The film is a prime example of Chris Anderson’s idea of the long tail, the idea that commerce online is not restricted to big hits, but recommendations and ever-present back-catalogue can re-invigorate cultural products long after their big media life-span; Serenity was commissioned in large part due to the very, very impressive sales of the Firefly DVDs, despite that series being cancelled after half a season which, combined with Joss Whedon’s impressive history and fan-following, led Universal to pick up the franchise as a feature film. Whedon and Universal also cleverly built on that following: rather than an expensive TV and cinema trailer campaign, Universal sank a lot of their marketing money into grassroots campaigns including the Browncoats recruiting campaign (complete with exclusive Browncoat merchandise for those who earned the most points promoting Serenity in their own right). Perhaps the most impressive promotional aspect from the production side was a series of five short-films distributed as viral media staggered over several weeks which showed River’s transformation at the hands of the military (and thus acted as an eerie prequel to both the film and the tv series). Actually the most impressive thing was the clever idea of having (paid) preview screenings months ahead of release for fans. The website You Can’t Stop the Signal at times showed details of preview screenings for fans across the US and UK, with similar events for fans in many other countries (including Australia … and yes, I was lucky enough to see Serenity in early August); shows tended to sell out within hours with no advertising at all (word of mouth is very loud online).
Of note, though, is that for everything Universal did, the fans did far more without prompting. Fan efforts ranged from the usual reviews, blog posts, photoshopped posters, images, trailer cut-ups and the like through to the newer forms. Of particular note is the podcast The Signal which makes the most of the podcasting format to bring together a dozen or so Firefly fans who have produced a digital show about the lead-up to the film’s release (and aims to total 16 hour+ length shows plus several specials by the end of October). The team behind The Signal have never all met in person and indeed the first meeting between a few cast members happened at the recent DragonCon. Digital communication technologies have allowed a disparate fan-base to come together online to achieve some amazing things: The Signal podcast is very detailed and has a strong support from the Serenity cast, more than half of whom have been interviewed on the show which also talks about the latest Serenity news, fan happening and even a guide to learning the Chinese language used in the Firefly ‘verse. The Signal has been at the top of many of the podcast best-of polls and lists.
A documentary is also being finished not about the making of the film, but rather the input and support of fans in terms of getting the film made; it’s called Done The Impossible: A Fan’s Tale of Firefly and Serenity. There are lots of other examples out there (such as the Waiting for Serenity short fan-film or the very funny (and adult-oriented) parody Mosquito), so it’s worth thinking about how fandom has embraced digital culture to become a considerable part of the promotion a fan-favoured film. Serenity exists because of both fans’ enthusiasm and their willingness to consume everything Firefly related.
With everyone from the New York Times to About.com comparing Serenity to Star Wars, one has to wonder what they’re on about given that Serenity‘s box office take has been less than stellar so far (although without a doubt it will make its money back and then kick straight into profit with DVD sales … perhaps enough to justify a sequel or two since Joss has already mentioned they’re in his head). The comparrison, to my mind, is more about the politics than the money. The original Star Wars trilogy was about rebellion in the face of imperial rule, but more basically about individual freedom and rights in the face of tyranny and terror. The atmosphere of terror and the unprecedented role of governments in policing and “securing” their citizenry (in the West and elsewhere) has led to a political climate where difference is far from respected. Governments are getting more and more power, and citizens are rapidly losing their rights (often with consent). The difference between being evil and being a little bit naughty is pretty much disappearing, with absolutes being powerfully re-deployed. Thus, a film that has its heroes boldly state, “I aim to misbehave”, the comparison with contemporary politics is easy to make. Indeed, the heroes of Serenity ultimately used the media to combat a seemingly monolithic and impenetrable government. The crew of Serenity are the bloggers, podcasters, citizen journalists and pirates of their day and speak loudly to those today who aren’t evil, just different to the conservative far right norm hailed and embraced by US and Australian governments. As the tagline states, The Future is Worth Fighting For, and Serenity offers a powerful metaphor for those struggling to maintain their rights and dignity in the face of a conservative right-wing political climate. That, I suggest, is Serenity‘s similarity to Star Wars, and a similarity well worth thinking about.
The Links (or some of them..)
The Ballad of Joss [Direct MP3] [Lyrics] [Via]
[Official Serenity Movie Website] [Official Australian Serenity Website] [Browncoats] [Whedonesque] [WhedonWiki] [The Signal, Serenity-dedicated Podcast] [Can't Stop The Signal] [Session 416]
And if you’re unsure whether Serenity is the film for you, go and watch the first nine minutes of Serenity for free at iFilm. I suspect the film’s opening will win most of you over!