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Movie Review: Serenity: The Film, The Fans, The Politics & A Few Other Thoughts

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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.

The Film

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.

The Fans

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.

The Politics

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!

[Cross-posted from Tama Leaver’s blog Ponderance.]
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About Tama

  • ss

    Nice review.
    I’d never seen the show, and didn’t realize it’s connection with the (then)upcoming movie, until I read about here. I read about the Buffy connection, and almost passed.
    I happened to notice a repeat playing on the SciFi Channel, I watched and I was hooked.
    The SF’s a little weak, but it more than makes up for that by having everything Star Wars and Star Trek have always been sorely lacking in.
    It’s a shame more people haven’t seen it, but I plan to buy the movie and the series on DVD.

  • http://www.nypinta.blogspot.com Hallie

    I loved the music. I don’t usually pay attention to that sort of thing, but the music really fit with each scene.

  • http://www.whedonworld.com nmcil

    Ditto on the Nice Review – especially your comments regarding the connections on the current political dynamics and the past as well. I have seen the film, like all films, it did have a some flaws, but very very few of them. The acting, especially Mr. Fillon and Ms. Torres and the wonderful script more than offset the very few things I did find fault with.

  • http://www.whedonworld.com nmcil

    Ditto on the Nice Review – especially your comments regarding the connections on the current political dynamics and the past as well. I have seen the film, like all films, it did have a some flaws, but very very few of them. The acting, especially Mr. Fillon and Ms. Torres and the wonderful script more than offset the very few things I did find fault with.

  • macsgian

    good review, though i think you missed the politics. the series, and the film, set a libertarian crew in the midst of a socialist world. think about it…who advocates for internationalism? conservatives? libertarians? no…socialists and liberals do. what did the Alliance accomplish? an Anglo-Sino (international) socialist government. if you think socialism and a big government is dandy, your with the Alliance my friend, not the Browncoats.

  • Maxskyfan

    This was a fine review, except for the political analysis. Stars Wars metaphors have been used to mock both extremes. You are making negative comparisons about conservative today, but someone else would be just as likely to have the negative comparison featuring John Kerry instead of George Bush if history had been changed. I was reading the synopsis of a Star Wars that describes the events before Episode I. The back cover read:

    One man’s fall from power
    could lead to the end of the
    Republic, and the irreversible
    rise of the dark side…

    Conservatives have used the phrase “Evil Empire” to attack Russia and Democrats. These kinds of remarks and comparisons are explanation points, not sound rationale.

    Serenity as been defined as a western in space and the TV show had a country music theme song. And the captain was a businessman working in the backwaters of space. That sounds very Red State to me.

  • http://ponderance.blogspot.com/ Tama

    macsgian & Maxskyfan, a couple of things: firstly, you seen to be equating communism with socialism, which seems fair, but communism quickly mutated into something quite different from socialist ideals (so, the Alliance might resemble the USSR as it existed, but that’s not the same as arguing against socialism per se).

    Rather, I’d suggest Serenity does embrace personal freedoms as sacred; many governmental structures across many centuries have oppressed personal freedoms, and that, to my mind, is what Serenity argues against on a political level. Today, that is arguing against Conservative governments who are restricting freedoms under the umbrella of fighting terrorism … yesterday and tomorrow the government making similar demands may be different. It’s the fight that matters …

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