Deep Space

Salt Lake City Weekly | September 23, 2005
Damn you, Joss Whedon! Damn you and your honesty and integrity and unwillingness to succumb to Hollywood bull and …

You have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’re in the cult of the doomed TV series Firefly. And I honestly have no clue whether Serenity will make any sense or hold any appeal to those who haven’t worshipped those precious few 14 episodes. I went into the film feeling like the crew of the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity were people I know and love, and I left the theater so utterly shattered that I still can’t think straight. I don’t know what it would feel like to come fresh to Serenity. It’s beyond the realm of my ability to be objective.

Because this is total-immersion science fiction. Creator/writer/director/god Joss Whedon throws you in the deep end of the pool, and you either just can’t deal with it and sink, or you’re thrilled to find something so smart and ready to believe that the audience doesn’t need its hand held, so you swim through it like it’s an alternate aspect of your own reality.

And it’s not like Whedon merely gives us a sweeping, complex vision of a human future without explaining too much of it and then drops a conventional story in front of it. No: We are hip-deep in tapestries of political machinations and an English dialogue jammed with untranslated Chinese slang. Confidential to fans: We learn much about what the Alliance was doing to the mysterious River (Summer Glau), and why. Oh, and: Reavers!

But the one thing that isn’t different--and this is what makes Whedon so brilliant--is that his future doesn’t require that human nature change. Firefly is the anti-Star Trek. The universe here ain’t a place where money has been eliminated and people are just plain nice to one another. A salient point of Whedon’s story is that a "world without sin" is not within us, and disaster lies in the attempt to find it.

That kind of harsh, gritty, cynical realism may well be the thing that draws in a certain select new audience--and it will absolutely thrill fans of the TV series. Many of us were desperately worried that the moral complications and spectacularly unclichéd structure of Whedon’s tales would get flattened out by the steamroller of Hollywood monotony. Our "hero," for instance, is Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, who could be a huge star if he wanted to be). He’s a pirate and scoundrel who owns Serenity and uses it to generally misbehave, robbing from the rich and comfortable and tweaking the noses of the ruling Alliance whenever possible.

But Mal’s no Hollywood hero. He does things--expeditious things, pragmatic things--that are shocking, things that you might grudgingly acknowledge as necessary in "real life" but that are rarely allowed to pass in the realm of escapist adventure that Firefly and Serenity fall into.

Whedon, however, has out-Fireflyed himself. As if he knew we feared he would let himself be watered down, he went in the opposite direction and ramped up the unconventionality. He has taken a series that was too uncompromising for TV and turned it into a movie that so defies expectations that even religiously devoted fans--who worship him precisely for his revolt against the predictable and the ordinary--may find it too devastating. When Very Bad Things happen here, those fans may find themselves at war, half wishing that Whedon is only fooling with us and it’ll all end up being a dream or a virtual reality, anything that allows these bad things not to be true, but knowing that we’d hate Whedon for giving in like that.

And he doesn’t. “Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn,” as Mal might say in celebration and awe, he doesn’t. The most stunning thing about Serenity may be that Whedon was allowed to make this film in this way.



Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Summer Glau.

Directed by Joss Whedon

Rated PG-13.

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