Serenity: space opera done right

The Thinker by Rodin

This is probably anathema to the legions of Star Wars fans out there, but wasn’t there something missing from the movies? If you are of a certain age, it is hard to see the Star Wars movies (at least the first three movies) with an uncritical eye. Undeniably they were exciting movies with lavish special effects, memorable characters, cute (or annoying, depending on your perspective) robots and a satisfying conclusion. (Good won over evil, or at least was staged to make a comeback.)

I pose a similar question to the legions of Star Trek fans out there too. Certain “generations” of the show were better than others. Which ones were better depends on your perspective. However, there was something missing from all of the series. You accepted some of the absurd premises and the reused plots. Again, it was a neat (and hopeful) premise but it did not quite feel right. Attempts to turn the shows into movies were hit and miss. When they succeeded, they did so largely because we were already comfortable with the characters, which we had seen on many TV episodes.

Space operas have similar plot lines that require suspending disbelief. First, somehow humans have traversed the galaxy with amazing space ships, and have found an escape clause from the Einstein’s two theories of relativity. There is generally an us vs. them premise. There are often aliens. Artificial earth-like gravity is a given. Even in the middle of great space battles the gravity fields never seems to fluctuate. The vast enormities of space that actually exist between stars and planets collapse. Everything seems within shooting range and is at best a couple days away at Warp Nine. When phasers, photon torpedoes or their equivalent hit the spacecraft, sparks fly from instrument panels. Generally, the spacecraft pulls through and the good guys win. The formula has not changed too much since Buck Rogers.

We have all seen plenty of space operas in both the movies and on television. Indeed the SciFi Channel seems to have become largely the space opera channel. Success spanned a plethora of imitations, most of them mediocre. Some, like the Alien movies, seem part space opera and part genuine science fiction.

You will not be surprised to learn then that I noticed well, defects, in both the Star Trek and Star Wars movies, along with many of the shows that imitated them. Therefore, when a movie comes along that has the best of a space opera without the deficiencies then I sit up and take notice. Good news: Serenity is such a movie.

Serenity is a movie version of the Firefly TV show, which had about a dozen episodes before the SciFi Channel Fox Network unwisely canceled it in 2002. As I have largely given up television I never saw these shows. I clearly was missing something. (Since they are on DVD, I am now likely to own them.) The show is directed by Joss Whedon, the clever man who gave us seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a few of its spinoffs. Clearly, Whedon had an axe to grind with the SciFi Channel Fox for canceling his show. He sold Universal Studios on financing a full-length version of the Firefly universe. Back too is the original cast of the TV show.

Whedon is clearly a cut above the usual television director. The success of Buffy and its consistently fine directing, writing and acting proves the man has oodles of talent. (Whedon wrote and directed most of the Buffy TV shows.) Serenity will remove any doubts that exist that he can also direct for the big screen.

Fortunately, as my experience attests, you do not need to have seen the TV show to follow the movie. It moves briskly and is full of eye candy. Serenity is the name of a space ship piloted by “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of a half dozen or so. Serenity exists in another solar system. Most of the planets have been terraformed to make them habitable for humans. “The Alliance” consists of a number of planets that have formed some sort of government that appears utopian but chokes off creativity and individual expression. Supposedly, a war with rebel planets in the outer rings has been long won by The Alliance. Nevertheless, there are a few lawless outer planets out there where rebels can still be found. Mal and his crew pilot a rather ragged Millennium Falcon-like spacecraft. They spend most of their time doing unlawful things to survive, avoiding man-eating Reavers (berserk human cannibals) and agents from The Alliance. In the movie, The Alliance is especially anxious to bring Serenity down. Why? Because Serenity has onboard a young woman named River (Summer Glau), who can see the future, and who is desperately wanted by The Alliance.

The result is a taut, superbly directed, excellently acted and very engaging space opera. If it has faults, they are the ones you would expect of any space opera. For example, you have to suspend disbelief that the outer planets have a sun that is so darn bright. You also have to wonder why Serenity has to maneuver through a huge fleet of Reaver ships to reach another planet, instead of just going around them. Heck, anyone who knows much about celestial mechanics has to wonder why all these planets seem to stay in the same position relative to each other. So of course, you suspend disbelief. This is after all a space opera, and not something that purists would call genuine science fiction.

Anyhow, once you have thrown off this mental baggage and accepted its surreal aspects then gosh, what a terrific and engaging story! Like with most space operas some of the characters seem a tad on the shallow side, and Mal clearly is channeling Hans Solo. Nevertheless, they are not cardboard characters. Scratch them a little and you find depth missing from most space opera characters.

The result is a space opera classic. It has a lot of competition out there. However, from my perspective it is the sort of movie Star Wars should have been but was not. This movie deserves sequels. I hope it catches on with cinemagoers so we can have many more sequels. You can do your part by suspending your own disbelief and going to see the movie. If you are a space opera buff, this is probably the one for which you have long been waiting.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

One thought on “Serenity: space opera done right

  1. Just something to note – Firefly was not carried on the SciFi channel originally, and they did not kill it. Fox was the one airing the original series. They played the episodes out of order, and then killed it before all of them were aired.

    SciFi recently ran the Firefly series, but Fox still has the rights to it.

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