Sunday, October 28, 2012

Nitpickery: Serenity Movie Review

Hey y'all.  It's about time I actually posted my nitpicky review of the Firefly series movie, Serenity.  For years, before I'd seen hide or hair of Firefly, I'd see the Serenity poster and wonder if it was a good movie.  It appeared really sci fi and cool, other than the chick with the stereotypical movie poster glare on the front.  I kept telling myself that I'd see it eventually, but never did.  Sort of like the Animorphs books.

But eventually I did see it, primarily due to my ex-boyfriend and his man-crush on Nathan Fillion.  And I was disappointed.  Of course, it's easy for me to be disappointed because I nitpick and enjoy it, but honestly, all I expected was an adequate sci-fi story.  Something with a plot and actors that were decent or at least bad in a funny way.  Basically just a regular sci-fi that you might see on TV.  For some reason, none of the characters in Serenity felt very science fiction.  It felt...forced.  But since that's an intuitive observation and can't really be logically explained, let's go into what can be logically explained.

The last episode of Firefly.

Now, most of you know that since Firefly was cancelled after only one season, and that because of this they couldn't finish the plot and was forced to do so in a single movie.  I'll give the production crew some credit: they didn't try to pull a Lord of the Rings and make a four hour long monstrosity.  Granted, at the time this probably wouldn't have flown, but they can still have points for it.

But back to the last episode of Firefly.  I wanted to rant long and hard about this episode, but my last Firefly nitpickery was just too long.  Thankfully for me, and not the viewing audience, this episode is the literary equal of the Serenity movie.  Seriously.  Same plot and everything.  Allow me to prove it.

In the series finale, Objects in Space, psychic girl River sets the scene by having a dementia attack and attempting to stab Jayne, and the rest of the crew wants to kick her off the ship.  However, during the night, a demented black mercenary sneaks his way into the Serenity and threatens to kill/rape/maim anyone who keeps him from taking River back to the Alliance and their shadowy stereotype laboratories.  River almost single-handedly saves the crew and then they all realize she's necessary.

In the movie Serenity, psychic girl River has a dementia attack and destroys a bar, beating up Jayne in the process.  The crew wants to get rid of River, but they can't because a demented black Alliance thug shows up and threatens to kill/main anyone who keeps him from taking River back to the Alliance and their shadowy stereotype laboratories.  The crew ends up surrounded by a bunch of reavers, and once River gets her head into gear and almost single-handedly saves most of the crew, and they all see how necessary she is.

Now, true, the movie did add extra stuff, because it had to take down the Alliance and explain the reavers, which naturally they could not do during the show.  I'll get to that later, but the point is there are way too many similarities between the two.

First off, two demented black guys?  I realize that the one in the movie was just "idealist" rather than a completely demented mofo, but speaking as someone who has read The Gulag Archipelago, it seems highly unlikely that a person will remain idealistic when they're killing people.  Highly idealistic people want to see the best in what they believe in, and killing people isn't exactly "the best", especially when the idealistic person is the one doing the killing.  Idealism in general tends to be fragile, and even the most stubborn people don't look cool and collected when they're in denial about their false ideal.

I also wanted to mention that in Objects in Space, it's really, REALLY stupid that everyone in the crew would go to sleep at the same time.  There's no night in space, and there's no way to predict when a threat might show up.  Even on Star Trek they have a night shift, even if they don't talk about it much.

Next, both shows involved as a major subplot River's danger and usefulness to the crew.  She attacks Jayne in both, and as I said in my previous Firefly blog, Jayne is has become the series punching boy, and therefore attacking him has the least possible negative emotion out of the entire crew.  In both the finale and the movie they merely make fun of Jayne for his injuries.  If it had been, say, Kaylee, then everyone would be seriously freaked out and serious and actually interesting drama would ensue.

And in both, River ends up fixing everything.  Admittedly, her solution in Objects in Space was pretty clever and funny, and so I won't spoil it here.  Her solution in the movie Serenity was far less clever, and only involved her beating the ever living crap out of a bunch of reavers.  This is not a spoiler to anyone with sense.

I mean, crap, if River beats the crap out of an entire bar by herself in the beginning of the movie (a bar which belongs to the few Asians who are actually in the series, I might add), then why can't she defeat the reavers that attack the crew?  I was watching the end of the movie, staring in disbelief as Simon and the rest tried to protect River as if she hadn't shot three guys with her eyes closed before.  And River is just huddled there, scared as crap, and all I can think of was, "when are you going to save the only friends you have?"

It's completely dumb for a character with superhuman abilities to just sit there for several minutes when the audience knows good and well she can deus ex machina the whole bunch of reavers.  What's even more remarkable?  That's exactly how it plays out.  It's entirely deus ex machina, without any fear that she'll be hurt or killed.  The writers don't even bother to come up with a clever way for her to kill a bunch at once or something like that.  She just beats them up and there you go.  Lame.

But it's not just the similarities between the two that make Serenity such a waste of potential.  If it were simply a copy of an episode, that would be potentially pretty good.  We've seen remakes that have worked. The trouble is, well, they tried to do too much with Serenity.  It's understandable, considering that they have a lot of story to get by in only one movie.  There was a lot, including the backgrounds of two major characters.  And yet, all the same, they at least have to make it entertaining enough for the plotholes to be irrelevant.  Like the Avengers movie or Interstella 5555.

What mainly went wrong was the characters.  They don't quite match up with their series equivalents.  Well, except for Wash and Zoe, who didn't have much personality in the first place.  They were simply there in the series, and they are simply there in the movie.  What makes the movie even worse in this respect was that this movie makes it extremely clear, even more so than the series, that River is Joss Whedon's baby, Malcolm is important, and none of the other characters matter to the writers in the slightest.

Just fyi, spoilers.  Not that it's necessary.  If you're a Firefly fan you've already seen it, and if you're not a fan, you won't want to see it anyway.

Jayne remains pretty much the same as he always was, but he's a simplistic character anyway.   He serves his purpose and makes people make fun of him.  Ho-hum.

And next, Inara.  She had the advantage in the series, because she was the only character well thought out.  She had enough background, enough intrigue, and great hair.  Sure, she was an excuse for the show's writers to be as slutty as possible, but at least on a literary level she was a competent character.  Here?  Well, they just underused her.

At the end of the Firefly series, there was a lot of emotional drama going on between Inara and Malcolm.  Inara was mad at him for sleeping with someone else, and Malcolm was sad because Inara chose to leave the crew.  In the movie, he meets up with her because he's afraid that the aforementioned demented black man, known as the Operative, might do something to her (what is it with Firefly and demented black men?).  Inara goes with him....and does basically nothing for the rest of the movie.  She's not important to solving the crew's problems.  She's just sort of there.  And at the tail end, she agrees to stay with the Serenity.  As a part of the crew?  Once more as a Companion looking for business?  As Malcolm's wife?   What?  We are never shown.

Inara was ignored, but Shepherd Book was just plain demoted.  For a reason that is never explained, Book left the crew.  This would have been fine, except that Book was given a mysterious background during the series, possibly linking him to high up Alliance muckedy-mucks.  And in this movie, he ends up...on some distant outpost that was never before referenced, among people who have never been referenced?  Neither of which ever gets a proper explanation, and so the viewer never really cares.

Book was built up so well during the series, and it would be easy enough to tie in his past with the Alliance's search for River.  Like, for example, the Operative could try to bribe Book into selling out River.  Book could either refuse directly or try to warn the Serenity, getting himself killed in the process (he does end up dead in the movie, notedly).  That would give his character value, increase dramatic tension, and not take too much time doing so.  But did they do it?  No.  Instead they kill both Book and his outpost of no-name redshirts off-screen, leaving Serenity to find the aftermath.

Note to all writers: redshirts as a literary technique should be used sparingly to be effective.  Mass redshirt killing diminishes the impact, especially if the death is not shown on screen as a part of a battle or something. And even in battles avoid treating your soldiers like redshirts.

Kaylee.  I can't believe how much I despise her.  She's basically the same as she was on the series, being a contradiction of "innocent" and slutty.  She doesn't do very much for most of the movie, but towards the end, Simon is bemoaning their imminent deaths at the hands of the reavers (because River is having a panic attack and hasn't gone into deus ex machina mode yet), and he mentions that he has regrets and wishes he had been closer to Kaylee.  Kaylee then replies, "you mean, sex?"

Good job, Kaylee.  You've taken the romantic musings of the guy you want to bang ("love" seems too strong a word) and turned it into nothing more than physical attraction (note to women: sex =/= love).  Why Simon is attracted to this doofus is beyond me.  Oh wait, they explained it on the series already: he liked her because she was the only girl on the ship not married, not a Companion, and not his sister.

And that brings me to Simon.  Now, during the series, he was merely boring, like a big walking slice of bread.  He didn't do anything interesting, except for the one episode where he initiates the robbery of an Alliance hospital.  Huh.  Y'know, if they just scrapped the whole "space western" thing and went with a plain, futuristic anti-government story, that would have been more in line with River being Joss Whedon's baby.

Anyway, in the movie, Simon turned into an idiot.  I just wanted him to be punched so bad.  Right away he shows that he's insanely selfish, and that his relationship with his sister is unhealthy.  It never got this bad in the series.  Now, at the start, the crew is going to rob a bank.  Reynolds wants to bring River along, and Simon gives her an ultimately evil piece of advice: it's okay to let the others die to save herself.

One, what kind of soulless bastard tells someone to do that?  Even if these people were jerks, it's never okay just to abandon people in a life and death situation.  But these aren't jerks.  They're people who took Simon and River in, when it would have been so easy for them to turn the two in and get a big dang reward, or else just tell them to leave and forget about them.  Simon is an ungrateful bastard.

Two, does Simon really care so much for his sister that he would sacrifice four other people for her?  Is she really worth it?  Has she really consumed his life to the point where he thinks it's okay to let people die if she lives?  Maybe he had the vague hope of letting everyone involved in the robbery die so that he could have the Serenity for himself.  Heck, that would be a good plotline that incites drama.  But that's not what they did.  They just made him have an emotionally dependent relationship on his sister.

Three, River has, previous to this point, read peoples' minds, shot dudes with her eyes closed, and saved the crew from a demented mercenary basically by herself.  Why the crap is he coddling her?  She doesn't need it. In fact, every single time she's in danger, she pulls a deus ex machina and saves the day.  Simon is an idiot for not trusting her.

The cherry on top of this is that if it weren't for River, the robbery crew and some of the people in the bank itself would have died because of an onslaught of reavers.  And yet, when everyone returns safely from the army of zombies, Simon slaps Reynolds.  Really, dude...really?  It really should have been the other way around.  Simon is a whiny loser in the movie, and when his sister hits him in the throat, he deserved it.  As well as a swift kick in the man-parts.

Simon basically deserves to be "in love" with someone like Kaylee -- a shallow contradiction that cares only about his body.  Simon at least tries to have a deeper respect for love throughout the series and at his little speech at the end, but dating Kaylee just goes against all that.  It would have been dramatic and interesting if Simon rejected her because of her sluttiness, but because of his nature of course it would be really awkward. and he'd try to candycoat it as much as possible.  It's not really a necessary plot point for the movie, but it could have worked during the series.

So their plotlines end with a sad, worthless imitation of a romance.  Something should have happened during the movie to bring them closer together, one of them should have left the ship, or one of them should have died.  Basically anything more interesting than Simon deciding to sleep with the slut.  That's pretty boring.

That's the real trouble with this movie.  The overall plotline could have worked.  It is really obvious and simple to make the Alliance is responsible for the reavers, but that's still plenty workable if you get the characters right and make them interesting.  And that's the thing they didn't do.  It honestly feels like River is the queen, Reynolds is her protector, and the others are just background.  River sucks up all the plot to herself.  It's not just a matter of the plot being built on River's background; there's just not enough subplot points to go around for the side characters.

You might argue with this, saying that the movie didn't have enough time to do that for everyone.  Time doesn't matter.  For example, Steven the Irishman in Braveheart was on screen for probably a collective fifteen minutes, but his character shines for every second.  He the way he carries himself and says the strangest things shows a lot about his character in only a few minutes.  His personality explodes on the screen, and it's easy enough to guess his background: a criminal against the British in occupied Ireland.

Let's do a negative example: Shia LaBouf's character on Transformers.  He was onscreen for most of the movie, and yet what do we know about this guy, besides the fact that he's a loser, whiny, and likes girls that are out of his league?  We don't know much about his character, and quite frankly, we don't care.  There's nothing interesting about the guy.

Serenity's character troubles aren't quite the same as Transformers.  For example, the side characters in Serenity might be interesting, but we just never get to see them do stuff that ties into their personalities.  It would be simple enough just to do a "show-off" scene, where you remove the other characters to allow a specific one to shine.  They did this a lot in the Star Trek movies.  In ST4, Chekov and Uhura get to wander around and ask where Alameda is, Spock mind melds with a whale, Scotty gets to pretend he's a high up muckedy-muck with a cranky McCoy in tow, and Sulu would have had a scene with his great-great-however-many ancestor if the child actor involved had cooperated.

These things don't take long, and provide interesting sub-plots that give the viewer a break from intensity.  Heck, a writer might not even have to go that far.  You could have an entirely plot relevant scene where Zoe gets to shoot stuff and show off her skills, imply a little more strongly Book's Alliance past when he talks to Reynolds by having him tell some sort of important secret, or have something actually happen that brings Kaylee and Zoe together -- like maybe Kaylee meets someone or something that convinces her that monogamy brings the emotional gratitude that women desire.  Or Kaylee and Simon trapped in some sort of room.  Or perhaps Kaylee somehow rescues River, which would have the extra purpose of making River less deus ex.

Seriously, writers, be cautious of loving your characters too much.  It's fine if you're writing a cheesy romance or one of those hyper pretentious coming of age stories (sometimes), but in anything serious, complex, or long, you've got to torture your character.  You've got to make sure that they have lessons to learn and experience to gain.  Not only for the sake of your side characters -- it's not steak and potatoes without potatoes -- but for the sake of your main character.

Who wants to watch a character that's perfect all the time in a non-sarcastic story?  Sure, Superman is used as an example all the time for this, but he was a dang cartoon character, and cartoons do things like drop anvils on characters.  Serenity is not a cartoon.  The fact that River can destroy basically anything she comes across just ruins the suspense and reduces the viewer's ability to like her.  She's just too perfect and too annoying.  Sure, she's emotionally incompetent, but as many feminist stereotypes have proved in movies over the years, emotional instability isn't really a good enough flaw, especially when the stereotype is someone that runs her own business, builds robots for a living, or is a ninja.  If you have good strengths and abilities, then people who hear you complain don't sympathize with you, they just think you're a whiner.  It's like listening to a rich person's problems.  Do these problems matter?  Sure, sometimes.  But does the general public care?  No.  Not usually.

What's really sad is that the writers of the movie should have noticed this.  They should have known that their fanbase would be aware of River's powers, and all newcomers would immediately become aware of this early on as River tears the crap out of the Asian people's bar and its customers.  Surely any writer worth his salt would realize that River is too dang overpowered.  Do they realize this?  Apparently not.  In fact, when Wash (who gets to do absolutely nothing in the movie) is killed, River is the one that replaces him at the end of the movie.  Oh, so not only is she telepathic and butt-kicking, but she knows how to pilot a ship?  Oh bullcrap.  Why doesn't Reynolds just send everyone else away and be a mercenary with just her?  She can do everything, apparently.

A note about Wash's death.  Wash had very little personality in the series, and has basically none in the movie.  Why the crap is the audience going to feel a lot for him when he is killed?  This is made even worse by what little personality his wife has.  She's a tough person, so she never cries, throws a fit, or does anything that is emotionally interesting.  Not only does that feel unrealistic, but it prevents the audience from being connected to her.  Especially since she does basically nothing throughout the whole movie too.

Seriously.  They should have made an episode during the season where Zoe and Wash go off by themselves or solve a problem with the ship more or less by themselves.  Or maybe there's a point where they go off on a romantic vacation during an episode, and we get to see cut-ins of them relaxing and doing personality-specific stuff while the rest of the crew is dealing with whatever problem they're facing.  Just something where Zoe and Wash show that they have real personalities and aren't zombies.

You probably noticed that I haven't talked about Reynolds yet.  Alright, let's talk about him.  Ugh.  Now, I was never really impressed with Reynolds during the series, but he gets worse in this movie.  Maybe the writers thought that his emotional conflicts would make him more interesting.  Thing is, there's a limit to how emotional a person can get and still be interesting, and it varies per character.  For example, a skittish teen girl who runs from spiders is going to be more emotionally fragile than Captain Picard.  A starship captain should expect rebellion, aliens (remember, all foreigners are technically aliens), natural space phenomenon that might hurt the ship, interspace travel, foreign diseases and plants, and all number of things a normal person won't face.  So, doesn't it stand to reason that the starship captain might be tougher than your average dude?

Alas, poor Reynolds, he was a little baby.  Now, at least during the series, he doesn't get too whiny.  He's nowhere near tough, but he at least doesn't whine every episode.  Unfortunately, he gets way worse in this.  It's like the whole time he's barely hanging on to his authority of the crew.  Granted, I was surprised before that the crew bothered listening to him, and it seems like they all have finally come to their senses and argue even more with him.

It comes to a head right after the crew discovers what the Operative (seriously, dude needs a better name) has done to Book and his no-name congregation.  Everyone is arguing about what to do next, especially when Reynolds says they have to attach the dead bodies of Book and company onto their space ship so that they can pretend to be reavers.   And by the way, Whedon, if your story gets to the point where characters have to do that, you fail.  Way too far for a good guy to go.

Naturally, the crew finds this contemptible and argues about it, and then Reynolds goes and throws a hissy fit.  Seriously, to look at him at this scene, you get the sense of a 5 year old stubbornly insisting, "I'm the captain, do what I say!"  This even includes a bit where Reynolds shoots one of the Operative's surviving operatives as if the crew is supposed to be intimidated by this.  Honestly, if a captain has to resort to using fear as a motivator for his men, then he has failed as a captain.  Captains should motivate by loyalty, common principles, and trust.  Quite frankly, the only people on this whole crew who trust him are Zoe and River, and Zoe doesn't count because she has almost no personality.  River counts for a little bit, because even though she's nuts, she's deus ex.

That's great, Mal.  The person that trusts you the most is someone off her rocker, so you need to shoot your little gun like a whiny kid just to get your dang crew to listen.  This would work fine if Malcolm were established as a hardcore, on-the-edge, violent soul, but he's not.  He's a puddle of compassion.  He's not even the sort of guy that's part compassionate and part hard and can switch when necessary.  He's just too dang soft.

Honestly, if Malcolm were a crew member instead of a captain, this would work a lot better.  And the crew would be pirates, and the captain would be someone who kidnaps new members when it suits him.  Then Malcolm could be the guy that saves the crew and takes over, making the ship more good and heroic, matching his puddle of compassion personality.

Oh, and another thing about Book's death.  Right before he dies, he says, "I don't care what you believe, just believe it".  That is officially the second dumbest thing I've ever heard.  What if Malcolm suddenly decided to believe that the Operative was right and hand over River?  What if he ran into a group of neo-Nazis and decided to believe in them?  What if he believed that nukes explode with magical purple flowers that would heal everyone's hearts and fill the universe with love?

Lesson to learn: it DOES matter what you believe in.  Your beliefs dictate where you will go in life.  If you believe that you will never get rich, then guess what?  You won't.  If you hate yourself, you'll develop depression and never achieve anything.  And if you believe in Communism, you'll aid Communist tyrants into office.  Beliefs lead to actions, and this colors your entire life.  It's so constantly irritating to hear atheists claim that religious beliefs can lead someone astray, without realizing that their own beliefs can do the same?  Any belief that is unhealthy can destroy you, regardless of its origin.

Whoa, little rant there.  Let's get back on topic.

In any case, it really feels like the Serenity writers just dialed it in.  How in the world could they have failed this bad?  Is it really that hard to give side characters a little something to do?  To create a realistic bad guy? To clarify Book's past just a little?  To have Reynolds punch Simon in the face?  The main point of this movie, that the Alliance was behind the reavers, was a good idea and made sense for the movie.  Everything else?  A mush.

What makes it worse is that they've pretty much killed any possibility of a sequel.  I mean, Firefly's fanbase still exists, and they're as ravenous as ever.  Just you try to post something negative about Firefly on Amazon.  You'll get voted down and have so many nasty comments that you'll wonder why you bothered.  But the movie kills off Book, the side character with the most mystery; they killed off Wash, the quirky guy; they gave no sufficient reason why Inara would want to go back with Reynolds, and they put the deus ex machina character in as the pilot, establishing that if she doesn't know something, she can figure it out easily and thus render the rest of the crew basically obsolete.  Finally, since they unloaded the biggest plot point of all on this slur of a movie, that the Alliance was behind the reavers all along, what is there left to go on?

Again, like I said about the murdering guys with the blue gloves, if the Alliance is willing and able to do things like murder Book's entire colony, they can't exactly keep that a secret.  People are going to know, and know very soon, that the Alliance will kill just about anybody that looks at it funny.  Are they really going to be that shocked that the Alliance created the reavers?  I'm definitely not.  I mean, it still works as a plot point, but it's just not shocking.  It's kinda obvious actually.  I didn't guess it, but when I found out, I felt bad at myself for not guessing it sooner.  Though you'd think if the government created the reavers by accident, they'd quickly cover it up by going after the reavers so that the media would think that the government is on the ball.

Whatever.  I'm done talking about Firefly and Serenity.  They both suck.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go outside and rejoin the real world for a bit.  I've been on the computer too long.  For my next blog, I'm going to do another Top Ten Top Tens.  Y'all really liked the last one, so why not another?  I've already gotten started, so expect it soon.

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