|Serenity - the ship and home of the Firefly crew. Oddly resembling a massive green cock|
Before we get into Serenity - currently kicking arse across UK cinemas as I speak - let me tell you a bit about Firefly, a superb, if short-lived sci-fi show that broadcast on TV back in 2002.
Set 500 years in the future, amidst a dark totalitarian galaxy, the series followed the exploits of a down and out starship crew struggling to make their way in the universe...ever so slightly on the wrong side of the law.
It's the sort of science fiction that we rarely see in popular entertainment these days though. There's not a single alien to be seen for instance, there's no prosthetics, no light speed, no teleporting, no lasers and the crew's ship - unsurprisingly named Serenity - has not a single mounted gun.
Instead Firefly gives us a more gritty, realistic vision of the future, one about as far removed from the shiny spectacle you're used to seeing on TV, doing away with many of the conventions of the genre and concentrating more heavily on the characters. A big space battle kinda show, this ain't...
...well, for the most part.
Created by Oscar nominated script writer Joss Whedon - who's previous TV credits include Buffy and Angel - the show unfortunately met an early demise after being cancelled just eleven episodes in. Allow me to explain why that was a big fucking mistake.
Ugly Universe, Loveable Characters
When you think back to the original Star Wars flicks, the character pretty much any sane human would call his fave is Han Solo. He brought that sarcastic, down to earth humour to the whole thing that sci-fi and fantasy oh so desperately need to avoid pretension. Firefly takes that same archetype, and instead of making him play second fiddle to another character, sends him off on his own adventures, basically centering an entire series around him in the process. That character is Mal Reynolds, and he's a fantastic slab of clichéd brilliance.
You can therefore think of Firefly as "Han Solo - the TV Series", and as a result, it has this wonderful swashbuckling sense to it that we haven't felt amid more uptight modern sci-fi efforts like The Matrix and the prequels.
There's no wooden characters here, or endless political babblings, or un-relatable societies we feel no connection to. Firefly is all about the everyman, in a vision of the future surprisingly feasible. I dunno about you, but I've kinda missed that in more recent TV and movie efforts.
|Firefly is inspired by everything from Aliens to Star Wars, with that more old skool '80s look to it|
It doesn't stop with the characters either. While the likes of Star Trek and indeed Star Wars itself have continually slid into shiny, antiseptic visions of the future way too clean to be believable, Firefly goes back to the more realistic, dirty and "lived in" look from sci-fi classics such as Aliens, Robocop and the original Star Wars flicks.
The crew's ship Serenity for instance, is old, falling apart, and constantly breaking down. This isn't The Enterprise, cruising along, smooth as ice at warp 9 in what's clearly a film studio, here you genuinely feel like you're stuck up there with the crew, being shaken around within those rickety walls as it hurtles through space.
This is all brought out even more by the choice of filming the entire show with handheld cameras. It has a grainy look, there's lens flares galore, and the whole thing looks more like a documentary than your more standard Hollywood fair. This is a technique the more recent Battlestar Galactica ripped off hugely in both its own handheld camera work and shakey CGI sequences.
But What's it About?
|The Alliance - main villains, and all but a Darth Vader away from being The Empire, basically|
The plot of the show follows the crew of Serenity as they smuggle contraband, loot desolate ships and partake in the odd bit of thievery in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In the same way Star Wars made Rebel terrorists out to be the good guys, Firefly does the same thing here.
As the single (and of course, evil) government ruling the majority of the known universe, The Alliance fill the role of the bad guys, kicking up more and more at the heels of our crew as the series progresses.
Mal - who captains Serenity - has a more personal beef with The Alliance though, having helped fight against them many years earlier in the civil war that precipitated their takeover.
|Reavers - evil savages gone crazy on the edge of space, but their ships look cool as balls|
With that battle long since over and The Alliance now controlling all major planets, Mal does the only thing left for him to do; he buys a ship and heads out into space...the one place left he can still call his own.
Joining him is a crew of eight, each and every one with enough character and unique qualities to make them stand out above the rest. There's the muscle for hire, the hooker with a heart, the sheltered doctor, and so on...I'll avoid a full run down of the rest, but personal favourites include Wash (the wise-cracking pilot) and Kaylee (the mega-cutey ship mechanic jailbait).
All put together, the crew have that whole KOTOR vibe going on, with their own stories to tell and inter-ship relationships, some good, some bad.
|In Firefly, laser guns are rare to the point of near non-existence. Guns fire bullets, and sure as hell kill in the process|
The 14 episodes of Firefly that were completed before it was cancelled are more of the stand-alone variety, with only a slither of an on-going story arc tying them all together, but the mini-self contained adventures work well. Sure, the quality of these stories vary as you'd expect, but when Firefly is good, it's really
You'd be hard pressed in fact, to find a more impressive hour of television than episodes such as Out of Gas, in which the ship is damaged beyond repair deep in space, leaving the crew stranded in the middle of nowhere with a worryingly small amount of oxygen left.
The series finale Objects in Space is also worthy of mention; a particularly stunning piece in which a bounty hunter breaks on board the ship in search of one of the crew.
On the downside, there is one embarrassingly bad episode towards the end centering around a whore house that somewhat brings the overall quality of the series down.
|Firefly's western influence is occasionally at odds with its futuristic look, and one aspect of the show I'm not crazy about|
It's worth noting that although primarily a futuristic science fiction show, Firefly also uses heavy elements - sometimes to a fault - of westerns too. While the busier built up cities of the core worlds more resemble Blade Runner, the further out the crew travel into more desolate planets, the more it starts to resemble the old west, and it's the hardest aspect of the show to swallow.
That episode in particular - titled Heart of Gold - suffers from such divergence in styles, and comes across as more like a tongue in cheek farce, especially with space travellers riding horses, and I'd honestly advise you to skip it.
Still, the variety of cultures and planets seen in the Firefly universe give it a truly global, worldly feel that avoids stagnation. One inspired concept which I worship is that in this future, China and America have risen as the only two dominant superpowers of the world, and as a result characters occasionally break out into Chinese dialect...usually with the sole intention of sneaking curse words into the show without the censors realising.
|CGI sequences are "shot" hand-held style too, giving them a fantastic sense of speed and realism|
Still, all good things come to an end...Firefly's end was through little fault of its own, mind. Twentieth Century Fox you see - who produced and broadcast the series - failed to get on board with it pretty much from the get go, ultimately running it into the ground before even the first season finished.
The series opened up with a mammoth two hour long pilot episode for instance, which expertly introduced the characters, set the scene and methodically brought us up to speed on the ongoing storylines. It was a fantastic film-like opener that drew you in unconditionally...and yet Fox, in their infinite wisdom, refused to air it.
|Ahh, that trademark Whedon humour |
Nope, high in their skyscraper boardrooms, the millionaire suits thought it a much more sensible idea to air the second
episode first, with the original pilot actually airing - ironically enough - last of all, long after the show was shit-canned due to poor ratings. It'd be almost poetic if it weren't so depressing. This is just one of a slew of spunk-ridden decisions that helped kill off Firefly before it found its footing.
Bitter? You bet I am, as this is just one of a million shows Fox have cancelled over the years that promised greatness. Had things turned out differently, Firefly would be in its 4th season by now, and unlike Family Guy - their other major travesty of cancellation decision making - I don't see this one returning to TV any time soon.
|Perhaps more than anything, it's the characters that make the show|
There's a happy ending to this story, of course. The show found a much larger audience on DVD than it ever did amidst Fox' shitty scheduling mishaps. When experienced in its full 14 episode splendour (in correct order, no less), the show finally took off.
Considering this DVD set (which includes the entire series) goes for under £25
- including some fantastic features and audio commentaries - it's kind of a must have for any fan of sci-fi and just downright kick arse television.
While Firefly ultimately had the usual stumbling blocks associated with early seasons of any
show, the sheer creativity and vision behind it were hard to ignore, giving it a brilliant, timeless and most of all immensely enjoyable quality much missed. It's not just one for the geeks either, holding just as strong an appeal to people who hate sci-fi, while breathing a heck of a lot of coolness back into the genre in the process.
Which Leads Us to...Serenity
|All the cast return for the film, some more prominently than others|
Even though Fox foolishly shit-canned the show before its time, some might say it's been a small blessing in disguise. Realising the potential brilliance (and money) in this project you see, Universal came to the rescue; in 2003 they bought out the rights to Firefly with the intention of turning it into a movie, and possible trilogy.
Now two years on, this month sees the release of that movie, titled Serenity. Having just caught it this past week myself, how'd it turn out? Put it this way, the audience in my cinema stood up and freakin' applauded at the end...believe me when I tell you, that's a rare thing in England. Heck, the movie is already ranking at #134 in the top 250 movies of all time according to the Internet Movie Database
|You might recognise Nathan Fillion as the "wrong" Private Ryan from Spielberg's WWII classic|
Headlining all that is good about Serenity is actor Nathan Fillion (playing Mal), who elevates from unknown TV actor to full-on movie lead admirably. He's the lovable rogue, the criminal with a conscience and the grumpy old man all rolled into one, yet Nathan brings it all to life beautifully and creates a living, breathing person to root for that's possibly the greatest part of the flick. It has to be said, he's also insanely funny at times.
Crazy mind-reading young girl River - who had one of the less prominent roles of the crew back in TV land - is also brought to the forefront this time out. The story really revolves around her from beginning to end, with Mal and his crew somewhat caught up and pulled along for the ride against their will.
The rest of the crew feature less prominently in varying degrees, with Inara, Book and worse of all Kaylie particularly absent. With such a massive ensemble of characters, it's understandable that some would get left aside however, especially with so much story to cram into a two hour running time.
The pay off of course, is the fact that there's very little fat in this movie; it's paced perfectly and builds beautifully right from the offset, with never a wasted moment.
|Chiwetel Ejiofor kicks some arse, both physically and figuratively, as uber-villain The Operative|
Joining the cast is a brand spanking new villain simply titled The Operative, played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (who incidentally I went to school with). Without giving much away, he wants River, and although this whole plot feels somewhat like déjà vu after the series finale, it takes its own twists and turns to exciting new places never expected.
This plot interweaves with battles against evil space pirates known as Reavers, essentially this franchise's "Borg". The Reavers however, kick a heck of a lot more arse than the former, quite literally eating and raping people to death.
All in all the plot is surprisingly good, and manages to pull off a self-contained movie well enough, while also continuing and eventually tying up so many different loose strands fans like myself have been gagging for since the show's demise.
|The plot is a crazy rollercoaster ride covering a ton of planets and locations|
At the same time, it's pulled off in a much more passionate and intense manner than we ever saw on telly. The opening 15 minutes lull you into a false sense of security with the crew on a jolly little bank heist, but abruptly and rather startlingly it's cut short and all that goes straight out the window.
From here onwards the stakes ramp up, and it never feels like your typical comic caper that's tied up neatly with a cute ending slapped on its arse. Basically, Firefly has gone hella dark this time around, and unlike so many big Hollywood movies (and indeed the show itself), you honestly have no clue who's gonna make it through by the end.
For that reason, I don't think Firefly could really return as a TV show now; it's just changed and matured to a brand new place. I do however, hope it finds some long life here in movie land. I'm the last person to dig on Star Trek, but if nothing else I admire how they reunite those cats every five years for a new movie...a little something for the fans who miss the show.
Firefly deserves that.
And yet let's not get ahead of ourselves. Although a fair bit more edgy and original than most, this is still somewhat cheesy sci-fi action shenanigans at the end of the day, albeit at its very best. If your mind's looking for a workout, or you expect high art, turn away now. What Serenity does offer though is fab action, great characters and an incredibly realised universe all at once...something we rarely see in the genre.
|Emotional moments may ring hollow for those not familiar with the show|
At times this film does seem to delve into the more traditional ships-blowing-each-other-up exploits of its peers, something never really present in the show, but arguably it suits the cinematic format a lot more than it would on the small screen.
I also think people who haven't seen the series will have a slightly harder time latching onto the film than someone like me. Sure, the story is pretty damn self contained as mentioned, with a well constructed intro even filling in some of the back story...but 10 minutes of flashback exposition doesn't equal 14 hours of TV viewing by a long shot.
As a result, newcomers may find characters a little one dimensional when not familiar with their origins. In particular, there's a few too many heart felt speeches to loved ones played over soaring violin themes that'll come off as flat without the previous investment TV fans bring to the table.
|Whedon's sure got a fetish for young girl's kicking arse|
Finally, as Whedon's first directorial movie, it's technically solid and great to watch, but lacked one vital ingredient for me.
When Whedon directs an episode on one of his TV shows, it's always a cut above the rest you see. Take that Buffy episode where everyone's voices were stolen and the entire freakin' hour played out in pure silence, for example.
His episodes always tried something new and original like that, ideas that superseded the basic concept of a cheesy fantasy show about vampires, and in the back of my mind I always wondered what'd happen if that guy ever got his hands on a proper movie.
I wanted to see similar stuff in Serenity, off-the-wall ideas I never saw coming...and yet there's really nothing of the sort here. This is more your typical action movie stylings, albeit at the top of the quality spectrum, and that Whedon flair and originality was conspicuously missing for me.
Still, none of these tiny probs derail the flick by any means. There's plenty more I could praise in fact, such as the surprisingly solid acting, the humorous dialogue, the incredible CGI work and in particular the final space sequence which blows away Revenge of the Sith's opening battle by a mile.
|The CGI effects of the movie are significantly improved over the TV show|
CGI is used sparingly in Serenity, and even though it lacks the razor sharp so called "photorealism" of work produced by WETA and ILM, it more than makes up for it in style and vision.
I dunno if Serenity quite matches up to some of the best episodes of the show, but it's really a different beast and hard to compare. It's way darker and more intense than the lively and enjoyable romping of its TV father though, and it does indeed blow away pretty much everything else I've seen in movie-land recently, Sith included. For those with a vague interest in Star Wars, somewhat let down by the recent prequels and desperate to see something more in the style and tone of the original flicks, this movie is tailor made for you.
Take a chance, see it, buy that box set, and if you're disappointed after all that...free handjobs for all.