There is a very different dynamic between the worlds of television and cinema as "Serenity", the film continuation of Joss Whedon's unfairly and prematurely cancelled sci-fi western series "Firefly" can attest to. With just over half a season under its belt, the Fox network pulled the quirky but increasingly enjoyable show from its line-up despite a loyal, quickly brewing fanbase. The show went on to do big business thanks to a superb DVD set containing the entire series - so much so Universal has tried to resurrect the property in a moderate-budget film that they hope will start a screen franchise much like Paramount had with the now dead "Star Trek" franchise. The Trek comparison is very apt because sadly that's what "Serenity" feels exactly like - one of the more decidedly average installments in that franchise.
The 90's Trek spin-offs worked because in the episodes you had character history, back stories, interesting interaction between the crew members and time to explore plot elements over the course of several episodes or seasons. On film though the story had to start and wrap-up in the two-hour spot, the focus had to be on big action set pieces rather than a strong topical narrative, supporting characters were reduced to only a handful of lines in favour of guest star antagonists, and characters had to be more gung-ho and far less nuanced. The little references were cool for fans but the humour often felt a lot flatter, the lower budget left some of the action set pieces with much to be desired, and much of the story was geared only to fans rather than newcomers despite the producers protests to the contrary.
The EXACT same problems can be seen in "Serenity", even more so in fact because of its much greater reliance on said character interaction than Trek. Joss Whedon's series was built on the crew's relationship, witty dialogue and well-handled skill with a slowly building mythology. Much of that is given merely window treatment in the film, leaving a strange beast behind that's different altogether from both the original show, or a completely new sci-fi film franchise familiar to no-one. "Serenity" is much more "Star Wars" in style with space battles, a much bigger dose of visual effects, and a tone that's far darker and more action-oriented than the character-based comedy/light action of the small screen.
At times it does soar, especially when it returns to the more offbeat elements of the show, but this new direction is not Whedon's forte and it shows. His work helming is solid but nothing special and there's a definite sense of a television background with the way scenes are handled (ie. repetitive tight dark interiors, the odd exterior shot in a redressed national park). Pacing veers wildly, much of the action feels tacked on rather than being integrated into the story, and there's the predictable albeit smart end of second act twist. For all its little movements away from the Trek-ian formula it, "Serenity" - much like the early episodes of the recent "Battlestar Galactica" - essentially uses the exact same mold and merely changes its window dressing into something a little less polished, rougher and grittier to try and pass itself off as something new.
Yet at certain points it works beautifully. A fast paced but effectively creepy opening sequence might confuse newcomers but manages to quickly review the basics of what happened in the series whilst delivering fans a look at an event important to the series that took place beforehand. The humour may be pretty flat throughout but at other times it gets a good laugh in and Whedon handles the suspense element quite well by proving that any one of these characters could die at a moment's notice. The Reavers on the big screen are both disappointingly realised as "Ghosts of Mars" rejects and never conveyed anywhere near as much of a threat as they were on the show, yet the explanation of how they came into being and how it ties into the main story is quite clever.
The biggest disappointment of the film though is some of the short shrift the characters are given. One of the show's great strengths was Morena Baccarin's Inara, essentially a high-class concubine whose character was a distinct and different presence on the series. In the film however she's useless, reduced to barely any lines and lacking any of the rich depth her character brought to the show. Same goes for the likes of the Shephard and Wash - the former given the Obi-Wan routine for his five-minute cameo in the film, the latter reduced to lame banter as he pilots the ship.
Other great budding characters from the show like Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne are merely simplified caricatures of their television selves though the actors do their best with the parts and make them work. Only three get any real focus - Reynolds, River and an Alliance assassin out to retrieve River.
All the key actors deliver good performances, Glau finally getting some stuff to work with whilst Fillion gives us a darker and more disturbed interpretation of his Han Solo-esque roguish Captain. Ejiofor is the newcomer to this franchise and yet delivers a cool and collected job as a professional but ruthless killer to his scenes even if he is stuck with the all too predictable face-off.
The budget is paradoxically all too much and yet all too little. The TV series was very obviously limited with a rather small budget which forced more reliance on solid storytelling that never tried to reach too far beyond its means. Given some extra millions, Whedon tries to stretch his $40 million budget into a $100 million epic but comes out with something looking like it cost $50 million. The result is certain action sequences are hampered and cheap looking, whilst the look overall feels uneven. Yet the effects are solid for the most part, the sets are pretty good and there's at times an interesting combination of the Old American West, ancient Oriental elements and flashy sci-fi trappings.
Overall its a hard film to review because a lot will depend upon your reaction to this sort of material and your existing love or familiarity with the show. I went with two friends to the screening - one who'd never seen the show and one who had gotten into it more than I did. We're all sci-fi fans to a different extent and yet all three of us came out rather blasse - the unfamiliar one didn't like it, I thought it was decidedly average and the bigger fan thought it was ok. Yet the 'Browncoats' fans which made up most of the audience whooped and hollered throughout. Hardcore fans will undoubtedly be satisfied but its unlikely this will spread much beyond that audience, and even they will find it lacks that human spark and freshness that made the series distinctive and appealing.