June 24th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Serenity Preview Report, No Spoilers

I saw the Serenity preview screening, and ample thanks to harmfulguy. If you didn't have tickets and had guts, at least two of you could have seen it. I was expecting to see cardboard signs saying, "I need a miracle," but there weren't any. There were, however, at least two fans I know trying to get rid of one extra ticket each about 9:30 pm.

I'm not going to tell you anything about what was in the movie, not even behind an LJ-cut, not least of which because phierma would peel my eyeballs with a cheese grater if I spoiled anything for him. Instead, I'm going to address the more important question: should you be recommending this movie to people who aren't members of the cult, who aren't obsessive fans of the show? I mean, I was going to see it even if it was total crap, if only because I was absolutely jonesing for more of "Miss Kaywinnet Lee Frye and escort." But I also watched it with a critical eye -- were there any unforgivable sins in this movie, was there anything about this movie that would make your average fan of science fiction and/or action movies feel at all cheated?

My conclusion is that some of them will, but damned few. To my taste, Joss Whedon commits at least three hard-to-forgive cinematic errors, including the biggest damned one in the book: he opens with voice-over narration. This has been studied to death, and I don't care how cool you make it, or how well you work it into the story (and he does), audiences absolutely hate being lectured to. There are also two scenes where he reverts to science fiction film cliché, whether he knows it or not: we in the audience have seen those two film "gags" way, way too many times to be impressed by them any more. There will be people who go into the theater, get aggravated at the opening narration, spend the rest of the movie looking to nitpick it, find two more things to nitpick, and will come out of the theater grousing about what a crappy movie that was.

But there won't be very many of them, because those trivial flaws rapidly get buried in some of the best action film making, and some of the best acting, in the history of science fiction film. In particular, Summer Glau, who plays teenage fugitive River Tam (for those of you who don't know), is just amazing. I'm not 100% crazy about her action sequences, but in closeups she gets more mileage out of a quick couple of changes in facial expression than Adam Baldwin (mercenary Jayne Cobb) gets out of his amazing-to-watch, state of the art scene chewing. And I don't mean that in a bad way about Baldwin; when someone chews the scenery so damned well, it's a thing of beauty to behold. Alan Tudyk (the pilot, "Wash" Washburne) finally gets some consistent direction, something he was lacking in the TV series (as they admit on the commentary tracks to the episodes), and really benefits from it.

And as for the plotting and pacing, the current print runs almost exactly two hours, and there is not a single wasted frame of film in there. Even according to a non-fan who was with us, this movie will keep you on the edge of your seat, wanting very badly to find out what happens next, and half afraid to find out. How thoroughly? Well, the theater had a power outage that afternoon, and their air conditioning system wasn't back online yet. Which meant 150 fans, packed to capacity in a theater for two hours, with the temperature in the mid 80°s and a dewpoint up around 70°. The theater management were so apologetic that they gave us all a free pass to any one later movie and a free soft drink coupon. And according to literally everybody I asked on the way out, from about two minutes in until the (so far non-existent) credits roll, nobody even noticed the heat and humidity. Nobody even noticed the sweat pouring off of all of us, because the movie is that damned good.

And here's the even more amazing part: it hasn't been scored yet. There was almost no music in there, just a few filler pieces obviously taken from some library or public domain thing or whatever, and not many of them. Now, those of you who've seen the Firefly DVDs, especially those of you who've seen them more than once, have to know by now that an awful lot of the emotion in that series, an awful lot of the genuinely powerful moments, depend heavily on the brilliant scoring they had. Here, with even the "one hand tied behind his back" of having no score, Whedon kept an entire audience completely rapt.

So yes, I feel no shame recommending this movie to anyone, even people who haven't seen the DVDs and don't want to. Maybe one per hundred or so will come away nitpicking it; everybody else will be glued to their seat the whole time and completely out of breath by the end.