Retrospective Movie Review: Serenity
Ten Years Later
By Ben Gruchow
September 29, 2015
You can’t look to other superhero or comic-book movies, which ranged from bleak to humorous in a dull and insulting way. Straightforward action films didn’t possess this imperative, nor did comedies possess the equivalent chops for pyrotechnics. There’s very little to draw from for why Marvel went in the tonal direction that they did. Whedon’s film wasn’t seen by many people comparatively, but in looking back at it - what it did in 2005 vs. what the most successful popcorn sci-fi/fantasy films do in 2015 - it begins to look like it was seen by the right people.
This was not the first film to mix genres and play with character archetypes in this way, obviously. It wasn’t even the first film to do it with the same basic ingredients; pull back on the comedy and accentuate the action a bit, and 1999’s Galaxy Quest occupies a similar tonal register (and in a circumstance I’ve always found amusing, a very similar opener to the final act, right down to the lead-up and framing). Serenity was the first, I think, to strike precisely the right balance between comedy and drama in its depiction of an anachronistic world.
There is a moment at the climax of the film involving two adversaries facing off against each other, with both of them reaching for weapons. One extends a large and fearsome-looking sword; the other, panting from exertion, finally holds up…a screwdriver. This moment is pure slapstick - goofiness without a larger context. Yet there is real and earned pathos a minute or so later, when one of those characters utters a significant line about a world without sin, based on a story that has built its foundation at least partially on humor. The movie’s conflict holds weight on its own terms.
It still does this 10 years later, long after the initial anticipation from the fan community has subsided. It’s as notable for that weight as it is for the moments, peppered throughout the movie, that still mark it as Whedon’s most impressive technical achievement. Not a moment in the $250 million Age of Ultron carries the vast scope and vertigo evoked in this movie’s introductory shot of the titular ship as it enters a planet’s atmosphere, nor the elegance of a revelatory tracking shot through an opening blast door toward the movie’s end, nor an unusually good appropriation of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (this has no doubt been said many times before, but even in 2015 it’s pretty impressive what’s done here with the budget involved; you can see the seams and set dressing easily enough if you look for them, but the proceedings are so carefully orchestrated on the level of movement and focus that you’re really reaching by criticizing them).
Serenity still stands out, much more so than most bigger entries from an otherwise forgettable year - and even being an adaptation of a TV show, and bearing the rough spots typical of a movie that’s both of a new or refreshed tone and out of its time, it’s an original, bright, energetic piece of work. It’s as clear a worthy candidate for a 10-year retrospective as could be asked for.*
*With one big, honking asterisk. I mentioned earlier that every one of Serenity’s 109 minutes is essential. That’s selling the runtime a bit short, and it’s because the opening 10 minutes of the movie - basically everything before the title card, where we are introduced to the world, the principal conflict, the antagonist, and the germ of the movie’s theme - are by a considerable margin the low point of the entire thing; there’s nothing shown here that isn’t invoked or shown better later on. Those 10 minutes are functional, but anodyne and static. The aforementioned theme is bluntly delivered, and while there are lines of dialogue elsewhere that are more inherently purple, there are none that shrivel up and die onscreen in quite the way that we see here. Action is clumsily staged (the transition in blocking and perspective when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operative reveals exactly what he’s capable of was jarring in 2005, and it’s jarring now), the sets are mostly bland and claustrophobic. It’s a dour, cheap-looking way to begin the film, and it’s an endlessly pleasant surprise to witness the step up in every department once the film proper begins.