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Bill Roper's Journal
I Say It's Space Opera! 
28th-Sep-2005 09:55 pm
I say it's space opera and I say good for it!

If you're a long-time science-fiction fan, you'll recall that the term "space opera" is derived from the use of "horse opera" to describe a western story -- that a space opera is simply a western set in space. From what I understand, this is exactly what Joss Whedon set out to do when he put together the TV series, Firefly, which is now followed by the new movie, Serenity.

And he's succeeded magnificently.

Now you should understand that I've never watched a single episode of Firefly, nor am I someone who waited each week for every episode of Whedon's other TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I was able to walk into Serenity with a fresh set of eyes and a shortage of expectations.

Serenity is the best space opera film that I've seen since the original Star Wars came out over 25 years ago. It's bright, and funny, and upbeat, and occasionally deadly serious. There's plenty of action, but nothing that will overly traumatize your teenagers and nothing so revolting that you have to look away from the screen.

But then there's the question that everyone asks: "Will it work for someone who never saw the TV series?" If it isn't obvious from what I've written above, the answer is clearly yes. It works really well, because we recognize every one of the archetypes that populate the film.

Is Mal, Serenity's captain, cut from the same cloth as Han Solo? Is Kaylee yet another of the slightly eccentric but hypercompetent engineers who can keep a ship flying with bubble gum and baling wire? Is Jayne the wildman who you want at your back in a fight?

Absolutely! Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It's not just that we're dealing with archetypes here, but it's the little twists on those archetypes that make them fun to watch. Scotty, for all his virtues, was never quite as cute as Kaylee, nor was Han Solo ever quite as befuddled by his crew as Mal is.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Serenity is the story of how the Alliance's Operative pursues River, a young female psychic who the Alliance had trained for use as a living weapon before her brother, Simon, engineered her escape. But while River was an Alliance captive, she learned their terrible secret, now buried beneath layers of her psychosis. The Operative will protect this secret at any cost, which is guaranteed to be bad news for the crew of Serenity since that's where River and Simon are hiding.

This sounds grim and it frequently is. But there are many intentionally humorous moments providing comic relief, something that the original Star Wars provided and that the most recent trilogy never did. It's the sense of humor that makes Serenity one of the great space operas.

(There was one -- I assume -- unintentionally humorous moment when Gretchen and I looked at each other knowingly and I whispered to her one of my favorite lines from Galaxy Quest, "The person who wrote this episode should die!" You'll recognize it when you see it near the climax of the film.)

Don't stare too closely at the science. This is, after all, a space opera. But while we're asked to use our willing suspension of disbelief to allow twenty terraformed worlds to exist within a short distance of each other, it turns out that the physics of this universe doesn't allow for photon torpedoes and phasers. Guns, however, still work just as well as they always did.

If you never watched Firefly, you'll find Serenity to be a great ride. And my friends who did watch the TV series tell me it was a great ride for them too.
29th-Sep-2005 02:59 am (UTC)
I'm glad that a non-Browncoat like yourself was as pleased by this film as me and my crowd were.
29th-Sep-2005 03:37 am (UTC)
Thanks I'd been looking for a good honest take as to what someone coming at it basically cold would think. Although did you get a good feel for the characters of Shepard Book and/or Inara? Since they sort of didn't introduce characters, I think they might be the most difficult to understand for someone who didn't see the show.
29th-Sep-2005 03:50 am (UTC)
Shepard Book is the wise old man archetype, as nearly as I can tell. Inara is Princess Leia for Mal's Han Solo. What's the quote? Something like:

"Did we fight?"


29th-Sep-2005 12:22 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm Book as Obi-Wan Kenobi... yeah I can see that. Actually that plays even better with the series... wise old man with a mysterious past.

That's a pretty good read on Inara too.

I was curious because someone else I was speaking with felt those two characters didn't get enough screen time or introductions to fully figure out what they were about. In the series their roles are much more fleshed out.
29th-Sep-2005 04:20 pm (UTC)
My only problem with Inara as the Princess Leia archetype is that I don't believe Inara was a damsel in distress in either the film or the series.
29th-Sep-2005 06:32 pm (UTC)
Wrong Princess Leia archetype. She never really was the damsel in distress so much as the Plucky Woman Who Fights Constantly With Her Soulmate. Think Tracy and Hepburn and you'll get something a bit closer to what I mean.
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29th-Sep-2005 04:25 am (UTC)
This is also one of the few times where one can truthfully say that "if you liked the series, you'll like the movie" and vice versa. They feel essentially the same, with the natural differences that come from the movie being two hours long and self-contained, and the series being somewhat self-contained but with a season-long arc.

So— if you liked the movie, get hold of the Firefly DVDs. They should not disappoint and should, with any luck, make the movie richer to boot.
29th-Sep-2005 09:43 am (UTC)
Thank you for a spoiler free review. :) It's the first I've been able to read without jerking my head away. (I've also learned not to read the comments).

I've seen every episode of Whedon's shows, have them on DVD, watched 'em multiple times... and don't worship the man at all; everybody can make a bad movie, no matter what their past success rate is. I'm glad to hear it looked good to a non-"Joss is God" fan.

I must admit, I'm a sucker for Mal; the leader who is fiercely loyal to the people under him and stands up for what is right no matter the cost is possibly one of the oldest archetypes around, dating back thousands of years. It's also one of the most powerful. The "Good King", even if his kingdom is just the Merry Men, a few ships in a flotilla, or a single Firefly class vessel.
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29th-Sep-2005 01:31 pm (UTC)
Depends on the 10 year old. There is violence. Lots of blowing up. Lots of "Kung Fu" sorts of things. There is some shooting. There is blood. But not any more than you would see on prime time TV, I think. What you are concerned about is spoken of, and implied, but not shown.

There are also some sexual referances, but, once again, more implied that shown.
30th-Sep-2005 01:16 am (UTC)
There is some serious violence there as well as discussion of such, as in: "they were eaten alive and raped for hours" etc. If your son is impressionable, you better keep him at home.

Great flick though. Saw it in Boston two days ago.
1st-Oct-2005 06:30 am (UTC)
I would say no. Way too much violence for a 10 year old. People are impaled brutally, and unless you understand the humanity in the inhumanness (when you see it you'll understand what I mean) it's just fairly brutal. There's also a speargun that gets shot through someone's calf and pulled on, and general hand-to-hand combat.

It's rated 14A here, though I think it's a close R. I wouldn't take a 10-year old if I had one, but don't you miss it.
29th-Sep-2005 12:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Bill. I forwarded your review to Ruth, which (IMHO) says a lot.
29th-Sep-2005 06:47 pm (UTC)
Bunches of Serenity reviews at Instapundit, which was kind enough to link to this post.
1st-Oct-2005 06:22 am (UTC) - Surprise!
Bill, you're being linked to left and right.

And rightly so. Excellent cover of the movie. Thanks so much; I agree on every point.

Quick FYI: it was not mentioned in the movie, but as far as the lasers and photon torpedoes go, they're only "available" to the empire; everyone else has to make due with the "sticks and stones" of bullets and rifles. Small technicality that was mentioned in the series, but not in the movie. Just because you were curious.
1st-Oct-2005 07:06 am (UTC) - Re: Surprise!
Cool! And thanks for the kind words and the info about the available tech.

I'm going to have to watch the DVDs of Firefly. After WindyCon...
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