On Friday evening my wife and I went to see the best science fiction film I have seen in a movie theatre in a very long time -- possibly since the first Matrix film came out in 1999. [Yes, I am well aware that Revenge of the Sith came out this summer; no, I don't consider any of the Star Wars films science fiction, for reasons detailed here.] The film is a spectacular piece of storytelling, much as you'd expect from Joss Whedon, and I'm happy to report that the film also extends the television series (Firefly) on which it is based in intriguing ways. After the shoddy treatment that the series received from the idiots at Fox who ran the episodes out of sequence and then refused to even air them all, it's nice to see a little vindication.

[Of course, the vindication is more artistic than commercial, since the film has only made about $18 million and is currently at #8 on the box office gross chart, having been at #2 the previous weekend but losing about 47% in the intervening period. Why more people aren't flocking to see this film is completely beyond me.]

Whedon is a magnificent writer and director -- he can tell a story primarily through dialogue without getting wrapped up in needless explication or didactic delivery. He's not really a visual director, although there are some visually stunning sequences (particularly the close combat episodes). Instead, what is most compelling about Whedon's art is the way that he develops his characters; he draws you in to the lives of the quirky people he depicts, and manages to sketch their portraits quickly with just a few turns of phrase. The early exchange between Mal and Jayne about taking grenades on a job, combined with the later allusion to that situation near the end of the film, tells you almost everything you need to know about their relationship. Zoe's professionalism and her firm deference to Mal suggests the back-story without having to explicitly go into it. And so on.

The most interesting thing for me -- besides the fact that the movie was basically a chance to go and visit with some people on screen I hadn't seen for a while, and whose lives and fates had become quite important -- was watching Whedon basically wrap up the unfinished first season of the series with the budget and script control that he really needed. Given Whedon's penchant for single-season arcs, I suspect that he would have done something like this if the series had been able to continue, answering some of the questions about River and leaving a few things to be developed later on. I found it pretty satisfying, abrupt deaths of main characters aside . . .

It's also interesting to me that both Whedon and Lucas were grappling with similar themes (the problems of a politics oriented towards an absolute ideal) in their films this year, but going about it in almost opposite ways. Lucas, telling an epic, mythic story, focuses on the fall of a particular individual; Whedon, telling a character-driven story largely about a small group's struggle to survive, ends up focusing on a large impersonal set of forces and institutions. We meet none of the perpetrators of the great idealistic project in Whedon's universe; we get an impassioned speech from Mal, but there is no corruption arc in the same way that we see in Lucas' epic. In the end both films take the same (anti-idealist) side, but they get there in very different ways.

There are rumors of more films set in the Serenity universe. I really hope that they get made; I want to see what happens next!

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