For months, I've been jumping up and down like a little kid who needs a trip to the potty, waiting for the film version of Firefly to hit theatres. One of the worst things about the wait was that there were several opportunities to see Serenity early, and I missed them.
There were pre-screenings all over North America... but I didn't get to see any. My boss gave me a two-person pass to see the movie the Wednesday before it opened... but I couldn't make that, either. I gave it to my brother, and he assured me it was great.
Now, I've finally seen it, in a theatre full of Firefly and Joss Whedon fans. And it was damn good. If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading this and go directly to a movie theatre. It has almost everything a great summer movie should have, and that I didn't see in any of the actual summer blockbusters this year. It has great action - chase scenes, bar fights, acrobatics, kung fu moves, shoot outs. It has hilarious dialogue, some of the best, sharpest jokes Joss has written since... well, since Firefly was cancelled. It has a great cast, who are allowed those small, subtle moments of emotion that so few film makers bother to capture in this kind of a movie. How many action movies can you name where the camera lingers just a moment longer after the dialogue ends in a scene, to capture the sad quirk of a mouth, or for that perfect beat of comic timing that drives a punchline home? How many movies can you name where you not only liked the dialogue and the chase scene, you liked the dialogue during the chase scene?
From here on, there are spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
The film also has one of the better science fiction plots I've actually seen in a while. Most SF in film and television is mining from two veins: The Matrix and The X-Files. Even seemingly original shows like Lost can be summed up as "It's like X-Files meets Survivor!" Joss has gone back a bit and is working from the older vein of space opera, a genre that has been worked over pretty thoroughly by the Stars (Wars and Trek) and needed a good kick in the pants.
In Star Trek, the heroes are authority figures, military officials and scientists with ranks, government backing and rules to follow. In Star Wars, they are chosen ones, mystical warriors with destiny guiding them. Firefly goes completely against both grains, giving us a gang of bank robbers and smugglers, the losers and scum of human space, who nevertheless have functioning moral compasses. Well, except maybe for Jayne.
Here, it's the villain who represents authority, order and government. The Operative reminded me both of the Soviet revolutionaries and of hard-right American Cold Warriors. He has a bright future in mind, and he's given up on a conventional morality so he can make it happen. Every society generates people like this: willing to violate society's own ethical codes, justifying their evil as for a greater good. (In his use of a sword and careful diction, he's also the most Jedi-like character in the film. Not sure if that's a deliberate comment on Star Wars, or just because killing people with swords is cool.)
The central mystery and premise of the film is also one that is (for an action movie) remarkably well thought out. It also gives us the origin of the Reavers, about whom there has been much speculation among fans.
The ending, in which the Operative survives and (almost) changes sides, is also a typical Whedon touch. He loves to undermine our expectations, making us look at character and plot in a new way. It doesn't have to be the same as everything else you've seen, he seems to be saying. The fact that little is resolved, that the real power brokers remain off stage, and that the final victory is as much moral as it is actual, is also typical. You can't just fly in and blow up all the bad guys with one well-placed missile. Changing the worlds is, and always will be, a work in progress.
And there are the shocks. The death of Shepherd Book didn't surprise me much at all. The other death was quite a kick to the head. I sure didn't see it coming, and I had the classic moment of "that character's okay, right?" Even though having a six-inch thick spike through your heart usually does not denote good health.
Now, some minor quibbles. The relationship between Inara and Mal almost felt tacked on, and her appearance halfway through the film could have been confusing for some people who had never seen the televison series (although it had some damn funny dialogue). The change from a series of solar systems to one solar system in the film seemed like pointless retcon. And from a logical point of view, why didn't the Reavers trash the surface of Miranda, or kill the passive 90 per cent of the population? Why are they not all dead from fighting with each other? Why did they all go into space in the first place? But from the point of view of a two-hour movie, these are really very small problems. (War of the Worlds wishes its problems were this small.)
I think the movie will benefit from much re-watching, and I plan to start that later this week. Now you should go see it again too. After all, we can't let it stay at just $10 million profit!