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September 02, 2005


I am not a browncoat. Not even a digital one.

And yet Wednesday night, at a screening of the upcoming movie Serenity, I found myself surrounded by them.

Browncoats are the fans of a science fiction series with an even shorter life than the Star Trek cartoon series: Firefly. The screening was the tail end of an innovative marketing campaign, designed to spread word-of-mouth among fans, and to take advantage of their feedback. Read more about the phenomenon, here.

Judging both by the results, and the enthusiasm of the fans, I'd say they've succeeded. One high-schooler I spoke with claimed to have seen the film four times. "We got to meet some of the actors, too. Dorks. We're just total dorks," he said, as only one confidently bedorked can.

Firefly was canceled after 11 episodes - currently being rerun on the SciFi Channel - but the sharp dialogue and down-to-earn characters earned it the dreaded cult following. The crew members on Captain Malcom Reynolds's Serenity are losers in a solar civil war, reduced to being outlaws to make ends meet. They're also harboring a psychic, trained to be a lethal fighting weapon. (Being a psychic would help in, say, anticipating your adversary's next move.) The winners in the civil war, the Alliance, have dispatched a British-accented assassin to track down and kill the psychic before she can be turned against the Alliance.

Since the producers are smart enough to understand that they'll need to expand their audience beyond the fanbase of a half-season TV series, all of this is explained in a pre-credits 15-minute sequence. All I can say is, watch those transitions.

The film itself follows Serenity as it fights to survive while unraveling a terrible secret about the Alliance. That secret involves yet another party, not a side in the civil war, the "Reevers," monsters who could be Orcs Release 7.0, but who in fact are human.

Serenity works on two levels: as an ensemble piece about Serenity and its insubordinate crew, and about the nature of the perfectability of Man. Like most one-part ensemble pieces, there's not time for more than a facet or two of each character. But since stories about leadership are more interesting than stories about followers, we get to see more of Reynolds's wrinkles than other characters.

While the crew acts as voices for the conflicting values that Reynolds must balance, it's not as though they don't have personalities. They're all likeable, and the Browncoats' affection for them is palpable. The witty, smart dialogue doesn't reduce them all to smart-alecks, but

As for the Perfectability of Man, the Alliance and its assassin seek "a universe without sin," while Reynolds is bored by sermons and embraces human flaws. Those who might mistake the Alliance for a charicature of American religious conservatives should be reminded that traditional conservatism takes man's flaws for granted. The greatest horrors in the name of human perfectability were committed by 20th Century Leftists, and that belief in perfectability still drives much of the modern liberal agenda, although comparisons to Pol Pot and Lenin would be more than a little over-the-top.

The creators have simplified matters considerably by not including aliens. The solar system in question was settled by colonists from earth, and evidently didn't harbor indiginous intelligent life. Good. While some might lament the loss of stand-ins for "diversity," there's not much room for Vulcans in a story about Fallen Man.

As always with space science fiction, the special effects count for a lot. I only found myself shaking my head twice, once when the gas from the ship clearly clumped up as though it were encountering resistance in the vacuum, and another where the Serenity's, er, hard landing, reminded me more of a Dr. Who episode than a big-budget flick.

But these moments stood out only because the crew has gone to lengths to get other details right. The ship's opening sequence for instance, features an atmospheric re-entry that actually remembers there's heat and friction involved.

In fact, the movie's whole look smacks of realism. Whedon and his group have mastered the futuristic-grunge look, the one that started with Blade Runner and seen most recently in Minority Report. The one where dirt and disorder coexist nicely with nifty new technology. In one scene, the captain casually tosses a paper-thin video capture onto his chaotic desk. And believe me, I know chaotic desks.

And that's the real strength of Serenity, the reason that with any justice, it should run for weeks at the top of the box office. It's irreverent without being self-parody. It's serious science fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously, the way The Incredible did for superhero cartoons.

Now, excuse me while I check the listings for the Firefly marathon.

Posted by joshuasharf at September 2, 2005 01:13 PM | TrackBack

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