I don't usually do movie reviews, for various reasons. I don't take a notepad, I admire detailed and specific reviews, and I'm afraid my memory alone won't do the trick, absent multiple viewings. [Update: this has since changed.]
I'll make my first exception for Serenity.
Summary. I loved Serenity. If you like science-fiction at all, and can take it a bit dark, you will find Serenity to be a terrific movie. Go see it. Be warned that it sports a hard-edged and deserved PG-13, and do not take younger children. (More later in this section.) But you go!
Backstory. Serenity is a movie born from the sparklingly creative (and re-creative) mind of Joss Whedon. It began life as a TV series ("Firefly") that, though it found its voice early and was building a fanbase, was badly mishandled and prematurely cancelled by Fox. However, DVD sales in part fueled enough confidence for Universal to greenlight this movie. Serenity's relatively modest $40 million budget is put to the best use by Whedon, who notes that his TV series always came in under-budget.
Whedon's ways. The strength of the movie is surely its full-orbed characters, and what Whedon does with them. The actors are all virtually note-perfect, talking and interacting like real people, and one cares for them.
This "caring" also is a hazard. Anyone familiar with Whedon's other work knows well that no character is "safe" in a Whedon creation. None. So with Whedon one doesn't ever have that nice cushion that only TV series provide, of knowing that, no matter how dire the situation, this or that major character simply cannot die. Oh, yes, they can. If Joss Whedon is driving, any character can die. Very suddenly. And with no miracle recovery after the commercial break.
In fact, that is one of the things I very much appreciate about Whedon. He likes settling you down into a familiar cliché, one that you have seen a thousand times, one that always ends exactly the same way. Then, when you're all comfy and cozy, in your blanket and your Bearfoot slippers — Whedon doesn't simply pull the rug from under your feet, he takes the entire floor and part of the foundation with it. With Whedon, one should always expect the unexpected.
Accessible. Though I saw and enjoyed the Firefly DVD set, I tried to keep part of my brain positioned as if I were a newcomer to that universe. Would I be able to get involved and enjoy the movie? I think so. (You can also read Dom's bona-fide, glowing "outsider" review. Or, though there's a spoiler risk, you could see Bryan Preston's review — written by someone who hasn't seen any Whedon series, and loved Serenity.) There is, I think, enough deftly-handled exposition sprinkled here and there to bring anyone up to speed enough fully to enjoy the movie. Then rent the series, and enjoy more!
Amazing. Serenity delivers full-blooded characters, colorful and memorable dialogue, a dense but not bewildering plot, and some hold-on-tight action sequences. I saw it with my 19 year old son Matthew, also a Firefly fan. Afterwards, I asked him, "How many times did your jaw drop?"
"I lost count," was his answer.
Let me make it even more vivid. I think I can speak for Matthew in saying that, at least at one point, I'm pretty sure he and I both came close to jumping out of our seats and yelping, "What?!!"
The movie has laugh out loud humor, tension, pathos, horror, thrills -- often in rat-a-tat sequence, or commingled. It's a marvelously crafted piece of movie art.
Whedon's Weltanschauung. All movies have a worldview, and Serenity is no exception.
Joss Whedon is a self-described "angry atheist," and that fact pokes its head out here and there in all of his work. Like another great sci-fi writer who is an atheist, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the wonderful Babylon 5) — and unlike Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry — Whedon seems to accept that recognizable human religion will always be around. I'm sure Whedon, sharp guy that he is, thinks he gets it. But he doesn't.
Whedon is not nearly as successful as Straczynski was in peopling his universe with believable, full-orbed, practicing religious people. In Firefly/Serenity, Whedon has a wonderful character named Book, but Whedon never seems to know exactly what to do with him. In the series Book is your typical liberal-created clergyman, non-judgmental and gripped with his own unresolved issues. Here he says "Believe! I don't care what you believe — just believe." Uh huh.
Also, Whedon's characters refer to the cosmos as "the 'verse," dropping the "uni-." Now, that may be simply a speech affectation, like his "Shiny!" (= "Cool!"). Or it may reflect a worldview that rejects the unity of creation as coming from one Creator, in whom all things cohere (Colossians 1:17), in favor of the naturalistic, nihilistic, chaotic view towards which atheism naturally bears one.
Whatever the case, I would observe of this movie as I have of Whedon's other TV series, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel, that Whedon has evidently never known, liked and understood a real-live, practicing, Bible-believing Christian. He shares that with most Hollywood writers, sadly. Whedon can create believable murderers, maniacs, flawed heroes, monsters, in-betweeners, and a hundred other types. But he seems unable or unwilling to create a credible, likable, genuine, openly Christian character — let alone create one and go anywhere with that character.
But as with all men, Whedon cannot live nor create in a manner consistent with his own atheistic premises. Atheism, formal or practical, always and necessarily falls apart. It is crushed under its own weight (Psalm 14; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).
His characters (like Whedon himself, like all men) have to deal with morally complex issues, have to make choices. Whedon paints bad guys and good guys. But what makes these guys bad? What makes those guys good? "If you can't do something smart, do something right," Book is quoted as saying. But how do you tell what is right? No objective answer is given, nor can be, on atheistic premises.
In Whedon, the line always shifts, because his premises don't allow him to draw a fixed and consistent line. Yet the categories must persist, as they do in life. That is not negotiable. The problem is that Whedon's characters have no fixed, transcendent point of reference. All they are left with are glands, guts, and guesses.
Because there is no objective, transcendent right, there can be no objective, transcendent evil. There can be no real sin, hence no real redemption from sin, hence no real Redeemer — and no real, everlasting hope.
As to specific values showcased, I can picture different groups finding affirmation or offense in Serenity. Captain Mal Reynolds (wonderfully played by Nathan Filion) comes off as a libertarian, but an uneasy and cranky one. On reflection, libertarians often are cranky... but I digress.
The enemy seems to be an oppressive and totalitarian state, and its true-believer advocates. One's mind leaps to real-world socialism, communism, or Islamo-fascism. But at one point the goal is stated as being the elimination of "sin." So is that a shot at the Hollywood caricature of active Christians? Or is it just a turn of dialogue without specific modern significance? If there is an intended slam here, it is not heavy-handed.
With these ideological objections, how can I so heartily recommend the movie? Because I view it as art, as entertainment. I do not embrace it as a sermon. I can think that Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Homer, Tad Williams, and Aristophanes are gifted writers in their ways, while still critiquing their worldviews. Christians need not be as one-dimensional as Hollywood's caricatures would have it.
Will you be offended? If bad words is a major issue for you, ScreenIt! counts about two dozen in the entire movie. That's about an hour's walk through any given mall, only milder.
There is no nudity, there are passing sexual allusions. There is a good deal of violence, though the worst is suggested, and not lingering. It wasn't Sesame Street; it wasn't Kill Bill.
Worth the money? My basic criterion for choosing between seeing a movie in a theater or waiting for the DVD is the reduction factor. That is, will it lose much in translation to smaller screen and smaller sound? With Serenity, the answer is a definite "Yes." Additionally, I consider whether I want to support what a movie represents. Again, with Serenity, I answer yes. I want Whedon to make more, tell more of the story.
With those final caveats, let me get back to where I started: this is an excellent movie. Serenity is intense, gripping, involving, and it sticks with you. See it this week.