“Serenity” Review: Coming Home to the Firefly Verse

serenity-poster

Few movies make me feel as happy and at home as Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Watching that film is like hearing the opening notes of an old, favorite song and knowing that it will always be there, no matter what else happens in life, and even if no other creation ever quite compares to it. You can certainly watch it and enjoy it as a stand-alone movie, as I did the first time I saw it, but it makes a much bigger impact after you’ve watched its origin show Firefly.

Is it totally cliche to say that after watching Firefly, watching Serenity feels like coming home?

That coming home feeling really kicks in around the film’s 10 minute mark, when we finally duck inside the Serenity ship and trail Captain Mal as he speaks to each of the familiar crew members. This dynamic long take rattles on for over 4 minutes, while the Serenity plummets toward its death. Jayne’s loading up on guns, Kaylee’s working feverishly to fix the ship before they all crash and die, and after Mal leaves Zoe with Jayne, the two continue chatting, their voices fading as the camera takes us away from them. It’s a perfect, realistic touch.

The reason I love this long take is not just for the skill and style of it, or for the way it shows off the size of the set: I love it because it seems to invite the viewer in as part of the crew. That’s the magic that makes both Serenity and Firefly so beloved.

Orson Scott Card explained it perfectly in his review of the film back when it was first released (read his review in full here):

“The key to this kind of movie is that you create a community that the audience wishes they belonged to, with a leader that even audience members who don’t follow anybody would willingly follow.”

There’s something about the Serenity crew that feels like family, and that’s part of why Firefly and Serenity have gained and sustained such a cult following, even now, 10 years after the show went off the air.

Sci-Fi Storytelling at its Shiniest

Yeah, it’s shiny. I went there. (If you haven’t seen Firefly yet, “shiny” is slang for cool. But I’m going to talk about all the wordsmithing later…)

Serenity is a soaring example of character-driven science fiction. While other sci-fi often feels cold or gets lost under heaps of overwrought plot, Serenity keeps the focus on the characters and themes, without letting too much happen to muddy up the film’s simple message. Serenity is proof that just because a story is set in the cool expanse of space doesn’t mean it can’t be about the humblest details of what it is to be alive.

serenity opening
The Operative watching a holographic recording of Simon and River escaping from the Alliance.

The film opens with the good young doctor Simon (Sean Maher) saving his sister River (Summer Glau) from the Alliance. They’ve been brainwashing her, turning her into a weapon they can trigger with subliminal messaging. But because she’s a psychic, she’s picked up a major government secret that they don’t want leaked. And so they send an assassin — the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — after her.

Meanwhile, Simon whisks River right back to the Serenity, where the old gang is in tow — namely, Captain Mal (Nathon Fillion), first mate Zoe (Gina Torres), pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and former thief and mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) makes two important appearances, which highlight Mal’s inner frustration and moral dilemmas. And when the Operative uses Mal’s almost maybe love interest Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) to get to him, she completes the original Firefly crew appearing in Serenity.

serenity crew

The question Serenity poses is whether the world would be better off without sin. And it features Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew fighting back for their right to misbehave. Without giving away the details of the story or ending, I’ll just say that Serenity is not just about some huge government cover-up — although that’s there — it’s about what makes humans tick. You know that constant struggle we have to better ourselves? It’s part of our purpose as humans, and to have someone force that “better” on us would not end well. We need that struggle. And we’re decent, most of us, most of the time. Life is about taking the bad with the good.

Dong le ma?

Maybe the thing I love most about Firefly and Serenity is the dialect. I’ve always been interested in unique speech patterns and slang. I love books like Trainspotting, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Clockwork Orange that are written in a strong dialect, because whether it’s real or fictional, it all adds to the escapism and helps you get a feel for another world. Serenity has just this type of offbeat language. It often adds to the humor, too.

Film Title: Serenity.
Even the bickering is funny.

Most of the time, characters speak English, with a few Chinese words or even full sentences thrown in. (They often lapse into Mandarin when they’re cursing, too.) This is because the Alliance is a joint government created when the two Earth superpowers, China and the United States, merged. Even the decor, use of chopsticks, and fashion reflect this dual culture throughout the Firefly/Serenity world. But the English that’s usually spoken has an American Old West flair. In other words, you ain’t gonna hear a lot of “isn’t” in this world.

While the TV show has a careful smattering of this language, the movie is absolutely bathing in it. The first time you watch Serenity, prepare for at least a few lines that require quick deciphering after you hear them. It can be a tad off-putting at first, but it’s not gratuitous. The dialect even serves a special purpose: to take viewers by surprise and force their attention. During key emotional scenes, you hang on every word to understand what’s going on between these characters. And even after watching and mulling over this movie several times, the language still keeps my attention. It’s poetry; even the rants are romantic:

serenity shot

“I got no answers for you, Inara. I got no rudder. Wind blows northerly, I go north. That’s who I am. Now, maybe that ain’t a man to lead, but they have to follow. So you wanna tear me down… do it inside your own mind. I’m not trying to tear you down. But you fog things up. You always have. You spin me about. I wish like hell you was elsewhere.”

And each character has his or her own cadence. Simon and River, being highly educated, don’t use the casual, Old West slang. Meanwhile, Zoe calls Mal “sir” and delivers the slang with a more formal edge. The Operative, who has a British accent, speaks with extreme formality that indicates his training and professionalism. Inara also speaks with more sophistication — meaning less of the slang — but a warmth permeates her speech that hints at her training as a companion.

Honestly, there is so much detail to this universe and its characters, it feels absolutely real, and the language is a big part of that.

“You guys always bring me the very best violence.”

Serenity is packed with plenty of action and special effects, but this isn’t a high-budget film by any means. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert affectionately mentioned recognizing the sounds of pots, pans, and garbage can lids being banged to make the sound effects for a space battle. It may not be sophisticated, but it gets the job done — and well. Scenes set in space and action sequences with sci-fi tech look surprisingly realistic. Sure, the sets appear bulky, but that’s part of the clunk of the Firefly/Serenity world. I love it.

Speaking of sets and effects, I also find myself admiring the lighting in the film quite a bit. A great example is during the sequence that has the Serenity ship passing through Reaver territory; another ship goes by, shining a light into the Serenity as if for an inspection. Watching the light pass over the crew members’ faces makes the scene feel incredibly realistic. This also happens when the ship is landing on a planet, but the light here is softer, like natural sunlight.

river tam

As for the action, the most fun sequences are the ones involving some hand-to-hand combat. A scene in which River kicks the ass of almost everyone in a tavern — including Jayne — is one of the best fight scenes I’ve watched outside of a martial arts film.

It’s All About the Details

The problem I have with a lot of science fiction is that it gets bogged down in sweeping plots that feel like they have little basis in reality. Who cares about a huge government conspiracy if it doesn’t affect a single, specific character that we care about, in a meaningful way?

Fortunately, it’s the details that both Firefly and Serenity get right. That’s why when I think about this world, my mind immediately jumps to Wash’s toy dinosaurs, chopsticks and tin cans, Kaylee scrambling to fix parts of the ship as it starts to fall apart at the seams… again.

Honestly, the movie’s last few lines sum up what makes Serenity — the ship and the film — so memorable. Returning to Orson Scott Card’s review, he even went so far as to say, “If Ender’s Game can’t be this kind of movie, and this good a movie, then I want it never to be made. I’d rather just watch Serenity again.”

I guess the upcoming Ender’s Game movie is going to be good, then. But no matter what movies come later, I’m bound to escape to Serenity again and again. Probably forever.

serenity

— Ashley

Game Console Problems: Why I’m Leaning Toward Xbox One

microsoft-xbox-one-4842_610x407The internet is buzzing with next gen console talk after the Xbox Reveal today. I can’t outshout it, but I do have a few problems with today’s consoles that need fixing — not to mention some improvements I would like to see in my next gen console. The question is, will the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One solve more gaming problems?

Problem 1: Slow Downloads

I often feel like I spend way too much time waiting for games to download. First, I wait for a game demo to download. Then I play the demo. If I like it, I exit the demo, find the full game, purchase it… and wait for it to download. This process can take hours.

PS4’s Answer: Thanks to Gaikai’s streaming technology, the PS4 will let you start playing games even while they’re still downloading — meaning you don’t have to wait for it to download in full before you launch it. Success!

ps4 try it now
PS4 to feature “try it now” demos — no download necessary.

You’ll also be able to stream the demo — specifically, a certain portion of the game (probably the beginning) –and if you feel like purchasing the full game in the middle of the free demo, you can do so and continue playing. There’s no need to exit the demo and start over.

Xbox One’s Answer: Although the Xbox Reveal didn’t go into downloading/streaming technology, its cloud service will allow instant updating of games, according to its FAQ site. That means there shouldn’t be a need to wait for downloads if you’re using the cloud service — making it comparable to the PS4.

Problem 2: Turning on Consoles is a Chore

Maybe I’m spoiled here, but I always feel like turning on my Xbox 360 is something of a process. I have to get up, push that button, wait for the 360 to warm up and launch (very noisily, might I add), and finally scroll around to find the game I want to play and, you know, wait for it to launch. (Yeah, I’m definitely being spoiled about this.)

Xbox One’s Answer: The Xbox One and its Kinect sensor will let you use voice commands and motion controls to speed things along — and yes, things are going to move much faster than before. For instance, to turn on your Xbox, you can just say, “Xbox on,” and it will recognize your voice to bring up your profile. Next, you can scroll from one page to another just by waving your hand. Instant switching lets you switch between games, TV shows, and movies seamlessly (or so the staged demo showed).

PS4’s Answer: The PS4 didn’t show off this kind of technology. As long as it turns on and loads faster than previous consoles, I’ll be happy… but for how long?

The Xbox One definitely has an edge here when it comes to encouraging me to be a spoiled couch potato. And in the long run, its voice and motion commands could make it a revolutionary console. I’m not even into Kinect games, but I’m still loving the voice and motion controls.

Problem 3: No Multitasking Capabilities

Sometimes when I’m playing a video game, I want to instantly look up something about it, such as the name of a voice actor or how to get through a tricky puzzle. (Yeah, I cheat sometimes.) It’s frustrating to have to look up that information on another device — or, when playing on my PC, minimize the game screen to do an internet search separate from the game.

Xbox One, Snap mode.
Xbox One, Snap mode.

Xbox One’s Answer: the Xbox One has a fantastic multitasking feature called Snap mode, which is my favorite thing about the console so far. You can activate it with voice commands or use motion controls to physically “grab” the screen in the air and make it smaller, then do an internet search or take a Skype call in the side bar.

PS4’s Answer: The PS4 will also have a multitasking capability, but we haven’t seen much of it yet. It will have an easy Suspend/Resume feature, letting you pause at any part of the game, leave the screen, and come back — but I’m hoping it will also let you do activities in a side bar area, like the Xbox One, so I don’t have to minimize the game screen completely like I do on PC now.

Problem 4: Socializing is Difficult… Especially on Game Consoles

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most sociable gamer, but part of the problem is not being able to find friends easily on current gen consoles. And I’m sorry, I sort of hate gamertags. It’s like Myspace back in the day, before Facebook cleaned everything up by having people use their real names. (Wow, what a concept!)

PS4 Profile Page
PS4, profile page.

PS4’s Answer: The PS4 will let you make your own profile page with your real name and photo, helping you find real-world friends to add to your network. It sounds like a social network very much in the Facebook vein, but with an emphasis on what we all love in this corner of the world: games. Maybe it won’t be that different from what we already have, but here’s hoping real pictures and names are encouraged enough to make finding friends a breeze.

Next, the “Share” button will allow you to show screenshots and even gameplay footage to your network. (But don’t worry about spoilers; game developers can make certain parts of the game, such as those major boss fights, locked from sharing.) You can also share footage on networks like Facebook and Ustream, or do real-time streaming so your friends can watch you play — a very Twitch.tv move there.

Xbox One’s Answer: Xbox One also has a social aspect, but it seems to be about multiplayer matchmaking, creating a larger community, and helping you find recommendations — more like a Netflix service than a personal social network. Nancy Tellem, Microsoft entertainment and digital media president formerly with CBS, calls the Xbox One a “water cooler.”

xbox one
Xbox One, home page.

The Xbox One will have pages of what’s trending and personalized recommendations for games as well as TV shows and movies. It’ll keep track of all your favorites. Meanwhile, cloud technology and 300,000 servers — that’s 20 times more servers than the Xbox 360 has — will allow more participants in multiplayer matches and a better matchmaking system. You’ll also have a dedicated DVR to let you capture gameplay footage.

I like everything the Xbox One is offering — especially the personalized recommendations, etc. — but not being a multiplayer person, I’m more interested in the PS4’s more personal approach to socializing and sharing. The PS4 will also predict what game you’d like and load it for you the next time you turn on your console, so the Xbox One doesn’t necessarily have the advantage in the personalized games recommendations department.

The Bottom Line

The PS4 and Xbox One have a lot in common when it comes to the major gaming problems I have, and frankly, both consoles are going to offer incredible improvements over current gen consoles. I’d like to get both.

But for now, I’m leaning toward purchasing the Xbox One for these reasons:

— Voice and motion controls (fingers crossed that they work well!)

— Snap mode multitasking in the side bar

— Bringing all of our entertainment together for easy access

Now, I know some people are complaining about the Xbox One focusing too much on entertainment besides video games, but I don’t view this as a negative thing. I mean, one of the draws of the PS3 is its Blu-ray player, right? (And the Xbox One has caught up there; it will feature Blu-ray!) Sure, we already have TV and DVD players, but if Xbox One wants to bring all of our entertainment onto one piece of equipment for easy access, I’m all for that.

Graphics quality is another potential tie-breaker, but since I already play on PC a lot, I’m not overly concerned with that on my console. Of course, what we’ve seen from the PS4 in that department is gorgeous. I love it. But if Xbox One has more features I care about, then graphics will come in second for me. And just because Xbox One hasn’t revealed a lot about its graphics doesn’t mean it hasn’t improved them, too… It just means we need more information.

Now it’s time to see those exclusive games for each console. I’ve always been an Xbox gamer, but the number and quality of PlayStation exclusive games has often made me feel like I’m missing out. I want to play Journey, Uncharted, and Ni no Kuni whenever I want. So if the PS4 continues this tradition of excellent exclusive games, I might have to go with the PS4.

Otherwise, unless E3 reveals something major, Xbox One will be the next gen console I purchase… first.

— Ashley

Who is Renegade Shepard — and How Heroic Is She?

Mass Effect is my favorite video game series, and what I love most about it are the in-game choices you’re able to make as Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect stats: roughly 2/3 of players go the Paragon route.
Mass Effect stats: roughly 2/3 of players go the Paragon route.

You can be a diplomatic Paragon or a sharp-tongued Renegade – and both are badass. You can romance your NPC of choice (or not), help friends in their personal missions or ignore them, spare enemies or shoot them. (Hell, there are at least two occasions when you can shoot your own squad mates!) And let’s not even get into the more major choices about the Rachni queen, Krogan genophage, and geth, because… you know, spoilers.

This is why it’s always fun to meet other Mass Effect fans and compare notes on how each of us chose to play the game. Every Commander Shepard is unique.

But what’s interesting to me is that most players choose the Paragon path for their Shepards, especially on first playthroughs. When I tell people that my canon Shepard was a Renegade, I sometimes get responses like, “Oh, I have trouble playing mean characters,” or, “I only like to play the good side.” (Of course, there are some people who love playing like I do. I got into this conversation a bit with Tobe Cooper in the comments on my post about playing the hero in video games.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play the nice guy (or girl) in a video game, but there’s no light side/dark side in Mass Effect. And “not nice” is not exactly how I think of Renegade Shepard.

This is how I see the Paragon-Renegade personalities:

PARAGONParagon: Diplomatic. Sympathetic. Concerned with saving lives as much as winning. Ready to sacrifice for the greater good, but would rather no one come to harm. Able to forgive.

renegadeRenegade: Ruthless. Isn’t afraid to piss people off. Believes in victory at any cost, and the end justifies the means. Always ready to pull the trigger when no one else will. Shows no mercy.

I understand that as a Renegade, Shepard can seem like a bully. She makes the tough calls when other people can’t. But even if she makes all of the renegade choices throughout the Mass Effect series — and that can mean basically annihilating entire alien races — she still ends up the hero of the Citadel and savior of the galaxy. Sure, she’s not the most merciful person in the galaxy. But she gets the job done, saving a lot of lives in the process.

Now, I have to confess that my canon Renegade Shepard still made quite a few Paragon decisions. That’s what role-playing is about; if I only choose red dialogue options to make my character a Renegade, I’m not really thinking through decisions as my Shepard would. Veering from the main Paragon or Renegade path when it suits your character is part of the RPG experience in Mass Effect.

So while many conversations had my Shepard threatening people to get what she wanted — and yeah, she totally played bad cop to Thane’s good cop — I never imagined she would act on all of those threats. Sure, there were moments when my Shepard let enemies die instead of sparing their lives; for instance, she let Garrus shoot the man who had betrayed his team instead of convincing Garrus to let him go. For my Shepard, that was well-deserved justice, not anything evil. She chose Renegade interrupts to get people to do the right thing — even if it meant scaring them into action. I liked to imagine my Shepard as more “cruel to be kind” than just plain cruel.

That also meant that when it came to the big decisions, such as whether or not to spare an alien race, my Shepard was open-minded. She was a spacer who was used to diplomacy and trying to find common ground with alien races. And even on Feros in Mass Effect 1, Shepard tried her best to save as many colonists as possible. She might have had an uncompromising demeanor, but she was far from heartless. Maybe that means my Shepard wasn’t a true Renegade – just 70% Renegade like my Paragon-Renegade bars tended to show.

A “watch your mouth” Renegade — not a “kill them all” type.

But what’s interesting is that the way I played my Shepard – as the hard-ass with a heart of gold – made her just as much a bully as any other Renegade. The only difference? She didn’t favor humans over aliens. Most of the big decisions that inspired Paragon responses in my Shepard (and, let’s face it, in me) had something to do with saving alien races, compromising with them, and trying to keep an open mind. So does that mean that playing a full-on Renegade Shepard means being both ruthless and a little bit racist?

Either way, this makes me wonder whether the difference between a hero and a jerk is a matter of degrees — or maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The fact that both Paragon and Renegade Shepard become the same heroes at the end of the day means that the role-playing choices in Mass Effect are more limited than they seem. It doesn’t make me love the decisions any less… but it’s interesting that so many Shepards can have the same fate. That’s the way Mass Effect is set up: Commander Shepard is always a hero.

So is Renegade Shepard less of a hero than Paragon Shepard? If I had played my Renegade with all of the renegade options — even the ones I consider prejudiced against the game’s alien races — maybe she would have seemed less heroic. But as it stands, I like to think she made all the right calls. Or I did.

— Ashley

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, and VIDEO GAMES!