Last Friday night I went to Raleigh's Mission Valley Cinema to catch an opening night screening of Serenity, Joss Whedon's new feature film based on his much-lamented television series Firefly. I was there to join members of a fan club who'd held an informal convention in Raleigh to celebrate the film's opening. For those such as me who've missed the largely Internet-driven phenomenon, the existence of a passionate fan base for a television show that was canceled midway through its maiden season was startling, and inspiring.
I got to Mission Valley just after the pre-film party, which included the sort of costume contest one would expect for a second or third installment of a franchise movie like Star Wars or Harry Potter, not for a movie no one has seen. As it turned out, at least one of the party's organizers, a Raleigh stormwater engineer named Watson Ross, had already seen the film. Twice. Inside the theater, the atmosphere was convivial and familiar, with a distinctly high-IQ, keyboard-jockey vibe. When I remarked to Ross that everyone seemed to know one another, he told me that many had been acquainted in cyberspace for months but were having their first face-to-face meeting this weekend.
While waiting for the film to begin, a group of people behind me struck up a rendition of the Firefly theme song.
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
It may be a Star Trek for a new generation, but I couldn't help but be inspired by such popular enthusiasm for a movie, one that doesn't have stacks of ready-made character costumes piled up at Wal-Mart. The fans, all of whom seem to be on a first name basis with "Joss"--who is already in the cultural pantheon for Buffy the Vampire Slayer--were instrumental in creating a groundswell of advance support for the production of the film. The enthusiasm was contagious, and I only hoped that the film would live up to it.
Thankfully, it did. If Serenity isn't quite an epochal movie, it's still the smartest and most endearing sci-fi action movie in recent memory, with the ironic wit and panache that seems to have eluded George Lucas for decades, and none of the leaden pretense and f/x overload of the Matrix movies. The premise of Serenity is reminiscent of Star Wars, but it's far less bombastic and gratifyingly free of annoyances like R2-D2, Jar-Jar and Jabba.
Just as important is that the film's universe, which is set half a millennium into the future, is not a pitched struggle between Light and Dark. Instead, we're told that the universe is ruled by the Alliance, a largely benevolent interplanetary culture that has brought prosperity to its inhabitants. But out on the fringes are holdout remnants of a failed revolution who resist co-option largely for aesthetic reasons. If the universal Alliance is Microsoft, the revolutionaries are open source software.
At the center of the film are a group of good-hearted bandits, led by the comically clumsy and tormented Mal (Nathan Fillion), who shoot around on a dilapidated spaceship called Serenity. This crew scrapes together a living by doing quasi-legal odd jobs for shady characters in the universal demimonde. These gigs entail frequent risks, unreliable rewards and daring getaways, and Mal endures mutinous grousing from his chronically discontented crew.
The plot for this opening entry in a would-be franchise concerns a young woman named River who needs rescuing. River has been a secret ward of the state, trained to become a devastating superhuman with psychic powers, ever since she made the mistake of expressing nonconformist tendencies as a child. When the Serenity team whisks her off to the land of cool people, the Alliance sends a dangerous operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor from Dirty Pretty Things) to recover this asset.
Truth be told, River isn't a terribly impressive superhuman--her skill set seems to be mostly in the area of martial arts, a useful and cinematic talent but one of surely limited utility in a universe measured by light-years. The real point of Serenity is its dystopia of banal, hegemonic capitalism, and its heroes are the ones who are too savvy to participate. Making a voluntary exchange of security for identity, the heroes of Serenity choose to make their living on the margins. Long may they live.
The idea of an infantilized teenaged boy who sucks his thumb suggests that we may be in for a cinematic poke in the eye like Harmony Korine's Gummo or perhaps a John Waters musical like Crybaby. But Thumbsucker turns out to be a fairly ordinary, if quite intelligent, story of a teenaged misfit who needs to figure out how to succeed on the school debate team, connect with his parents, and get a girlfriend--all so he can win admittance to N.Y.U.
I haven't read the Walter Kirn novel, but I've enjoyed his lucid, widely published book reviews for years and I've been meaning to pick up one of his novels. On the evidence of the film, Kirn's novel would seem to feature several subplots and multiple points of view. Director Mike Mills' film attempts to cover them, but we keep coming back to the film's least compelling figure, the mixed-up, long-haired teenager Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) who can't get out of bed. (Maybe it's familiarity breeding contempt: I've been that boy.)
Although the film maintains a tight focus on Justin's travails and the ethics of medicating misfit kids, I found myself far more interested in the lives of Justin's parents: his father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), an ex-jock who toils unhappily at a sporting goods store, and his mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton), a fading beauty who finds rejuvenation in her work at a drug rehab clinic where a Downey-like celebrity junkie (Benjamin Bratt) is in residence. Other supporting characters also seem to be in crisis, but their dramas unfold off-screen. Keanu Reeves is a hippie dentist who's searching for the existential key, growing out his hair and cutting it, and alternately winning road races and lighting up cigarettes in his office. As Justin's debate team coach, Vince Vaughn delivers a rich performance by finding complex motives beneath his straight-forward dialogue.
The most frustrating elision, however, is that of Rebecca (Kelli Garner), Justin's classmate and debate partner. When we first meet Rebecca, she's intense and sophisticated but socially awkward. However, her life goes on an offscreen downward spiral for reasons that are never really explained. When she re-enters Justin's life later in the film, she's become a rather cold, pot-smoking dropout, sexually available but emotionally adrift.
It's not an easy task to cover the multiple points of view of a complex novel, but it can be done. Alexander Payne's Election, for example, was adapted from a Tom Perrotta novel and wove together four points of view with nary a seam. Mills, unfortunately, doesn't come up with enough solutions to elevate his film above the usual run of teenaged drama, but Thumbsucker is still good enough to be an effective advertisement for Kirn's novel.