A review of the film Serenity, which premieres on Friday. No spoilers.
Last night Scott and I caught a sneak preview of Serenity held especially for bloggers. It raises an interesting question: Would I sell my journalistic integrity for a couple of free movie tickets?
And the answer is simple: For a movie this good, you bet I would.
Serenity is not going to please the critics, I can say that much. On the way home I couldn’t help but overhear the conversations of a couple of others who were also at the sneak preview. And they were disgusted.
“I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be serious or funny, funny or serious,” said one critic.
“I kept being surprised; I didn’t know what was going on,” said another.
Now it strikes me as odd, to say the least, that mixing the serious and the comic should be so forbidden (um… Chaucer? Shakespeare? Tarantino?) But there you have it.
And being surprised? Yeah, you’re going to be surprised, even if you did watch the unjustly cancelled series Firefly on which the film is based. In Serenity, we learn a great deal more about the Firefly universe. Some big secrets are finally revealed--and we discover that some other secrets just aren’t ever going to come out.
I’m honestly not sure how well all of this will play to those who haven’t seen Firefly, but I’m hoping for the best. Director Joss Whedon deserves it for having created one of the most evocative fantasy universes in modern popular culture–and for populating it with characters that you would actually want to know, characters you can even imagine knowing without too much difficulty. They’re vivid in a way that few film or TV characters ever are these days. They surprise you; they keep you off guard.
Indeed, being caught off guard is the very essence of Serenity, notably in the way that Whedon’s future world mixes up the genres. It’s a cowboy-space opera-orientalist-monster movie set inside a dystopian political fable. Somehow it all works, just like the rickety ship that gives the film its title–and just like Whedon’s trademark computer graphics sequences that simulate the zooming uneasiness of an earlier era of action movies. With every artistic gesture, Whedon repeats that the future is fundamentally unsteady.
But what’s it like, really? Imagine that the funny bits of Star Wars: Episode I had actually been funny, instead of all flopping about and making you wince. Imagine that all the action was still there, that the special effects were every bit as George-Lucas marvelous, and that the dialogue was about ten thousand times better. Now picture that the one great moment of sentiment in the entire picture gets stomped flat by its funniest laugh line.
Oh yes, and picture that the Empire isn’t Darth-Vader horrible. It’s not all tentacles and cruelty; instead it’s shiny and happy in a Brave-New-World sort of way. The good guys are still out there, but they’ve mostly lost, and you have to wonder at times why they keep on trying.
And yet despite all the action, and despite all the creativity that went into the backstory, the whole film centers on one simple choice, on one question of right and wrong. Don’t let the flashy set pieces distract you; beneath the surface, Serenity has one of the most tightly constructed themes of any film, ever: Everything within it, every major action of every character, centers on how the individual should live in a world that is neither as virtuous nor as free as it ought to be. In the end, our characters risk everything to do what’s right. Despite the multicultural trappings--in the future we all swear in Chinese--in the final scenes, the main characters all emerge as heroes in the grand old sense of the word.
This brings me to one other aspect of the film that pleasantly astonished me: It is, without any question in my mind, the most pro-individualist, pro-liberty film since The Shawshank Redemption. Forget Batman Begins; for the classical liberal, this will be the film to see. All the same people who hated The Shawshank Redemption are going to hate Serenity--and those who loved Shawshank are going to have the ride of their lives. Let the others sneer about Nietzscheanism or glorifying the vigilante; I am quite sure that they will. But, like a conversation overheard after the film is over, it’s not going to matter a bit.
Jason Kuznicki - 9/30/2005
All I can say is that if we were to declare invalid all film reviews that failed to meet your (strange and arbitrary) standards, virtually no film reviews would be left.
It's a sad, angry little world you live in, my friend.
Jeff Riggenbach - 9/30/2005
Mr. Monsen is correct. Straczynski wrote more of Babylon 5 all by himself than I had recalled.
Jeff Riggenbach - 9/30/2005
"Only an individual of exceeding pettiness would think that I was making some actual claim of omniscience or think that I had claimed universal validity for my responses (indeed, even a careful reading of the review gives proof that I don't think the film will cause everyone to react the same way). If it were, no film reviews could ever be written; they all rely on such personal reactions, plus the reasons that the reviewer had them.
Notice the pronoun "it" in the phrase "if it were" at the beginning of Mr. Kuznicki's last sentence. Note that it has no apparent referent - no antecedent - in the preceding sentence (or anywhere else in his little screed, for that matter). Add "inability to write in the English language to his deficiencies as a film reviewer.
Note Mr. Kuznicki's reference to "personal reactions, plus the reasons that the reviewer had them." And note that the reasons Mr. Kuznicki had his emotional reactions to this film are nowhere in evidence. Why are the characters people Mr. Kuznicki would like to meet and get to know? He never tells us. In fact, he doesn't even tell us that *he* would like to get to know them. He says "you" (the reader) will want to get to know them. Yet "[o]nly an individual of exceeding pettiness would think that [he] was making some actual claim of [...] universal validity for [his] responses (indeed, even a careful reading of the review gives proof that [he doesn't] think the film will cause everyone to react the same way)."
As to his absurd charge that without such attribution of the reviewer's emotional states to everyone else in the audience, "no film reviews could ever be written," because "they all rely on such personal reactions," this is the merest hogwash. Mr. Kuznicki should spend less time puffing out his chest and loudly asserting his competence as a film reviewer and more time reading. He might begin with the classic essay "The Affective Fallacy" by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, which goes into a bit more detail as to why it is inappropriate to base one's verdict on the artistic excellence of a work on how some person is supposedly affected by it. He might also benefit from reading through the film reviews of Pauline Kael, who knew how to address a film without assuming that all her own emotional reactions to it would also be those of all her readers. Hell, he'd benefit from reading the review by Anders Monsen to which I compared his own effort. Mr. Monsen doesn't shower me with all his feelings about the film; nor does he assure me that I will feel this way and that way about the film. Yet, somehow, he manages to produce a review. What wizardry!
Jason Kuznicki - 9/30/2005
These are some of the pettiest objections I have ever seen about a film review in any context whatsoever.
In reply to my claim that the film will surprise viewers, Mr. Riggenbach writes, "Really? How would you know that? Doesn't being surprised depend on one's prior state of knowledge?"
Of course being surprised depends on one's prior state of knowledge. But given that I have watched and read everything I could obtain about the Firefly universe, and given that I still found myself surprised, I think that this is a reasonable conjecture, not a review-killing flaw.
The same applies to my comments about other likely reactions from the crowd, and to questions of genre as well. Perhaps Mr. Riggenbach finds genre to be only a marketing tool (a bizarrely anti-capitalist position if I may say so), but I do not. Given that so many people really do have distinct genre preferences, I think that it is entirely proper--indeed, required--for a film review to discuss this topic.
Also keep in mind that I did watch the film in a packed theater, and, as mentioned above, not everyone appreciated it. I think these are sufficient grounds to make the conjectures that I did about why some people will like the film, why others will not like it, and why virtually everyone will be surprised, even if they are well-informed about the fantasy world in which it is set.
Only an individual of exceeding pettiness would think that I was making some actual claim of omniscience or think that I had claimed universal validity for my responses (indeed, even a careful reading of the review gives proof that I don't think the film will cause everyone to react the same way). If it were, no film reviews could ever be written; they all rely on such personal reactions, plus the reasons that the reviewer had them. I think I've supplied enough of both.
Anders Monsen (guest blogger) - 9/29/2005
Jeff Riggenbach raises some good points. However, although I am incorrect in that JMS did not write all of the Babylon 5 episodes, Riggenbach is disingenuous when he attributes just the outline and creation of the series to JMS and that many episodes were written by others. Of the 110 episodes in the five-year arc, JMS wrote 94 episodes, including all of seasons three through five (except one episode in season five written by Neil Gaiman). That leaves only a handful written by others (8 other individuals, to be precise). A fact that I should have researched prior to mentioning Babylon 5 in my review. I had misremembered an interview with JMS where he talked about the last seasons of the show and detailing the battle to bring season five to the screen. Still, JMS is seen as the undisputable voice of Babylon 5 beyond just creating the show and writing a show bible, which was the point I intended to make, and I will revise my review.
As far as the discussion of "genre," I completely agree with Riggenbach's comments. Far too often reviewers (mea culpa) rely on common knowledge of a certain form, and discuss the merits of works of art within that form. As a fan of science fiction (the genre), I based many of my comments on the movie from my understanding of sf, and how Serenity worked as a movie in terms of sf. I do step beyond genre discussion to some regard, yet I appreciate Riggenbach's forthrightness.
Jeff Riggenbach - 9/29/2005
Anders Monsen's review is much better than Mr. Kuznicki's, though it contains some unfortunate errors -- Babylon 5 was not written by one writer, for example. J. Michael Straczynski created the series and outlined the overall story, but many of the individual episodes were written by other hands.
The chief flaw in Mr. Kuznicki's review is its heavy reliance on descriptions of the emotional effects the film had on the reviewer.
"Yeah, you’re going to be surprised . . . ." Really? How would you know that? Doesn't being surprised depend on one's prior state of knowledge? Does everyone have the same prior state of knowledge?
"Director Joss Whedon deserves it for having created one of the most evocative fantasy universes in modern popular culture–and for populating it with characters that you would actually want to know, characters you can even imagine knowing without too much difficulty."
Really? How do you know what kind of people I would want to know? How do you know what kinds of characters I can imagine? Does everyone want to know all the same people? Do all people have the same degree of difficulty imagining the same characters?
"They surprise you; they keep you off guard."
"Imagine that the funny bits of Star Wars: Episode I had actually been funny, instead of all flopping about and making you wince."
Did they make everyone wince?
Each of us is an individual. Each of us forms his or her own value judgements. It is our value judgements that determine our emotional responses to things, including films. No two of us have identical value judgments, so no two of us have identical emotional responses to any given thing. What surprises one person will not necessarily surprise another. One person will want to get to know a character; another will be repelled by that same character.
A review that consists mostly of such statements as the ones quoted above tells us nothing, really, except how one person felt about the film. Unless we know this individual personally, and know that our emotional responses to things are similar to his, we have learned absolutely nothing by reading it.
Both of these reviews suffer to a lesser degree from their reliance on discussion of "genre," a phony concept that has nothing to do with the artistic excellence of any individual work of art. "Genre" is a concept that belongs to the world of marketing, not the world of aesthetics. People who watch films or read novels with an eye to seeing what "genre" they fit into or what "genres" they "combine" are not paying attention to the one thing they should be paying attention to -- what makes this film unique? How does it differ from all other films?
Saying that Shane and Lonesome Dove are both Westerns tells us absolutely nothing about either of them, except that they're set in late 20th Century America and west of the Mississippi.
David T. Beito - 9/29/2005
Serenity is reviewed at Liberty and Culture (a new addition to our blog roll):
Jason Kuznicki - 9/29/2005
Oh great... the one bit of praise I get is a spam comment.
Ok, ok, so the review sucked. I'm still waiting for Mr. Riggenbach to suggest how I might improve, however. Perhaps he could recommend some books on aesthetics that would help?
Jason Kuznicki - 9/28/2005
Please let me know how I could have done better. I would honestly appreciate constructive criticism.
Jeff Riggenbach - 9/27/2005
Film "reviews" by people who appear to know nothing about the subject (aesthetics) are seldom worth taking the trouble to read.
Aeon J. Skoble - 9/27/2005
But remember to put /i in these <> afterwards, or you'll italicize the whole blog.
David T. Beito - 9/27/2005
It didn't show up. Put an i in these pointy things<>
David T. Beito - 9/27/2005
e.g. like this
Aeon J. Skoble - 9/27/2005
Does this work? If so, I'm using i and /i in pointy brackets.