overthinking the idiot box

October 3, 2005

Lost in Space/Lost in Translation

Firefly's awkward transformation to the silver screen.
by Whitney Cox

Damn good-looking crew.
As far as Firefly fans go, I'm a browncoat-come-lately; I didn't see the show until after it came out on DVD, by which time it was long off the airwaves. And though I'd seen Buffy and Angel before, and therefore had acclimatized myself to the Whedon Way Of Things, I could not have prepared myself adequately for the way the series knocked me onto my ass. It was literally the most amazing television I'd ever seen. I have since recommended it to nearly everyone I know, and it has taken Cowboy Bebop's hard-earned place in my heart as the quintessential space western. I was first in line to see one of the May preshows, and have eagerly awaited viewing the final version, as I did Friday night.

Basically, Firefly has an attitude that's almost indescribable, a sort of in-your-face charm not unlike that of the characters it portrays. It's an underfunded space cowboy show that does phenomenally well with what it has, so much so that you never even notice exactly how much it's making do with how little. There's nothing fancy about the ship, and only a minimum of sets and CG, and yet Joss makes you feel perfectly the incomprehensible largeness of the world. Never let it be said that man can't work magic with a television camera.

Which is why I was so disappointed when I got to see Serenity (first at a pre-showing in May, then on opening night) and found that though it was a really good movie, and though it held my interest and my heart alike tight from its first shot to its last credit, and though I'd most willingly see it again, it wasn't Firefly.

It's difficult to fault a movie for having a cinematic feel, but when its source material took pride in making its computer-generated scenes look like hard-earned pan-'n-scan hand-held I-was-there-man! footage, something gets lost in the polish.
Instead, I encountered a movie that was about a future with metal and doctors and cities and heavy technology, which had somehow been crafted from a show about a future with dust and bandits and outposts and a bucket-of-bolts ship. There were fancy digital graphics now to cover for what might earlier have been wirework, some tricks with the camera, and a sign someone dug up in the back corner of the props department placed strategically over any tell-tale holes. It's difficult to fault a movie for having a cinematic feel, but when its source material took pride in making its computer-generated scenes look like hard-earned pan-'n-scan hand-held I-was-there-man! footage, something gets lost in the polish.

And the problem with the movie screen is that it magnifies a thousandfold the flaws from which tiny screens and timed commercial breaks distract the viewer. As much as I love Joss, his work isn't perfect, and when faced with such a vast canvas, the chips and cracks stand out even more. Joss has a problem. Joss does not understand that what you don't see is always, always a thousand times scarier than what you do. He had a chronic problem on his two vampire series that all too often, the Big Bad would end up being a big guy in a rubber suit — which, on the cosmic scale of scary things, rates somewhere between mice and moldy spinach. In Firefly, Joss had the perfect scary — the Reavers, the near-mythic boogeymen of deep space who were so horrifying that they scared the hell out of Jayne — and your imagination could run wild with what on earth could be scary enough to scare the hell out of Jayne.

In Serenity, Joss made a critical miscalculation — he explained the Reavers. And more than that, he let us see them. It was sort of like going back to watch a werewolf movie that terrified you as a child, only to see now that the werewolf's fur is patchy and those teeth make his mouth look real funny, so funny that instead of screaming every time he bares his fangs, you end up laughing. Which is not to say that the movie's Reavers were anything to sneeze at; in fact, I'm glad that if I had to see them, they looked like what they did (even if they were incredibly gross). But the point is, I'm not afraid of Reavers anymore — which would be fine, almost, had the movie given me the sense that exposing the Reavers for what they were was its intention. Instead, I found myself watching another Joss Sweeps Week reveal where the terrible menace was finally unearthed! and was just another dude in pancake makeup.

Honey, he's just not that into you.
Even Joss' near-omnipresent feminist ethic suffers from the spectacle. Just don't get me started on the wretchedly forced pairing of Simon and Kaylee1. Kaylee's entire role in the movie was to be an Amidala whose only character note was that she was in love with the guy — who, might I add, only seemed to come around to a magical (and amazingly poorly-written) desire to sleep with her when faced with a situation of certain death where it is a possibility so remote as to be theoretically nonexistent. Ladies in the audience, if you're ever staring down a marauding army of ruthless killers and your long-term unrequited crush suddenly decides that he's wanted to shag you all along, take the hint that the guy might not exactly be your knight in shining armor.

The pacing is arguable. I've read comments from people who thought the first half was lovely and the second half was gratuitous dreck. I, on the other hand, think the first half suffers greatly from trying to cram in five hours' worth of backstory and circumstances into an hour of frequently scattered and plot, and that the second, white-knuckled half is where the movie begins to shine with purpose. I think the difference here is that the people of the former opinion were looking for something that matched the easygoing charm of the television series, while I (especially by the second time I saw it) had abandoned all hope of the movie's being anything but Firefly's dark, sinister twin. However, I understand the complaint — television pacing has by nature commercial breaks that necessarily don't allow for sustained action beyond the ten- or twelve-minute span. Freed of those constraints, Joss took the high-stress to an extreme, and even Jayne's humorous interjections2 ultimately weren't enough to keep the tension level from being just plain exhausting. As much as I liked the second half, I — an action movie fan — still had to unclench my fingers from the armrests when it was time to leave the theatre.

But I almost can't explain the all the little ways in which it just didn't feel like Firefly. The planets visited were for the most part not dusty cowtowns, but Blade Runner-esque pillars of seedy techno-underworld communities. The redesign of the ship and addition of all new hovercraft just furthered the alienation from the show's simple, bucket-of-bolts appeal. Even the interactions between the ship's crew was unfamiliar — while I accept that taking both your priests off the ship might, in fact, have a great deal to do with ratcheting up interpersonal tensions from friendly bitchiness to acute wrathfulness, I wish someone had commented on if this was in fact due to the absence of dedicated resident peacemakers, and not just a completely new badass war movie attitude. Giving the movie the budget of a major motion picture, unsurprisingly, dispelled the wonderful, quintessentially browncoat notion that the series and the characters alike were just making damn good with the best they had — that they were doing the impossible, and it was making them mighty. Instead, it was almost as though the series had made good and left its characters in the dust. And in the end, it was cool, it was exciting, it was gorgeous — but it still just wasn't Firefly.

One of Joss' great strengths is what he's able to evoke from a television camera, both with visuals and performance.You can always tell when Joss has manned the director's chair for an episode, because those episodes look like nothing else on television — as they have been filmed by someone who learned how to direct television by simply never having had anyone tell him what you can't do for the small screen. And again I state, when it comes right down to it, Serenity is a fine movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will recommend it to friends, and will buy the DVD when said opportunity comes my way. But I fear we've seen that what happens to this iconoclastic vision when it goes to the silver screen is that it's projected back as nothing particularly special. Joss' strengths as a television director are so vibrant and unique that that is where they should be allowed to thrive.

Don't make above-average movies, Joss. Make brilliant television.

1At the risk of being entirely petty (hence making an entire footnote for it), and keeping in mind all the 'real-life' constraints upon actors to conform to certain wretched standards of bone-narrow beauty, I'm still going to have to go on record with my belief that the movie's thin_Kaylee is not nearly as adorable as the series' slightly_less_than_thin_Kaylee. Joss' response to having his other shows filled with stick insects cleverly disguised as women was to make his little mechanic a grotesquely overweight size six (sarcasm here, folks), rounding out what had been a lovely quartet of female body images on the ship. I mean, sure, Jewel Staite is allowed to weigh whatever she wants, but watching what had formerly been her baggy work overalls hang tailored to her newer, slimmer frame made me a little sad that the character who had formerly been my last, best hope for curvy women on television made me (a really grotesquely overweight size fourteen — sarcasm debatable, depending on the day) just a little sad.

2What Joss does remarkably well in television is, in fact, diffusing unbearable tension. I remember my experience of watching 'The Body' for the first time and bawling my eyes out pretty much from moment one — and then being so glad when Xander punches the wall, because that let me laugh, and I felt better about my life. Jayne is Firefly's Xander in that respect, often to varying degrees of efficacy.

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