Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Serenity, no spoilers I promise

What a night! Joss Whedon and UIP could not have wished for much more. Tickets for Whedons debut film had sold out within 60 minutes of going on sale and on turning up at the CineWorld multiplex the atmosphere was buzzing. Outside, a crowd had been swelling around the red carpet for hours, while inside some hardcore film buffs started queuing fully 4 hours before the scheduled start time.

Once comfortably seated in the packed Screen 7, there were jokes about how the people at the Edinburgh Film Festival had 'discovered' this young writer/director and that while we probably hadn't heard of him, he was a real up and coming talent. On that note Joss Whedon and cast wandered on stage to the first of many standing ovations. Cue more jokes from Joss Whedon about not wanting the film to stand on its own merits, until finally, it was time for the lights to go down.

The first 20 minutes of Serenity move along at a startling pace and it really attacks the senses in a audacious display of effects, action and wise cracks. Yet these opening minutes maintain far more coherence than you may imagine given that the viewer is forced to take in a lot of information in such a short space of time.

If I had one fear prior to seeing Serenity, it was that Firefly would not travel well from the small screen. For the film to be a considerable success it needs to reach an audience beyond the fans of the original show. This simple fact was always going to fuel a need for the movie to explain much of the back-story, potentially leaving the fans upset at having to sit through explanations of things they have already seen. However, Whedon is a master at creative storytelling. Throughout the film he works to immerse the viewer in his vision of the future. There is plenty of new plot points to keep the fans happy, while the backstory is woven into the dialogue in a way that avoids patronising the die hards. Obviously, being a fan this is easy for me to say, but I feel confident that someone who has never seen the show will be able to follow Whedons story without confusion.

For those familiar with Whedons previous work, you will already have witnessed the mans ability at mixing genres. Episodes of Buffy would often merge teen drama, horror and black comedy; all set against a fantasy background. The characters had depth, perhaps more than in any other science fiction or fantasy show. With Serenity, Whedon diverges from the traditional mould of Hollywood sci-fi, to bring us a film that will make you laugh, cry and jump out of your seat. It is as much a psychological thriller as it is a sci-fi; as much an black comedy as it is a thriller. Weave into this complex story, characters with real life and you have a winner.

As with his previous shows, Whedon delivers characters that rarely fit a hollywood type. It would be unfair to call Mal Reynolds the flawed hero of Serenity, because his character is so much more than this. As in the series, there are times when you think to yourself, 'Mal, you are an absolute bastard!'; yet you still love him because he represents reality. His flaws will not be 'fixed' in the course of an episode or a movie, he will live with them and those around him will have to tolerate them. The same can be said of all the characters, and because of this you care about them.

So how does Serenity hold up against other sci-fi, action or fantasy offerings? Well the last few year has offered much but delivered little in my opinion. For me War of the Worlds, Fantastic Four, Star Wars and the many others follow the age-old Hollywood formula. They do this because the studios know what makes money; a lot of people (myself included, from time to time) like movies where they can put their minds on hold and just enjoy a basic plot with some fun action. And this is perhaps the mountain that Serenity must climb. There is no putting your brain on hold with Serenity.

Without a doubt, this is one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in years. It wipes the floor with Star Treks formulaic storytelling and makes the awful Star Wars dialogue and wooden acting look even more laughable. The action, meanwhile, is as good as any superhero movie. However, the question remains as to whether it can break into the mainstream. It couldn't have been put any better, when it was mentioned that the Edinburgh Film Festivals mission is to showcase brave and different movies. And Serenity is very brave. The characters are unconventional and the differences between good and evil more clouded. If the masses in the USA can give this one a chance, then Serenity could well be the surprise package of the year.

In summary, Whedon takes science fiction into a deep new realm of realistic characters who, when they aren't pulling heists, are spouting witty dialogue. Dark and brooding in some places, wrapped up with sexual tension in others, Whedon even finds time to reference Buffy and take the piss out of the formulaic plot devices used in other sci-fi films. The performances (particularly of Fillion, Baldwin and Ejiofor) are fantastic. Perhaps the only downside for me was that some characters had only limited screen time. You will struggle to see a better film come out of Hollywood this year.

Following the film, there was an excellent Q&A session with the cast and crew. Joss Whedon escaped doing the 'dance of joy' due to his recent knee surgery, but passed the honour onto Nathan Fillion, who did superbly. There is some footage from the premiere now online. The first four links are footage from the red carpet, while the last two are links to footage from the spoiler-laden Q&A session. The quality isn't great, so if I find any better footage I'll be sure to post it. Thanks to scifiheaven.net.

Serenity (UK release October 7th)
Written & Directed by Joss Whedon

Nathan Fillion .... Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds
Gina Torres .... Zoë Warren
Alan Tudyk .... Hoban 'Wash' Washburne
Morena Baccarin .... Inara Serra
Adam Baldwin .... Jayne Cobb
Jewel Staite .... Kaylee Frye
Sean Maher .... Dr. Simon Tam
Summer Glau .... River Tam
Ron Glass .... Shepherd Meria Book
Chiwetel Ejiofor .... The Operative

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BSG: Resistance

After Colonel Tighs decision to impose martial law on the fleet, things were always going to get a little hairy. Tighs position is by now untenable. The combination of the pressure of command, too much alcohol and his sniping wife have left him making one bad decision after another. In this episode, we see him finally begin to lose his crew.

After the drama of Kobol, this latest installment is somewhat weaker, mainly due to the events on Caprica. Starbuck and Helo are taken in by a bunch of resistance fighters who survived the initial Cylon attack. It's a fine concept, but it's execution feels a little too gung ho and hollywood.

The excitement is again within the fleet as ships begin to refuse to re-supply Galactica until the Government is restored. Tigh sends in marines to secure supplies, which we all know is never a good thing. Meanwhile poor Tyrol - having just survived the trauma of Kobol - returns to find Tigh accusing him of being a Cylon because of his relationship with Boomer. This has always been an interesting story for me and the relationship gets some much needed screen time as Tyrol is forced to share a cell with Boomer.

In the end it falls on Roslin to make a stand. However, it will have lasting consequences for many of Galacticas staff who are forced to choose between their imprisoned President and Colonel Tigh. The consequences, meanwhile, of Tighs poor decisions may finally come to the fore as we finally see an old friend get back on his feet.

In summary, not so polished as recent eps; I feel this one is let down by the introduction of the resistance on Caprica. There are some superb moments between Baltar and Boomer, while having Roslin join forces with Zarek is a master-stroke. However, the scene-stealer is undoubtedly Adamas appearance in Tighs quarters.

Resistance: 7/10

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

BSG: Fragged

tr.v. fragged, frag ging, frags
To wound or kill (a fellow soldier) by throwing a grenade or similar explosive at the victim: "He got fragged. Blown away" (Bobbie Ann Mason).

And there I was thinking 'fragged' was a term coined for FPS games! The term was popularised during Vietnam, when discipline lagged and a few officers got grenades in their bunkers or caught "friendly fire" during a skirmish.

After watching episode 3 of this new season of Galactica I got into a conversation with some friends about just what this show is. Sure it is science-fiction; as my mate Mike pointed out, it retains many sci-fi elements, particularly with regards to the Cylons. But, perhaps more than anything Galactica is a political, wartime drama set against a sci-fi backdrop. It does not offer the optimistic visions of Star Trek or Stargate; nor the happy endings to every situation.

DS9 was very much the bastard child of Trek; hated by many of the star trek execs for messing with the optimistic vision. It was a brave change of direction for a franchise already showing signs of extreme tiredness. Ron Moore was one of a number of talented writers and producers who fought to give DS9 the edge that made it easily the most compelling trek story to date. Galactica is perhaps an example of Ron Moore let off the leash. With his associate David Eick, and writers D Weddle & B Thompson (both DS9 old-timers), we have a show that has broken the traditional bonds of sci-fi, much like Trek did decades ago and Bablyon 5 did in the 1990s.

Galactica is about normal people dealing with impossible situations. All are flawed, and none of them will deal with their flaws within the 45 minutes of an ep (a la Trek). It has been only 2-3 months since the children of humanity came home to destroy their creators. The people are in a mess. None of them have been trained to deal with this kind of situation, and in 'Fragged' things finally come to a head.

First to Galactica. Having finally driven the Cylons off the ship Tigh is forced to face the consequences of both his and Adamas actions in removing President Roslin from power. The Quorum of Twelve (the newly elected government of the fleet) want answers and Tigh is not about to be bullied.

The episode is a testament to the adage 'better the devil you know'. In Adama, the fleet had an old warhorse as military leader. He was dangerous and would not be undermined, but he respected the need for the people to have a government, even in their current dire circumstances. With Tigh now in command, things could not be worse. He is a military lifer, who has had little time for politics. He is weak, prone to flying off the handle and likes drinking on duty far too much. He wants to calm the situation, as Adama would, but does not have the strength of character to pull it off. As such, when things get too much for him, his decisions can be catastrophic.

The interplay between Tigh and the government is superb. His attempt to portray Roslin as a lunatic backfires because of his refusal to even talk with her. Now the government not only see her as their leader, but as their spiritual martyr, destined to lead them to safety. Some may find the way in which the Colonial religion has begun to take hold of so many people a little annoying, but personally I find it all the more realistic. After such a tragedy it is only natural that many people will turn to their religion to help them through; even more so when their leaders preach it so readily.

For Tigh though, the entire episode is an affront to his authority. He wants to be Adama, but cannot, and his petty actions at the end of the episode will have far-reaching consequences.

Meanwhile, things also come to a head on Kobol. Crashdown is a prime example of great characterisation. For a whole season he did his job in tough conditions; you never suspected he could ever struggle purely because he hadn't been thrust into a situation he couldn't handle. Now trapped on Kobol, he is out of his depth. As commanding officer, his decisions have indirectly cost at least one life and now he wants the remaining 5 of them to launch an attack against a Cylon anti-aircraft battery. Baltars visions tell of one person betraying the others; Tyrol is a loyal soldier but knows that the plan is flawed. Something has gotta give, and it finally does.

The consequences of the Kobol mission will, I imagine, be everlasting. In Galactica, there is no reset button at the end of each ep.

In summary this is the best episode of the season so far. The interplay between Number Six and Baltar, so often the low point of season 1, has been vastly improved; and all they had to do was remove the OTT sexual references! The discussion about what defines humanity is interesting as is the mystery surrounding the Cylons clear hatred for Kobol. The performances, meanwhile, are stunning. Tigh, Crashdown, Tyrol, Baltar and Roslin all steal some dramatic scenes. Oh Ron Moore, why can't you come back to Star Trek and make it better?!

Fragged - 9/10