Serenity Now: Joss Whedon Takes a Shot at the Short Form

This is kind of a review of the new movie Serenity, for what that's worth, but first I have to start off with a little background, for anybody who is not well schooled in the Joss Whedon universe. Whedon is the writer and director of Serenity, and he made his name as the creator of long running TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Both shows rewarded extended viewing -- on the surface, they were goofy sci-fi dramas about fighting demons and vampires, complete with low rent monsters and The WB production values -- but the real joy was watching the characters change and grow over time, balancing normal issues, like hormones and the prom, with pretty heavy stuff like saving the world.

And Whedon's writing was always quick and witty, loaded down with pop culture references and honest dialogue. Kind of like a slowed-down Gilmore Girls, but funnier, and with vampires and demons in the mix. How is it that one of the most moving things I've seen on TV is a group of teenagers saving the world and then heading off to the prom, where they are certain to be ostracized as outcasts and oddballs? Or one of the funniest things: a vampire, on a mission on another planet (or an alternate reality, I forget which), rolling around in a sunny field and shouting "can everybody see how not on fire I am right now?"

Buffy was probably the best show with the worst name ever, good enough that Salon.com TV reviewer and Barrelhouse buddy Heather Havrilesky (okay, maybe she's not exactly our buddy, but we interviewed her, and we know what her favorite Patrick Swayze movie is) wrote a yearly column about the injustice of Buffy's continual rejection by the Emmys, and named her recent shoulda-been Emmied award The Buffy.

So all of that leads me to Serenity, which is the movie version of Whedon's last and shortest running series Firefly, which got pulled after only a dozen or so episodes. Serenity isn't bad -- most of the trademark Whedon stuff is in there. The dialogue is quick and funny, and funniest in the most dramatic moments. The good guys are outcasts. The bad guys are really bad. The ships look cool in a "maybe that's what spaceships would really look like" kind of way ("lived in" is the phrase that comes to mind, and its good to see that in Whedon's future we haven't abandoned quaint things like buttons and area rugs).

All in all, it's a solid little space/western/action movie. But there's something missing, and I think it has more to do with the form than the writing or direction or anything else. As I said above, Buffy rewarded extended viewing. You got to know the characters, watched them change, save the world, go to prom, date, date warewolves, date vampires, date each other, and basically go through the changes that all people go through (albeit, with more vampires and demons in their lives, but still). Buffy was on for 7 seasons. That's a long time, and lot of changes, a shitload of character development.

Buffy was a novel. Serenity is a short story.

With a lot less space to work with, Whedon had to boil his characters down. They don't change much, grow much, surprise us as much. They are movie characters and their arc is a movie character arc, the one where the main dude goes from not caring about anything but himself to believing grudgingly in some kind of higher purpose, accepting his mission, and doing something about it. In short, pretty standard stuff, and certainly more standard that you'd expect of the guy who made a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer into something that thousands of smart grown-ups still miss.

There are people who write novels and not short stories, short story writers who may never publish a novel, and people who do both so well it's just annoying.

Whedon has had great success at writing movies (Toy Story), but I left Serenity thinking that maybe he's a novelist.

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