Sci-Fi/Fantasy Spectacular - Serenity & Strings 2/18
This past Saturday was a bone-chilling night here in Rockford. The mercury read 0 degrees. We had a smaller turn out than usual due to the cold and other commitments. Our three guests arrived between 7-8pm, and we hung out for a bit prior to starting tonight’s Sci-Fi/Fantasy double feature of Serenity and Strings.
We’d gone to a couple of Rockford Ice Hogs games back in January, and for each game that the Hogs won every person in the audience was given a buy-one, get-one-free coupon from Papa John’s pizza. We took full advantage of the offer and received a pepperoni & sausage pie and another with pepperoni only.
The five of us filed into the basement for drinks and a place to eat. The pizza was good – but I’m going to have to say the pepperoni & sausage combo was the better of the two.
The lights dimmed and we started the show. The obligatory trailer reel began, consisting of Destroy All Monsters, StarCrash (featuring a scantily clad Caroline Munro, a slumming Christopher Plummer, and some of the cheapest model fx work to grace the silver screen), the animated sword and sorcery epic Fire & Ice, and another TV-to-big screen sci-fi movie, The X-Files.
Firefly was the name of a short lived television show that aired on the Fox network in 2002. After many changes in the schedule (and airing the episodes out of order – the pilot was the last episodes aired) the show failed to attract a Nielsen audience and was cancelled. But once the series arrived on DVD, sales went through the roof. Executives were convinced that there was something to this program, and much like Star Trek many years before it, a grassroots movement of fans (calling themselves Browncoats in lieu of Trekkies) opened the door to a feature film version.
Dreamed up by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel creator Joss Whedon, Firefly followed a cast of mercenaries on a firefly-class starship out to maintain a not-always-honest livelihood from under the watchful Alliance of Worlds. The show was a hybrid of Western and science-fiction, taking place primarily on the border worlds where frontiersmen behave pretty much the same as their counterparts did in the Old West – building settlements and raising cattle. Serenity is the name of the ship captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and named after the Battle of Serenity Valley in the Galactic Civil War. Mal and first mate Zoe (Gina Torres) fought together on the side of the Independents, and their side lost.
In the first episode of the series, the crew takes on a passenger, Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). River has been genetically tampered with by Alliance scientists, making her autistic and withdrawn.
Serenity, the movie, begins prior to the start of the show, and we see for the first time Simon’s dramatic rescue of River from the Alliance labs. The doctors who developed her brazenly brought the young psychic woman before key members of parliament, where it is feared she may have gleaned sensitive intelligence. To ensure that any damning information she may have does not come to light, the Alliance dispatches an Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to recover her. The Operative is a smooth, charming character who never loses his cool. He’s a believer in the ultimate goal of creating a peaceful society and will use any method at his disposal to fulfill his duty.
He kills the security guards on duty and uses a pressure-point technique to cause the lead doctor to lose motor function, and fall on the Operative’s sword. “This,” the Operative assures the dying man, “is a good death for someone who has worked toward making a better world.”
Picking up where the show left off, we are re-introduced to the crew of Serenity in a four minute and twenty second long steadycam shot that tracks Mal through the entire ship from stem to stern. Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot, Zoe’s husband; tough guy Jane (Adam Baldwin) is the muscle; Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the nearly teenaged engineer; and Simon is the ship’s physician. Mal wants to use River’s ability to read minds for a heist they’re planning on a settlement world. Simon protests but Mal, as ships captain, quashes dissent.
The mercenaries hit the dusty frontier town’s bank. But while they are emptying the safe, River senses the arrival of Reavers. Reavers are men said to have ventured into the blackness of space and gone crazy, and now prowl around the galaxy murdering, raping and eating their victims. Mal gets his crew back on the five man skiff as the Reaver’s ship pursues them; they are rescued at the last minute by Wash in Serenity, who scoops them up into the hanger and blasts off into space.
Angered that River was put in a dangerous situation, Simon demands that they be let off the ship. Mal is headed to Beaumont, a trading destination, and is happy to accommodate him. In the bar where they settle up with their employers, River watches a video monitor and is entranced. She speaks one word – “Miranda” – before launching into a flawless (and apparently nearly effortless) judo ballet, kicking the teeth out of just about everyone in the bar. Mal and Jane try to take her down, but it is Simon – reciting a “safe word” – that causes her to instantly fall asleep.
Mal cannot leave the girl in her current condition and takes her back to the ship. River is programmed for combat, a super-soldier. The crew of Serenity debates their next move. They call upon Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) who monitors all video feeds in the galaxy from his headquarters inside an ion storm. He discovers that an encrypted message was sent in the video information that River watched at the bar, and it triggered a pre-programmed behavioral response. The security recordings have been analyzed – and the Alliance has been alerted to the company she keeps.
They seek refuge on the planet Haven, where old shipmate Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) resides. Book is wise in the ways of the Alliance and explains exactly what Mal & his crew will be up against. Mal gets a call from Inara (Morena Baccarin), another former member of Serenity’s crew. Inara is a professional companion (i.e. prostitute – although the occupation is now one of the most glamorous) who has a history with the captain, and requests his help with some local trouble. Mal suspects it’s a trap but decides to go in anyway to expose who’s tracking them.
At Inara’s temple training ground, Mal comes face to face with the Operative. He states that he simply wants to take River back to the Alliance and then everyone else can go about their business. But he insists that he can be ruthless and will stop at nothing to complete his mission. Mal and the Operative fight hand to hand. The Operative is faster and more skillful, and it is Inara who saves Mal from the situation by detonating a flash bomb.
Serenity eludes capture by firing multiple signal beacons out into space and heads back to Haven. The crew (especially Jane) argues about what to do with River – whether she should be turned over to the Alliance to save their own skins, or is worth protecting at the cost of their own lives.
River, in the meanwhile, has memory flashes that hold the key to identifying “Miranda”. She knocks Jane out and seals herself in the bridge of the ship. Mal sneaks in through maintenance shafts to discover that she’s plotted a course to a planet that shouldn’t exist – Miranda. All records of the planet have been expunged from computer databanks. Between Haven and Miranda is a band of empty space that is known to be Reaver territory.
Arriving at Haven, they discover the entire settlement has been torched and that everyone is dead. Shepherd Book clings to life long enough to speak to Mal. The struggle he faces is the strength of his belief that the truth revealed, versus the Operative’s belief that the Alliance’s secret must be protected in order to ensure a better world.
Determined, the crew decides to go to Miranda and discover what the Alliance wants protected so badly. In order to do so, they strap corpses to Serenity’s hull to disguise the ship as a Reaver vehicle.
They fly unnoticed through the ship junkyard that is the Reaver’s band of space, where screams are broadcast on all open channels. They find a faint beacon emanating from the planet and hone in on it. On Miranda’s surface, they find dozens of empty cities. Well, not quite – there are dead bodies everywhere. None of them appear to have suffered a violent death or poisoning. It looks as though they simply lay down and died.
The source of the beacon turns out to be a crashed rescue ship. A hologram recording reveals that everyone died because of a chemical additive in the atmosphere processor that was supposed to remove aggression in humans. Unfortunately, it worked too well and the people completely lost the will to live. But, in a certain small percentage of the population, it had the opposite response – fueling the ultimate rage… creating Reavers.
With this knowledge, the group commits to broadcasting the recording for everyone to see, even if it means they die in the process. They contact Mr. Universe, who has the power to send the message across the galaxy. But the Alliance has arrived before them. They kill Mr. Universe and lie in wait for Serenity.
In order to run the gauntlet of Alliance warships, Serenity baits the Reavers. The Operative is surprised by the appearance of an oncoming fleet of Reaver ships, and an all out space battle ensues. Serenity zips through the melee and zips towards Mr. Universe’s compound. They are hit with an EMP and lose power, but thanks to Wash’s piloting skill they land in one piece.
Wash is then killed by a Reaver harpoon in a moment that no doubt took die hard fans of the series off guard. The remaining crewmembers find a position where they can bottleneck the Reavers and thin them out, allowing Mal a chance to broadcast the hologram recording.
The Operative is hot on his heels, having ejected from his ship and followed Serenity down. Mal fights him high above the reactor core of the installation.
When Zoe, Kaylee and Simon are injured by the Reaver onslaught, River leaps into action – sealing them safely behind blast doors while she does her kung fu on the attackers. In the end of the fight she is the last woman standing.
The Operative uses the pinched-nerve pressure-point technique on Mal to render him immobile, then charges with his sword. Lucky for Mal, an old war wound damaged that nerve cluster, and he catches the Operative by surprise. He then fastens him to a railing so he has a front row seat as the video plays on screens everywhere.
The mission failed, the Operative calls off the Alliance shock troops. The crew of Serenity buries its dead. Mal takes Wash’s place at the helm and finds River in the co-pilot seat. She’s picked up a few things about flying and takes control of the ship guiding it to the stars.
Space operas, once a dime a dozen in the decade following Star Wars: A New Hope, have become an endangered species on cinema screens. It’s always an event when one turns up, but it’s a cause for celebration when it turns out to be really good. And that’s the case with Serenity (the last non-Star Wars space epic was the disappointing Chronicles of Riddick). The best example for why Serenity connected with me is summed up in one sequence, where Mal and The Operative come face to face for the first time. The Operative tries to put Mal at ease by admitting that he carries no weapon, a point which Mal exploits immediately by drawing his weapon and unloading on the guy. Of course, the Operative is wearing body armor but the choice of action says loads about Mal's character. This is the type of bravura moment we used to expect from Han Solo before Lucas successfully neutered him in the Special Editions, altering the pre-emptive shooting of Greedo in the Cantina scene. The moment is mirrored later when the Operative takes advantage of an opportunity to prevent Mal from reaching the broadwave terminal by shooting him in the back. Mal responds with surprise - not because the Operative violated some agreed upon rules of engagement but because the Operative is so bound by a code of honor, to shoot someone in the back is out of character.
I may compare Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo, but taking the show's Western trappings into consideration, the mold for the character goes further back - to John Wayne. Whedon has a real ear for dialogue (one of his first gigs was writing for Roseanne) and his characters are always well drawn. There’s hardly a wasted moment in the screenplay: everything that is set up in the first half finds its payoff in the second. His writing on Buffy and Angel was consistently sharp and witty, and elevated those shows beyond their central concepts. He’s also merciless toward his characters, putting them in the most horrible situations or killing central figures outright. This works to keep the viewers constantly on our toes – we grow to like these people, and the possibility that they may not survive the day is a very real threat.
I also admired the nuanced approach to the political worldview of Whedon's future. The government is not an evil empire – it is capable of great evil and great good. The Operative, as the main villain, does not do evil things because he is an evil man, but because he is a True Believer that his actions will ensure a better civilization. And the crew of Serenity just wants the freedom earn an honest living without government oversight and interference.
The movie went over well with our Saturday night audience, keeping everyone wide awake (except sister Cosmo who falls asleep when the lights dim) and absolving me of the previous double feature of Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. Thriller (aka They Call Her One Eye) ended up being the deal breaker, moving at an abysmally slow pace and knocking everyone unconscious. I was told if Ilsa would have come first it might have worked better. Serenity really can’t be recommended enough for fans of sci-fi and action/adventure fans in general.
For intermission trailers, I assembled the entire series of previews for the Planet of the Apes movies together. Yep, that’s five movies – Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. It must be hard for a modern audience to fathom, but this series was the pre-Star Wars Star Wars. It had the live action and animated television show spin-offs, the lunch boxes, action figures, coloring books & board games, you name it. Planet of the Apes was a phenomenon from 1968-1975, passing the sci-fi baton off to George Lucas’ space saga in 1977.
Danish filmmaker Anders Ronnow Klarlund had the idea for Strings (2004) on an airplane. High above the clouds as he watched a television commercial featuring a marionette, he wondered what the world would be look like if he were a puppet. He sketched a concept image of a fearful marionette hiding in a treetop as ten thousand strings closed in on him. That central idea was so powerful that he developed the concept into his next movie.
Klarlund turned to master puppeteer Bernd Ogrodnik & Co to bring his vision to life. In Strings the characters know they are puppets. Their life-force is derived from the strings that tie them to the heavens and unseen operators. If their head strings are cut, they die.
In the kingdom of Hebalon, the reigning Kharo (voiced by Julian Glover) writes what will be his suicide letter. He mourns the fact that a state of war has existed so long between Hebalon and another tribe, the Zeriths. He admits that a great deal of the suffering that has taken place is his fault and bequeaths the throne to his golden son, Hal Tara (James McAvoy). With that, he severs his own head string.
Wicked brother Nezo (Derek Jacobi) and deformed henchman Ghrak (Ian Hart) discover the letter and destroy it. Nezo plots to take the throne for himself. They plant evidence to make it seem that the Zharo, the leader of the Zeriths, murdered the king.
Prince Hal must avenge his father’s murder and sets out to find Zharo. He is accompanied by captain of the guard Erito (David Harewood). Erito and his wife Eike (Samantha Bond) are expecting a newborn into their household. Ghrak threatens Erito’s family with death unless Erito kills Hal once they are beyond the city gates.
Eike discovers the Kharo’s original suicide note after spilled ink reveals hidden writing on the royal parchment. She shares this information with Hal’s sister, Jhinna (Claire Skinner). They plan to slip out of the city and find Hal and Erito, but their plan is overheard by Ghrak. Nezo summons the guards and imprisons both women.
Hal and Erito visit a marketplace, asking after the whereabouts of the Zeriths. A Zerith woman named Zita (Catherine McCormack) notices Hal. Erito, burdened by Ghrak’s threats, visits the One String for advice. The One String is the collective name of a group of creepy rotted puppets who have only their head strings connected. They tell Erito to take Hal to the Lake of the 1000 Dead Warriors and kill him there as atonement for genocide committed by the Hebalonians.
In prison, Eike “gives birth” to her newborn. Thin strings ride down from the heavens on her own strings, which Jhinna ties into the wooden baby to give it life. Ghrak has plans for Jhinna, as he has harbored a secret lust for her. Deformed by the Kharo after disobeying an order, Ghrak uses body parts of slaves to repair his body and make himself more attractive to the princess.
The duo climbs a snowy mountain and finds the frozen lake, where bodies of the slain Zeriths still lie. Hal discovers that his father lost an ancient battle against the Zeriths. While returning from the battlefield he stumbled upon a caravan of Zerith women and children. In a rage, he ordered them all killed.
Erito uses the opportunity to strike at Hal, but fails. Hal flees but is found by Zharo (wearing a tribal mask) and taken captive by the Zeriths. Erito witnesses this and returns to Hebalon.
Hal is freed from captivity by Zita, who recognizes him from the market. They attend a Zerith ritual dance where Hal learns the truth about the horrors his father inflicted on the Zeriths. Zita possesses a unique ability, being able to make extremely high jumps. Hal wants to learn this power, which Zita says comes from the strings. Looking upward, they cannot tell where one another ends and the other begins. They share a romantic night together under a full moon.
The next day, Hal discovers that beneath Zharo’s mask is Zita. He is taken to the desert to rot, but is picked up by a caravan of slave traders and taken back to Hebalon. Thrown in prison with Erito and Eike, Hal learns of his father’s letter and Nezo’s treachery. His sister, Jhinna, after refusing to be wed to the rebuilt and more powerful Ghrak, is to be publicly executed for treason. Using his newfound skills, Hal manages to climb out of the prison and free the others. It is too late for Jhinna, whose head string is severed. Hal swears to begin where his father ended and accomplish what he could not – bringing peace between Hebalon and the Zeriths.
The Zeriths find themselves surrounded by Ghrak’s army. The Hebalonians set fire to the forest in order to burn out their enemy. A battle begins – puppets are cut down right and left as the fire burns closer. Zharo/Zita is captured by Ghrak and unmasked. Hal arrives and fights Ghrak, finally setting him on fire. The flames spread to the entire Hebalon army and all burn.
Unfortunately, the Zeriths woodsy home is also reduced to cinders but Hal promises to create a new life for them in Hebalon – which is built on the ruins of the Zerith’s original home city.
A ceremony welcomes the Zeriths to Hebalon as Jhinna is given a state funeral. As her body floats away, her wooden pet bird frees itself of its strings and takes flight.
While the story may be familiar, having adhered to the rules and regulations set down by the fantasy genre, what gives the film its freshness is the consideration given its world of wooden characters. What would the world look like to a puppet? Erito carves the body of his own child from wood, and its life-force is delivered via an outgrowth of Eike’s strings. All of the buildings and tents have no ceilings so the puppets can move freely. The city "gate" consists of a raised bar, and no door, for no stringed puppet can cross beneath it. The king’s body is hoisted onto a pedestal to be memorialized, and since he’s made of wood, functions as a statue.
Strings is a delight to behold on a purely cinematic level. It was released in Denmark in 2004, the same year as the puppet comedy Team America: World Police, but is distinguished by its marked absence of humor. The cinematography is comparable with a live action feature, with moody lighting and weather effects including rain and snow, and even scenes that take place underwater. The marionettes themselves are carved from wood and are surprisingly expressive given that their mouths do not move.
Satanica and I caught this film last year at Fantastic Fest, a new film festival held in Austin, TX. The print we saw was scope 2.35:1 but the DVD release from Wellspring is cropped to 1.85:1. This is also the unfortunate case on the UK DVD as well. This is the second time I’ve seen this reformatting of widescreen movies for DVD, the other being Lionsgate’s release of Creep, with Franka Potente.
All told, I admired the film for how it looked and the work that went into it more than I genuinely liked it. It runs a brisk 88 minutes but feels longer.