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Saddle up, Space Man!

'Serenity' will twang your little heart strings.

Dorothy Woodend 7 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Space seems to do strange things to grammar. Yoda couldn't string a coherent sentence together to save his little green life and he had all the powers of The Force at his command. You'd think "The Force" being an all-powerful, encompassing, well ... force, it could part with a few elementary English lessons and still get by.

So too, Serenity, Joss Whedon's latest science fictional epic into the great dark star spangled way has lots of convoluted sentence structure. For example, Captain Mal boldly addresses his crew by saying "Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all comin' to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you, than I have before. Sure as I know anything, I know this. I aim to misbehave."

Huh? Luckily, it doesn't matter if you really only cotton to half of what's a happenin', t'other half is all you'll need. Yes, the film is mere inches away from B-movie greatness, and is what all the little science fiction fanny packs wished Star Wars would be.

Aliens and boobies

Although it lacks weird looking aliens, and an overall message about life, the universe and everything, it's got plenty of sci-fi soul food including tough-talking space cowboys with marshmallow hearts, blistering boobie babes, sassy sidekicks and blood thirsty savages. Not injuns anymore; after all, this is 500 years into the future, so instead there are reivers -- space cannibals with cannon balls. As one innocent puts it, "They eat you alive and rape you for hours and hours and hours." Nuff said, they are very bad guys.

What Serenity also has, that many other science fiction films lack, is language. Lots of it. Dialogue swiped direct from the pen of Zane Grey -- jokes, asides, and a colourful way of speaking one's mind in roundabout cadences that owe more to E. Annie Proulx than George Lucas. And that's no small feat. Lucas was so clunky at writing dialogue that Harrison Ford once famously quipped, "George, you can type it, but you sure can't say it."

Mangy and muscular

Based on Joss Whedon's canceled series, Firefly, the film takes its name from the ship of one Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He's a good guy gone to seed, who dresses like Han Solo in a bolo (tie). His mangy crew includes the lithely ferocious Zoe (Gina Torres), the wise ass pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), the muscle with the unlikely name of Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and Kaylee the sparky engineer (Jewel Staite).

After Earth's over-population forces folk into the outer reaches of darkest space, off they fly to start another wild west where the Alliance is the law, they run space city, and they aim to keep it thatta way. Wagons HO!!

On the far less civilized outer planets, folks be getting up to all matter of badness, a robbin' and a ropin' and a carryin' on something fierce. The law wants to stop all this hootenanny so, they fix up to go to war. You can fight the law, but the law always wins, or so finds out Captain Mal who joined the rebel army as a volunteer, was awarded medals for valor, but managed to get his entire platoon killed. But that was a long ways back; these days, Mal and his motley crew make their living on the crumbling fringes, robbing banks, and hauling freight in their disintegrating hulk of a big bum spaceship, so named because of its resemblance to a well-lit insect.

Killer girlie in bare feet

Despite their raggedy ways, there is still some honour left amongst these thieves and when they take on two passengers, one of whom is a government-trained biological weapon in pretty girl package upon which all manner of righteous fury comes down like the hammer of god. The Alliance, being another in a long line of big bad governments, has a rather dark secret to hide, which said killer girlie in bare feet and little slip dresses knows all about. The Gov wants its girlie, and they send one serious gunslinger to fetch her back to the fold.

Those with no prior knowledge of the Fox TV show, (which includes moi), don't be alarmed. There is nothing here that you haven't seen before. The thing about genres (both westerns and science fiction) is that there are conventions; Whedon plays well with these and makes a mighty fine moving picture show.

The western is such a useful genre, seemingly simple and complex all at the same time, Deadwood on HBO has deeply mined its soil. So too, does Ang Lee's latest, Brokeback Mountain about two rough riders who "can't hardly be decent together." Wags have been running wild at the mouth thinking up all matter of cow poking jokes about Bareback Mountain / Zane Gay, but try as we might to dismiss it, the western still has a gravitas that strikes deep in our culture.

The film isn't perfect. Whedon has a tendency to play to his strengths: such as girls who hurt too much, and clever bon mots. If he'd paid more attention to certain elements, and downplayed others, he could have had a bon-a-fied BONANZA on his hands. Still, this is enough for science fiction fools who've been waiting patiently for something, anything really, that wasn't patently poo to come their ways.

Critters and stuff

Here tis! Throw all manner of critters in a pot and mix up a mess of vittles, and you usually get a great steaming pile of stuff. But in this case, it works, and works beautifully, balanced by lines like: "I ain't had nothin' between my nethers for more'n a year that weren't battery powered." I almost snorted up a kernel of popcorn over that beauty. Just the use of the word "nethers" was enough to make me like this rascally film. It's got cussedness to spare, which something we been sore missing in these parts.

The message of scruffy, patchy rebels will twang your little heart strings. "Love is what keeps her in the air, when she ought to fall down," says Captain Mal speaking about the fine art of flying a space craft. Love and good ole fashioned poetry. I aim to do right by this little old space oater. She flies true.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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