Movie Binge: Serenity, Breach, and Tales of Babylon 5I've been on a movie catch-up binge lately, and wound up watching Breach, Tales of Babylon 5, and Serenity (again) on the same day. I don't have much to say about Serenity (it was my third viewing of the sci-fi movie spinoff of the Firefly TV show, so didn’t learn that much new – I watched it introduce some people to it) except that I’ve been struck on each viewing by the way the entire cast is put into a position of certain death at the climax, only to have them walk away (the only hero's death in the climax happens as an accident before the "certain death" sequence starts). This has to be some sort of record - "greatest amount of cumulative character jeopardy achieved without anyone actually dying" or something. It almost seems like the big fight was filmed in such a way that they could decide who dies later, with almost everyone potentially mortally wounded. It's still a really good movie in its own right, even if you haven’t seen the Firefly TV series, and a good movie to for teenage daughters to watch (if you can get over the prostitute thing and don't have a problem with some mostly stylized but occasionally more brutal violence). The only thing I noticed this time that I didn't remember from past viewing is how simplified the side characters are compared to the TV series – everyone is pared to one basic character trait except Mal. That’s part of why it’s so tight, I guess.
Watching Breach, last year's Ryan Phillipe, Chris Cooper, Laura Linley "true life" spy story concerning the bringing down of the CIA's biggest mole, helped me understand why such a well reviewed movie didn't make many top 10 year end lists. This is one of those times where a movie made of 4 star parts, makes a 3 star whole, and leaves a 2 star memory. The acting (especially Chris Cooper's) is good, the plot is interesting, the characters are nicely fleshed out, the DC “city porn” (i.e. gratuitously luscious cinematography of buildings) was great, the true story angle was cool, etc. But the movie was just too sparse to stay with you much. Very few characters are focused on, interesting things aren’t returned to (like the “tell me four true things about yourself and one lie”), important info for understanding these people's lives (like simple time-line information) is not addressed, and it just seems like the movie takes its time so much that can’t fit some of the necessary stuff in. The thriller elements were OK but total 10 minutes of screen time (tops), and didn’t build. So you’re left with a movie that was good but is less than the sum of its parts due lack of ambition in much it was trying to accomplish. I generally like third path narratives (stories where someone is offered a choice of examples of how to live, and instead makes the decision to follow their own road), but Philippe played an internally passive character, and his decision to take the path happens in the end-text of the film, so it is not effective. Also, I don’t know why it was written this way (an attempt to be true to the real people?) but Philippe’ s character answers a question with a “what?” or “huh?” something like 20 times in the film, and the other character has to repeat the question. It was a little much.
Tales of Babylon 5 is an oddity that screams out to be evaluated in light of its production goals, more than what actually happens on screen. For those unfamiliar with the project, it is a direct to DVD couple of stories that function as two additional episodes of the 1990s TV show. The idea behind the DVD was to follow a new production model of continuing television by doing limited production on just a few episodes, releasing a DVD, and using rolling financing and more limited budgets to produce a series without having a network or syndication house bankroll it. If something like this worked, you might see continuations of cancelled series with a strong, small following like Journeyman (to choose an example from this year) or any Tim Minear show ever.
The original B5 show was a bit of an oddity itself, with a 5 year plan (it was always conceived to last that long and only that long) to tell an epic, but finite story centered on a satellite station that was, in effect, the “UN of space.” The first year of the show was kind of hit and miss, but the skein made the full 5 years by kicking and screaming and clawing and financing its way to the end. It built up a significant following, with cries of “best science fiction show ever,” which was not enough to keep the subsequent stabs at reviving it (B5: Crusade, the most notable example) from crashing and burning.
As to the current DVD, the low production values would be obvious to a four year old, and are damn distracting to a TV addicted adult. There are 2 episodes and a total of 6 speaking roles, and 2 extras. The opening is shot in a series of varying long shots with dialogue over an establishing shot, then a medium long shot of two main characters talking, with only the back of the speaking person’s head visible (it looks like the director blew getting the proper coverage, and they were trying to patch it together without reshoots). The matting instead of sets is distracting at first, but improves (I think I just decided to ignore it) except for the one shot of the hanger bay with people in the background that don’t move, which bugged me every time they used it as an establishing shot (about 10 times).
The episodes were OK, but suffered from the same overly parable-like construction that a lot of the original show’s first season stand alone episodes fell into. They are also structured as 2 act plays, and aren’t edited tightly, so neither story really gains momentum. The stories are kind of neat, in that “why don’t they tackle these subjects on TV more” kind of way, with the first about the relevance of religion (by redoing Silence of the Lambs with a demon in the Hannibal Lector role) and the second a version of the “if you could go back in time, would you shoot Hitler” story (their answer the disk offers, incidentally, is “don’t shoot him, take him home for supper”).
This has to be considered a failed experiment. The quality level falls short of the average episode of the show in essentially all ways, and the strength of the original was its monstrously building mega arc anyway. There is really no way to condone the low level that the production values stoop to, here. I know I’ve said this before about other things, but this reminds me of early TV “theatre” shows like Playhouse 90, only with rushed CGI. The DVD is watchable, with low expectations, but don’t expect TV continuation on DVD to become a fad based on this. Nor would you want it to.