Flipping for Joss Whedon's Serenity and Carroll Ballard's Duma.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Sept. 30 2005 1:04 PM

Fire, Fly With Me

Flipping for Joss Whedon's Serenity and Carroll Ballard's Duma.

Having missed the fleeting run of Joss Whedon's TV series Firefly (despite an on-and-off but often obsessive relationship with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I arrived at Whedon's feature-film follow-up Serenity (Universal Pictures) in a state of absolute ignorance. And I couldn't believe what I was watching: an outer-space Western with smartass Whedon banter! Cool! I had such a good time I couldn't wait to get hold of the complete series on DVD.

Well, now it's 10 days later and I'm afraid I've almost forgotten Serenity. In the interim, I've become a Firefly freak. What a show: like Star Wars if it was just the stuff on the Millennium Falcon minus the fast-food Zen plus hipper quips and knottier relationships; or like Star Trek and its spinoffs if the characters had been on coffee and cigarettes (and bourbon) instead of Valium; or like Stagecoach if the Indians had spaceships and ate people. Oh, forget the comparisons. What's heartbreaking is that if you know Buffy (or Angel), you can sense that Whedon had all kinds of surprises in store—dramaturgical jack-in-the-boxes wound and ready to spring in the coming seasons. Twisted trajectories. Mind-blowing back stories. Dark secrets of the universe. Whedon was obviously in it for the long haul. What a shame that the studio (Fox) never got on his wavelength.

Fans sure did, though, and the upshot is Serenity (the name of the ramshackle spaceship), which doesn't deliver the same kind of easy pleasures—the kind that build up over time as you get to know the characters—but works just fine as a Flash Gordon-esque series of battles, chases, and cliffhangers.

Written and directed by Whedon, the feature has a whiff of TV—but not because of how it's shot or acted. It's because of its leading man, Mal (Nathan Fillion), a former independence fighter with a huge chip on his shoulder, a loathing of the ruling Alliance government, and a preference for working outside the law, as a smuggler. Gruff, manly, cynical—a classic Western loner, right? Er, no. Whedon is a natural TV guy because he loves big, nutty, surrogate families; so this Western loner pretty much invites everyone he likes (and a few people he doesn't) to stick around and cruise the galaxy.

They're all here, a merry band of outlaws, mystics, freaks, and geeks pitted against an increasingly fascistic government—a government trying to control more and more elements of people's lives for the sake of the general harmony. They'll have to get past Mal, his nervy sidekick, Zoe (Gina Torres), and pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk)—a married couple, although I didn't register that until I saw the show; a surly mercenary named Jayne (Adam Baldwin), always on the verge of selling the others out; and, my favorite, the nerd's dreamboat Kaylee (Jewel Staite)—an undersexed ding-a-ling genius mechanic with an engine fetish. The inhumanly lovely Inara (Morena Baccarin), a "companion" (i.e., high-end prostitute), rents the ship to travel from planet to planet—a problem for Mal, who obviously adores her, and for a ponytailed shepherd (i.e. minister) called Book (Ron Glass), who's not above throwing a punch but who'd rather see Inara settle down.

These people—least of all Mal—aren't revolutionaries. It's just that a package ended up in Serenity's lap (or, rather, cargo bay) that stirred their sense of decency: River (Summer Glau), a dazed, barely pubescent-looking hippie chick with a lithe dancer's body; and her caretaker brother, Simon (Sean Maher), a straight-arrow doctor. River is the center of Serenity: She's what the Alliance wants, fiercely. Her telepathic powers are formidable, and she has acquired some vampire-slayer kung fu moves. (She can't control them, but nobody's perfect.) More important, she knows something the Alliance doesn't want the rest of us to know. So it has dispatched an operative (known as "the Operative") played by guest star Chewitel Ejiofor—one of those badass assassins who don't just kill people but first give them Tarantino-hipsterish lectures. (Whedon makes a mistake with Chewey's outcome, I think—but enuf said.)

I mean Serenity no disrespect when I say it's enjoyably junky. It's not that the FX are cheesy; it's that they don't have that bejeweled Lucasoid Sistine Chapel vibe. The frames are cluttered, even chaotic. The battles—several against a race of sadistic cannibals that nobody wants to mess with called "Reavers"—are rough-and-ready, full of hand-held shaky whip-pans and zooms. It's the perfect visual style for Whedon's hyperliterate repartee, which never lapses into camp because he loves this world too much to want to throw you out of it, even for a second.

At the screening I attended, the audience applauded the entrance of each character. I felt left out—but less devastated, too, when a couple of them bit the dust. Now that I've gotten to know Firefly I'm retroactively devastated—angry, even. Bring them back, Joss! And Firefly with them! This time, I promise I'll watch faithfully …

A boy and his cheetah 
Click image to expand.
A boy and his cheetah

A few months ago I got a note from the "Dude" himself, Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski and now a director's rep, on behalf of Carroll Ballard's Duma. Its studio, Warner Bros., had no faith in its ability to find an audience and intended to play it in a few theaters (for contractual reasons) and send it straight to DVD.

Flabbergasting news! Ballard is a national treasure. Reportedly something of a cold fish, he has nevertheless made three of the warmest and most thrilling fiction films about animals of all time: the undisputed classic The Black Stallion, the messed-up but still remarkable Never Cry Wolf, and the exhilarating tear-jerker Fly Away Home. Could Duma be that bad? The news from the Dude was, like, hard to wrap my mind around, man.

Well, a cavalry of film critics came charging. Scott Foundas found out about a screening at an obscure festival, raced over, and published a rave in Variety that started the pressure on the studio. Everyone's favorite film-critic couple Charles Taylor in the Newark Star-Ledger and Stephanie Zacharek in Salon piled on. Roger Ebert's big thumb helped to get Duma a limited run in Chicago.

Now, the movie has a tryout in two New York theaters. At the preview I attended, the audience got a note from the director saying: If you like this film, please, please tell people.

So, I'm telling you. I like it. Maybe not as much as those other pictures, but enough to bemoan a system in which family films have been so geared to kids (and their parents) weaned on video games that it's inhospitable to more measured kinds of storytelling.

Duma is the story of a boy and a cheetah—but don't click off! There are nature films and there are Ballard nature films. Think of the title creature in The Black Stallion, charging along the beach with its flanks rippling: more than a horse—the Platonic ideal of a horse, like something Michelangelo would sculpt. In Fly Away Home, Anna Paquin leads a flock of orphaned geese south for the winter in an ultralight plane. It sounds absurd—but you're up there with these birds, and the beat of their wings plugs right into your heartbeat.

In Duma, a baby cheetah's mother is slain by a lion in a South African preserve, and the mewling little animal stumbles through a fence and onto a road, where he's rescued by a family and taken to their farm. Duma—as he's now called—gets on famously with every creature, including the sorts of farm animals a cheetah might ordinarily eat, and especially with the boy, Xan (Alexander Michelatos). But Xan's father (Campbell Scott) is aware that this is a wild animal; he tells Xan that wildness is in Duma's blood, and that before the cheetah gets thoroughly domesticated, he must be returned to the preserve.

So far, so Born Free, except for the characteristic intimacy that Ballard has with animals, and the way he photographs Duma running alongside the father's motorcycle as he measures the growing cheetah's velocity—running so that you can appreciate the marvel of that musculature.

Duma changes gears when the father dies of cancer, and when Xan and his mother (Hope Davis), are forced to sell the farm move to the city. It's quickly apparent that Duma, like those geese in Fly Away Home, needs an escort back to nature. The runaway Xan's journey, first in a motorcycle (with Duma in a sidecar), then on foot through a desert, is the stuff of great coming-of-age sagas. Before it ends, he'll turn the motorcycle into a sailboat, dig out a man buried alive, and—here's a change of pace for a family picture!—push a reluctant predator into its first kill, a nice little antelope. For all its reverence for animals, the movie is infused with the idea of a harsh, even cruel nature—a nature that brings you even closer to mortality and loss.

It's obvious why the studio has no faith in Duma. It has a long, meditative middle section in the desert after Xan runs out of gas and joins up with an untrustworthy fortune-hunter, edgily played by Eamonn Walker. The character suggests another aspect of nature at work: the way that an unfair economic system can bring out one's rather unsavory survival instincts. It's a rich, but slow stretch, and children younger than 8 (like mine) might get restless.

But this big kid was lost in admiration. Ballard loves to shoot at the time photographers call the "magic hour"—the end of the day when the shadows are slanted and the light is reddish gold. I think of all of Duma as the magic hour.

Tacky Ad Quote of the Month: "Audiences, too, will be asking for more." —Paul Fischer, Dark Horizons, on Oliver Twist. From hunger ... 9:18 a.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.