Like many geeks, I'm a big fan of the short-lived but magnificent TV show Firefly. Firefly went off the air very quickly, but went on to sell like crazy on DVD. Passionate fans petitioned its network to keep it on the air. The effort failed, but its passion and momentum - and the series' DVD sales - provided the show's creator Joss Whedon with the leverage to make a movie of it.
The movie, Serenity, totally didn't satisfy me. It wasn't quite a movie, but it wasn't a movie-length episode either. There was something just plain off about it. Recently I figured out what.
I'm reading a book on writing TV dramas. Pretty much every book you'll ever read about an artform by a practitioner of that artform will include some soliloquy on why this particular artform is better than any other. My book on writing TV drama is no exception, and its explanation of why TV drama is the artform of artforms showed me what it was about Serenity that seemed off to me.
(If you don't think programmers are guilty of this same indulgence, by the way, read Paul Graham.)
According to this book, the great strength of TV drama over feature films is character development. Where shows like NYPD Blue and The Sopranos can trace relationships and personal transformations over the course of a decade, the concentrated, compressed timeframe of a movie gives you superior flash and dazzle - but virtually nothing when it comes to depth and insight. There just isn't time for reflection in a feature film, and even if there were time, it wouldn't be the right context.
Serenity takes the character arcs and story development that Joss Whedon had planned to build and develop over the course of years and squishes them into one big, character-develop-y, mystery-reveal-y series of events. I say "series of events" because it's supposed to be an adventure, but it isn't. It's not an adventure because it's just too much to handle. Action/adventure movies always have a certain superficiality to them, and that's there for a reason. The events in movies like that are so dramatic, one after the other, that you need some superficial banter just to buy into it. A movie which had action/adventure events happening to real people wouldn't give you an adrenaline rush; it'd give you post-traumatic stress disorder. You need something silly to remind you it's just a movie.
Serenity doesn't give you that. It gives you the events of an adventure with the story revelations, complicated relationships, and serious moments of a detailed, sophisticated drama. But it packs all that into the space of a feature film, and the result is claustrophobic. Serious moments need room to breathe. The deep revelations, surprising transformations, and particularly the evolving relationships in Serenity are all way too much weight for the thin bones of a movie to hold up. The whole thing collapses under its own intensity, and the effect is just disorienting; you're left wondering how these people could possibly have changed so much since the last time you saw them.
Serenity isn't really a movie of Firefly as much as it is the Cliff Notes version of Firefly's missing seasons. Because I'm not an insane, demented asshole, or a network executive - but I repeat myself - I know that Firefly going off the air was a tragic, idiotic mistake and a disservice to the entire world. But they shouldn't have made a feature out of it. They should have held out for a miniseries, and seen that go to DVD. If they had, it could have been incredible.