Today, Serenity, a film adaptation of the failed television series Firefly, opens in theaters.
The film was made after fans rallied behind the canceled series, and Serenity offers an unusual view of what a future life led in the abyss outside our atmosphere might look like. Often described as space Westerns, Firefly and Serenity, mark their territory by giving characters traditional powder-and-shell firearms, keeping space silent (no whooshing engines or booming explosions) and basing a deep-space culture equally on Western and Eastern philosophies.
As unusual as the Serenity/Firefly ethos is, the idea behind it is not. Since man first went to the moon, cinematically speaking, filmmakers have been developing new ideas about what life and death among the stars might look like. Here are a few examples:
FLASH GORDON (1936)
TONE: Decidedly art deco - sleek steel and straight lines. Even the villains possess a sense of style.
HERO: Flash Gordon, of course. Blond, brawny and everybody's all-American hero - something, evidently, in short supply on the planet Mongo.
RIPPED OFF BY: Buck Rogers. This similar serial, which began three years after Flash Gordon, even went so far as to cast the Flash star, Buster Crabbe, in the title role.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: Spaceships propelled by the winning combination of sparklers and fishing line
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
TONE: Midcentury modern, complete with flying saucers, talking robots and one of those squiggly looking coffee tables. Swinging.
HERO: Commander John J. Adams, played by a pre-funny Leslie Nielsen. A man of his time, he commented that Robby the Robot's (the true star) ability to synthesize food was "any housewife's dream."
RIPPED OFF BY: Lost in Space. The same flying saucer, the same desolate landscape, with very few alterations, and the same robot.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: Robby the Robot. Oh sure, the Krell monster was impressive, but nothing compares with a talking robot that can roast a chicken.
STAR TREK (1966)
TONE: A crisp, clean and integrated vision of the future.
HERO: James T. Kirk, the courageous starship captain who never met a hot alien woman he wasn't willing to lock lips with.
RIPPED OFF BY: The countless sequels and spinoffs to the series
SIGNATURE EFFECT: The transporter beam, which proved popular despite breaking people down molecularly and then hoping it could put the billion puzzle pieces back together in the right order
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
TONE: Cool, clean minimalism. Zen in space.
HERO: Dr. Dave Bowman, a cool, clean intellectual. More Zen in space.
RIPPED OFF BY: Silent Running. This environmentally aware movie was directed by Doug Trumbull, the special effects coordinator on 2001. Needless to say, there are more than a few stylistic similarities.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: The waltz-time mating dance between a needle-nose shuttle and the slowly rotating space station. Beautiful and oddly arousing.
STAR WARS (1977)
TONE: Hopped-up hot rods and death-defying dogfights in space.
HERO: Some say Luke Skywalker, the farmboy innocent, and others say Han Solo, the cynical smuggler with a heart of gold. Nearly 30 years later, the battle continues.
RIPPED OFF BY: Battlestar Galactica. The producers of this television series couldn't have been more blatant if they had an army of faceless villains. Oh wait, they did.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: The lightsabers. There's a reason every child who has swung a stick in the past 30 years makes that whooshing sound.
TONE: Dark, damp and dirty - think industrial waste in space.
HERO: Ellen Ripley - the single-minded second officer of the space freighter Nostromo and, in a welcome sci-fi shift, a woman.
RIPPED OFF BY: Species. Think of this far weaker film as Alien lite set on Earth.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: Although not really seen until the final frames of the film, the Alien remains one of the most distinctive, and frightening, creatures ever devised for the screen.
GALAXY QUEST (1999)
TONE: A comic riff on pretty much every space opera that had come before, with liberal doses of Space: 1999 and Star Trek.
HERO: Jason Nesmith, an actor mistaken for Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, the science fiction hero he once played
RIPPED OFF BY: Nobody yet, but it certainly did some wholesale borrowing of its own.
SIGNATURE EFFECT: The NSEA Protector, a near-perfect amalgamation of every spaceship clich.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.