Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mars Resurgent

This weekend, Veronica Mars returned with a feature film famously funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. For me, this big screen return of a beloved television series got me thinking of Firefly and Serenity, and I found it hard not to draw comparisons.

Unfortunately, Serenity set the bar pretty high. Brilliant as it was, you can't even say that Firefly was cut down in its prime. With only two-thirds of a season, it didn't even get that far. This only added to its mystique for the fans who loved it. The film Serenity thus felt like something that would bring closure that had been cruelly denied. And Joss Whedon crafted a movie that left it all on the field. It was grander than anything the series could have brought us, a true last hurrah.

Veronica Mars was a different situation altogether, though just as brilliant in its own ways. That series found a way to keep going for three years. And while the witty writing and wonderful characters were there right until the end, the essence of the show had already been compromised in its final season. Creator Rob Thomas gave in to network pressure (understandably, trying to keep his show on the air), abandoning the season-long story arcs that marked years one and two. Any fan would acknowledge that season three was the weakest of the series, even if in the same breath they'd wish the show had kept going.

From the moment Firefly left the air, Joss Whedon and all the actors were out there in the public eye, vowing it would return some day. And it only took them a few years to do it. On the other hand, while Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, and others were out there for a while pounding the pavements for Veronica Mars, it seemed like that talk had long since died down. All the Veronica Mars fans I know were shocked last March when, seemingly out of nowhere, the word of the Kickstarter campaign arrived. Really? A Veronica Mars continuation was still even a possibility?

But Veronica Mars (the movie) doesn't come to us as the conclusion of an unfinished story. It's absolutely as welcome to its fans as Serenity was to Firefly fans, but it's not something we've been clamoring for. Nor did Rob Thomas envision it as the grand finale that Joss Whedon clearly saw in Serenity. The plot of the film is not a larger than life tale that could only be told at the end, and only on the big screen. Part of this is budget. Rob Thomas put on the screen every penny of the nearly $6 million given to him through Kickstarter. Yet that's still less money than Serenity had. And then there's the other part of this: intention. Veronica Mars didn't really "end" before, and Rob Thomas isn't "ending" it now either.

And so this movie comes to us largely as just another chapter in the adventures of Veronica Mars. Through the lens of "ten years and one unprecedented Kickstarter campaign," that is almost inevitably a disappointment. But through the lens of "a chance to see more of that thing we all really liked?" Well, Veronica Mars is a chance to see more of that thing we all really liked.

Everything fun about the series lives on in the movie. Smart characters with crackling dialogue. Great relationships, particularly between Veronica and her father Keith. A tangled mystery with lots of suspects and surprising twists along the way. A romantic throughline for all the 'shippers. It is, simply, a movie that's impossible not to like for anyone who liked the show.

But that said, I didn't quite love it. The plot unfurled rather slowly in the opening act. The efforts to find space in some scene for all the significant characters of the series felt sometimes forced. The odd cameo appearances (from people I won't spoil) felt bizarre and out of place.

Yet overall, the fact that we got a Veronica Mars movie is a great thing overall. The Kickstarter supporters did a good service for all of us fans. And the word is that if the film manages to drum up enough money (no one is saying exactly what the magic number is), Warner Brothers has expressed willingness to pay for another one themselves. We'll just have to see.

For now, we have this one to see. And you should. I give it a B+.

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