Rated PG-13, 119 min. Directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz, Sarah Paulson.
Hats off to Joss Whedon’s army of fans and their enduring ire over the cancellation of his 2002 television show, Firefly. Critics savaged the Western/sci-fi hybrid, viewers stayed away in droves, and Fox pulled the show midseason. But his fans’ continued devotion – and their DVD-buying dollars – kept if not the series then the idea of Firefly alive, which was enough to convince Universal to greenlight the feature film we now have before us called Serenity. Geek much? As a one-time obsessive of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer who eventually wearied of its wisecracking Scooby gang (and, even more so, of its rabid fanbase), I’ll admit to some reluctance here. Having never watched the source show, I had two primary concerns about Serenity: Did it make sense, and did it suck? In short order: Yes (more or less), and no, not in the least. Newbies should pay close attention to the opening minutes, though, in which the backstory of this bizarro universe is laid out. The setting is 500 years in the future. A massive civil war has splintered the solar system, but the Alliance eventually squashed the insurrection and united the system under its singular rule. Rebel fighter Mal Reynolds (Fillion, square-jawed and irresistibly piss and vinegar) ended up on the losing side; he now captains the ship Serenity and its eccentric crew-cum-outlaws, crooking in the shadow of the Alliance. Serenity picks up here, with complications arising from the addition to the crew of a doctor (Maher) and his psychic sister, River (Glau). Seems River is precious cargo – she’s been trained by the government to be something of a killing machine – and the Alliance has dispatched an assassin (a chilling Ejiofor) to reclaim her. Serenity sticks to the same template of Whedon’s Buffy and Angel series: quip-happy, with a fixation on the supernatural or otherworldly, and a salty ensemble cast of characters bound by loyalty and tough love. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Those tried-and-true conventions have everything to do with Serenity’s charm. (A welcome surprise, however, is the film’s unique vernacular, which skips from cowboy to Chinese; once the giggliness of it wears off, the dialect achieves a peculiar sort of poetry.) Prior knowledge no doubt enriches the experience, clarifies certain relationships that are only hinted at in the film (indeed, some carry-over characters have very little to do here). But stand alone, Serenity evinces the kind of swashbuckling bonhomie that made so many of us fall in love with the original Star Wars films, a love that was mightily tested by George Lucas’ humorless prequels. There are restless stretches, sure, and the occasional nosedive into incomprehensibility, but they’re overwhelmed by the film’s comic fleet of foot, the aggressively staged action sequences, and a few shocks that very nearly knocked the wind out of me. And in a final tip of the hat, this time entirely to Whedon: Isn’t that just like a TV writer to make his cheeky central thesis the power of the televised image to foment revolution?
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