Serenity, writer/director Joss Whedon's big screen take on his short-lived Firefly TV series, is a rousing space western that provides action, thrills, laughs, tears and even food for thought. The film works as a creation unto itself; you do not have to be a fan of the TV show to enjoy it. That said, fans will certainly get the most out of the production, particularly when it comes to the dialogue and deeds of the fine supporting cast.
The cast of 'Serenity'
There will be no spoilers in this essay, but I would like to take a moment to address - in a fashion that gives nothing away - other Firefly fans who have already seen the movie: Holy shit, could you believe it when ________?!? And then later, when __________ ?!? I don't mind telling you that both scenes left me flattened. Flattened!
Now back to the review.
The set-up goes like this: The Alliance won the interplanetary war. Now, a disillusioned Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who fought with the rebels, earns his living transporting people and doing odd jobs (usually illegal) with his ship, Serenity.
The Alliance has firmly set their sights on two of the passengers on Serenity, young doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his whacked-out psychic sister, River (Summer Glau). Because River may be aware of certain state secrets, the government sends an operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to eradicate the problem. He is relentless and efficient.
While life has never been rosy for the Serenity crew, it is about to become especially harrowing.
The crew, by the way, consists of second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), who fought alongside Mal in the war; her laid-back husband, pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); country girl mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); and weapons expert/lovable rogue Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Passengers of note have included Inara (Morena Baccarin), a highly-revered prostitute and the charismatic Book (Ron Glass), a preacher with great strength of character. David Krumholtz, the math-whiz of the TV series Numb3rs, pops up as a computer expert called Mr. Universe.
The first time the characters spoke in Serenity I had an "Uh-oh" moment. For a second, the cowboy-speak dialogue sounded forced, awkward, stagey. Then I remembered back to when Firefly premiered on the Fox network. The blend of the space adventure and western genres seemed forced and stagy to me and I changed channels. But the odd lyricism of the show, coupled with the smart dialogue, kept drawing me back.
Fox canceled the program, airing only 11 of the 14 episodes produced (and - adding insult to injury - not in the proper order). Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, vowed to continue fighting for the show. He tried in vain to shop it to other networks ("But why won't you buy my just-canceled space western? It's critically-acclaimed!"). Then the show was marketed as a DVD box set and sold a tremendous number of copies and suddenly Whedon's cult favorite got interesting again.
I wish it had returned as a TV series rather than a movie. Though each episode of Firefly was self-contained, they played together like chapters in a grand novel. Serenity is forced to move at a fast clip in order to tie up all the loose ends within its 119 minute running time. It does so quite well, but I want to spend more time with these people, the kind of time only a TV series can afford.
The bottom line: Serenity is the kind of movie George Lucas hasn't made for decades. It has everything a top notch space opera should have: the grit, the lived-in look, the humor (there are some great one-liners here), the idiosyncrasies (check out the Chinese-heavy patois employed by the crew), the thrilling (and comprehensible) battles and the sense of danger and moral gravity. Serenity is the real deal, and not just for fans of the TV series.