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"Serenity" Movie Review

Joss Whedon's Cancelled Series Gets a Second Chance on the Big Screen

By

Sean Maher and Summer Glau in "Serenity"

© Universal Studios
“Serenity” is a wild, white-knuckle roller coaster ride set in the future where the heroes are deeply conflicted, people do whatever they have to – even if it’s illegal - just to survive, and if you want to cuss at someone, you do it in a foreign language so there’s no need to cover the ears of small children.

One of the things I worried about with “Serenity” was writer/director Joss Whedon’s ability to make a film version of his cancelled TV series “Firefly” that would make sense to people who had no knowledge of the characters from the series. After seeing “Serenity,” I feel fairly secure in saying no prior knowledge of the series is necessary to understand the story. It helps – but it’s not an absolute necessity. Whedon even manages to toss in a couple of “Firefly”-style inside jokes but he’s so good at understanding who he’s writing for, that he pulls it off without alienating the rest of the audience.

Whedon spends as little time as possible filling out the backstory of the central character. I say ‘character’ because although “Firefly” really had nine main characters who alternated being featured in each episode, “Serenity” is really the story of River Tam (played with shocking flexibility by Summer Glau). Whedon does a terrific job of providing just enough of a backstory to make the non-initiated feel comfortable with the plot, while not boring devoted fans of the series.

“Serenity” is set 500 years in the future, although except for the space ships and interplanetary travel, the look of the characters makes it feel as though everything is taking place back in the days of the Wild West. Replace one of the central battles on a far-off planet with the famed showdown at the OK Corral and you’d have a pretty dang good old-school Western shoot out. It’s that much of a cross-over/blend of sci-fi and Westerns.

The story follows the crew of the ship, Serenity, as they try to eke out a living transporting passengers and stealing goods to sell on the black market. Led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a man who stood up to the government and ended up on the losing side of a civil war, Serenity and its passengers and crew spend every day trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

So why does the law want to bring Mal and his crew down? It seems they’re harboring a very important fugitive, River Tam, and her protective brother. River has the power to read minds – as well as other interesting abilities – and she’s learned something the Alliance (the galactic governing body) doesn’t want anyone to know. This makes the Alliance very jumpy and forces them to unleash a mercenary (played with a chilling, steely calmness by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to hunt the Serenity down and take custody of River.

The entire cast of TV’s“Firefly” made their way to the movie and the relationships they built up while working together on that series pays off in the film. The crew has to come across as a tight-knit, well-oiled team and it does. There’s a shared history to this group that’s obvious while watching “Serenity.”

“Serenity” features some terrific special effects, from a high speed race across a planet in feuding space ships on down to the smaller effects used to create futuristic communication devices. It also has two of the best girl fight scenes I can recall in a film. Summer Glau as River Tam takes on dozens of men in two critical fight sequences, both of which are believable and cut together without the frenetic MTV-style editing so prevalent in recent action films. The fights are pretty yet brutal, her fighting style reminiscent more of a ballet than a battle sequence.

“Serenity” does have riveting battle sequences, compelling characters, and just enough humor to balance the underlying social commentary in the film, but it’s a weird mix of genres. Because it’s a mix of two genres rarely seen blended together, “Serenity” is going to have a hard time finding that right niche audience – outside of already existing Whedon/“Firefly” fans. The fact it requires a huge leap of faith from its viewers is one of the reasons it didn’t catch on as a series. Audiences have to be able to put aside preconceived notions of what a sci-fi movie is supposed to look like and go with the flow in order to get into the unique spirit of “Serenity.”

* GRADE: B

“Serenity” was directed by Joss Whedon and is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references.

* While I really liked the movie, I’m not 100% positive that had I not already been a fan of Whedon’s writing (I still contend “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had the best dialogue of any show on television), I would have gotten as much enjoyment out of “Serenity” as I did.

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