One of the things I worried about with Serenity was writer/director Joss Whedons 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 its not an absolute necessity. Whedon even manages to toss in a couple of Firefly-style inside jokes but hes so good at understanding who hes 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 youd have a pretty dang good old-school Western shoot out. Its 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 theyre 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 shes learned something the Alliance (the galactic governing body) doesnt 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 TVsFirefly 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. Theres a shared history to this group thats 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 its a weird mix of genres. Because its 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 didnt 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, Im not 100% positive that had I not already been a fan of Whedons 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.