If you never saw the TV show “Firefly,” don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. That’s why the Fox network cancelled it after 11 episodes. Despite poor ratings, the program had developed a loyal cult following during its short run. When the complete series was released on DVD, that cult grew significantly. For a show that quickly died, the DVD set was a big seller. Its unexpected popularity inspired Universal to take a gamble by bringing “Firefly” to the big screen. Writer/director Joss Whedon (who also created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”) reunited his cast for the newly-titled Serenity.
The story is set in the future, where formerly barren planets have been “terraformed” to make them inhabitable for human life. Several of the world’s governments have banded together to use scientific techniques to create these utopian planets, where citizens are engineered to be less aggressive and more docile. Several of the outlying planets refused to take part in this process, which led to war. The rebellion armies were swiftly crushed.
Members of those armies still exist though, and one of their captains is Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He runs the ship known as Serenity. Along with his crew (which includes Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, and Gina Torres), Mal does smuggling-for-money jobs, all the while hoping to undermine the Alliance. Occasionally he offers a lift to someone in need. That explains the presence of two people on the ship: Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his 17 year-old sister River (Summer Glau). The girl is a psychic who is regularly tormented by hallucinations. She also displays an occasional outburst of violence when threatened.
River was programmed to be a “weapon” on the Alliance’s behalf. After Simon breaks her out of a government lab, the Alliance sends in a mercenary known as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to find her. Since she’s hiding on the Serenity, Mal and his crew are standing directly in the line of fire. They decide to find out why the Alliance wants her so badly. The search leads to a remote planet where a startling discovery is made. The Operative remains on their trail, and the voyage is made even more deadly by the appearance of “reavers” – space zombies, if you will.
You do not need to have seen a single episode of “Firefly” in order to follow Serenity. I never saw the show but was able to pick things up pretty quickly. If you’re a “newbie,” it takes about twenty minutes or so to figure out who everyone is and what kind of relationships they have amongst themselves. After the twenty minute mark, things suddenly click into place and you’re basically caught up. That said, if you are familiar with the show, I think the movie will be an even richer experience for you. For instance, when two characters proclaim their undying passion for one another near the end, I thought it came out of left field; a friend (who was a “Firefly” fan) assured me later that this seed had been planted quite carefully in the series and came as no surprise to the initiated.
Until I got away from TV watching late in its run, I had been an admirer of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Whedon has an approach that serves him well. He starts with a premise solidly within the fantasy/horror/sci-fi genre. Then he creates 3-dimensional characters and strong stories. Next he adds a healthy dose of witty, intelligent humor. Then he focuses on special effects and action. A lot of filmmakers or TV writers go the opposite direction: they place more emphasis on the gimmicks of the genre than anything else. That’s why there’s so much bad sci-fi and horror out there.
Serenity follows in Whedon’s pattern. The characters are not stereotypes. Mal, for example, can be funny and sarcastic one minute, then headstrong and bossy the next. The other crew members respect him but don’t always get along with him. The Operative, on the other hand, makes a great villain because he’s so civilized. Even when he’s assassinating someone, the guy speaks in a calm, controlled tone of voice. He has a great speech where he admits that he’s evil, but hey – someone’s gotta do this job. I also liked the character of River, who looks like the prom queen inhabiting the body of Carrie. She’s literally on a different wavelength from everyone else, and her presence gives the story an eerie edge.
The plot actually goes somewhere we want to follow. The best science-fiction is always about ideas, and Serenity deals with government interference and the citizenry’s desire to live freely. I liked the way things unfolded, so that the grand battle between factions is represented by the personal battle between Mal and the Operative. The film doesn’t need dozens of elaborate special effects-filled battles to be exciting; it’s exciting enough in concept and theme. And when the movie does feature a special effects battle, it’s done with a twist: Whereas most sci-fi pictures feature sleek spaceships whizzing through the air, Serenity is filled with big, clunky ships that are more likely to bump into each other than to shoot each other.
It remains to be seen whether the box office is kinder to this project than the Nielsen ratings were. The ultimate irony would be if the movie was successful enough to bring the show back. All I can say is that I really enjoyed Serenity, and I plan on getting my hands on that “Firefly” DVD to see what I missed.
( out of four)
Note: I’m giving this movie three stars. If I’d have seen the show, I might have gone a half star higher. As I said, you don’t need to be familiar with the show to enjoy the film, but having a broader depth of knowledge undoubtedly makes the movie pay off in even greater ways. My advice: see the movie, watch the shows, then see the movie again for maximum appreciation.
Serenity is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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