Ok, first the disclaimer...I am a fan of Joss Whedon....and a fan of the now-defunct Firefly television series upon which Serenity is based. So any rave review I might give may seem tainted by the fact that I was a fan to begin with. To balance this, I attended a screening with a friend who knew practically nothing about the original series. Since the only way Serenity will be successful at the box office is if it not only appeals to the fans, but can function as a self-contained independent story, I figured our countering viewpoints would be a good indicator if Whedon could make a film to appeal to more than just the already established fan.
Was he successful? I'd have to say a resounding yes. We both thoroughly enjoyed the film. And I think the main reason is that rather than being a straight-up sci-fi film, it's more of an comedic action-adventure story that just happens to be set in outer space. Unlike some sci-fi films where the casual viewer gets overwhelmed by all the techno-jargon, Whedon has populated his story with characters that are just as likely to call something a "whachamacallit" than its true name. Sure there are laser crossbows and blasters, but there are also old-fashioned shotguns and samurai swords.
Shotguns and blasters? Huh? Sounds like they wouldn't co-habit the same story, but in Whedon's capable hands, they do.
The story background is this: About 500 years in the future, humanity has used up the Earth's resources and has set out to colonize another galaxy. Through "terraforming" (the process of making over a planet to resemble Earth, from the oxygen balance in the air to drinkable water), humans are now living in this new galaxy's many worlds. The worlds towards the center of this galaxy have formed into "The Alliance" -- with all the latest techonological advances and a secret covert section of the government that is set upon control of the galaxy through control of its population. The outer planets in the galaxy have become like an Old West of sorts -- mining camps, low technology use, etc. The settlers there very much resemble the our 1800's Wild West era of people. The juxtaposition of these two sections of the galaxy is why guns exist alongside of blasters.
As the movie starts, we are introduced to siblings Simon and River Tam. River (Summer Glau), a teen psychic, was captured by The Alliance, who hoped to tap into her gifts to help them with their plans of complete galaxy domination. Simon (Sean Maher), the eldest and a doctor, breaks into the research lab to free her. The two take refuge on the spaceship Serenity, helmed by Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Mal and his second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) fought side by side on the losing end of a galactic war and now they and the rest of the Serenity crew -- pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite) -- are running shady jobs on the edge of the galaxy to earn enough cash to stay afloat...and out of the arms of The Alliance.
Things are about to go from bad to worse for the crew and its two passengers. It seems while conducting experiments on River, The Alliance scientists inadvertently gave her psychic access to an incredibly damaging secret. Even though the experiments have left River just this side of certifiably crazy, The Alliance dispatches an assassin, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to make sure she never becomes lucid enough to reveal the secret.
Unfortunately, in addition to running from The Alliance, Mal and his crew also have to contend with Reavers. Though once human, Reavers, for some unknown reason, have descended into a level of madness that has rendered them into cannabalistic raiders. They no longer even look human.
But even if you didn't know all of this before entering the theater, you'll still enjoy the film, as Whedon has written a script that is quickly brings you in on the lives of the characters. And though he does gloss over the roles of two of the characters -- Inara (Morena Baccarin), a "companion" (a futuristic paid escort), and preacher Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), both of whom were actually major characters on the television show -- you still get enough of a background on the crew by the time the story kicks into gear.
And when it does, Serenity quickly evolves into an action-packed rollercoaster ride of a film, as Mal, his crew and the siblings attempt to evade the Reavers, the assassin, find out what the secret is...and oh, yeah, do a few odd jobs for cash. After all, a ship has to stay repaired and a crew has to eat. Smart-witted humor, a Joss Whedon trademark, is sprinkled liberally through the dialogue. This enables the characters to become more endearing and more realistic in the short time we have to get to know them on celluloid.
It is said when Whedon first got the greenlight on the movie, the studio originally asked for the roles to be recast with more well-known names. He refused, believing the actors he had cast for the show were the right ones to begin with, even though the series was cancelled after only a dozen aired episodes. Both myself and my movie companion agree that was the best move Whedon could have done. It's obvious that the cast, having worked together in these roles before, had evolved into a loose-knit family -- just as the crew of Serenity has done in the script. They also appeared to have become very comfortable with the various nuances of the characters, which leads to a more believable performance. I have to give extra kudos to Fillion, who does a wonderful job with the character of Mal. He infuses a loveable scoundrel quality in his portrayal of the character that is enjoyable to watch in the way that Han Solo was in the original Star Wars trilogy, or Starbuck in the original series version of Battlestar Galactica. But when Mal is pushed too far by the assassin, Fillion introduces a silent rage to the character that, while seeming opposite of how Mal is normally, really solidifies why Mal is the captain of the Serenity -- and why his crew will follow him literally to hell and back.
I have to warn that there are some character developments that will shock even the most loyal of fans. One in particular, revolves around the husband and wife team of Zoe and Wash. And though fans know anything can happen to happiest of loving couples in the Whedon Universe, which also includes the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, what does happen will surely cause a major stir, if not outright fury. But when it happens, it makes it even more unclear what will happen to the rest of the Serenity crew when things really hit the fan. And that level of imminent peril will have you on the edge of your seat right up to the last ten minutes of the film.
Serenity has something for everyone -- comedy, action, crazy fight scenes, love scenes -- and I feel it's one of the best films of the year. The only major negative I have to say about Serenity is that I now want to see even more. Which is a sentiment echoed by my previously-non-fan friend. Here's hoping for a great box office so that a sequel or -- could it be? -- a revived version of the series will start production in the near future. In the meantime, if you'd like to revisit the original series, the Sci-Fi Channel in the US is currently airing the episodes every Friday night, including three that were never originally aired. The complete box set of the original Firefly series is also available on dvd.
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Joss Whedon
Rated: PG-13 [for intense violence and action, and some sexual references]
Rating Score: 9.5 out of 10
Official website: www.serenitymovie.com