I have to admit that I was never able to get into Firefly, the Joss Wheden TV show upon which Serenity is based. The conceit of a western in space is pretty standard but the execution in the show was just a little too heavy handed for my taste. But since the move has come out, the reviews have been pretty good, most tagging it as a good adventure story in the tradition of the first Star Wars.

Well, as long as they don’t boost expectations too high.

Serenity is no Star Wars but it is pretty exciting. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the captain of the Serenity, a lightly armed cargo vessel that roams the outer reaches of a solar system that was colonized millenia ago. Most of the planets and moons in the system have been terraformed to make them habitable. The inner planets are controlled by a ruthless totalitarian goverment called the Alliance. A few years back the Alliance smashed any serious resistance in a war. Reynolds and his crew are weary veterens of that war. They were on the wrong side and are now trying to eke out a living on the edges of the Alliance’s rapidly expanding sphere of influence. It’s actually a pretty intelligent and cool set up.

For the better part of a year Reynolds’ crew has had two passengers Simon Tam (Sean Maher) a doctor and his sister River (Summer Glau), whom he rescued from the clutches of Alliance scientists. As it turns out, they were turning her into some kind of super weapon. But during a demonstration in front of some important parliament members, she learned a terrible secret, which has driven her mad. The Alliance wants her back or dead before she gets it together enough to tell somebody what she knows. They send out their top assassin, known only as the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) to do the job.

All of Serenity’s reviews so far have said that you don’t need to have seen the series to fully understand it. That’s only partially true. I was able to follow the plot well enough, but I felt like I was missing a lot of  the nuances of the character interactions. For instance, they hide out at a place called Haven which is led by a preacher figure, played by Ron Glass, who obviously means a lot to Reynolds. I really didn’t feel the relationship. Presumably, a fan of the Firefly would have. Also the dialog of the crew is in this frontier style that makes for some odd word choices, saying “conjure” instead of “reckon” as the example that stands out most in my mind. Unless you’re used to it, it can be hard to follow.

But overall, Serenity is a smart and exciting adventure tale. Nathan Fillion does a great job playing Reynolds as a reluctent leader whose survivor instincts are in conflict with the idealism that led him to volunteer for the war all those years ago. He’s a likeable actor and I hope to see him in other things.

Whedon’s direction is pretty good. His television roots are well hidden. The film looks and feels like a movie and not like a two hour episode like many of the Star Trek movies. Only at the end, when things are wrapped up just a little too neatly do the project’s origins emerge.

Firefly, despite my ambivalence toward it, is popular with the fanboys who gobbled up the DVD collection of the show. The movie, it’s been said, was made as a reward to that loyal fanbase. Fortunately, Wheden was smart enough to make it accessible to the rest of us too.


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October 2005
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