Serenity (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

This is only the second time it has happened. By "it," I'm referring to the process by which a science fiction television show is canceled, becomes a cult hit after its removal from the air, and is brought back to life as a major motion picture with the original cast. Serenity, Joss Whedon's follow-up to his defunct TV project Firefly, thus enters rarefied territory. The only other franchise to make such a lofty claim is Star Trek. (To be fair, X-Files did something similar, although it was still on the air when the movie reached theaters.) The box office numbers will determine where the Firefly characters go from here: to a sequel, to a new TV series, or to the dusty part of a DVD shelf.

One question that's impossible to answer for a Firefly fan is whether the film works on its own. To that end, I have avoided the TV series for the sake of this review. I have been tempted to sample it (opportunities abound), but have avoided doing so. My goal with this review is to present the perspective of someone who appreciates science fiction but has never been exposed to Joss Whedon's universe (I never saw Buffy or Angel, either). Fan reviews have flooded the 'net. This is an opportunity for a different point-of-view.

Serenity is a fast-paced, engaging science fiction adventure tale. The emphasis should be on "adventure;" the "science fiction" just gives Whedon (making his directorial debut) an interesting canvas to paint upon. In many ways, the film is old-fashioned. The space-ships are not sleek and streamlined - they're hunks of junk being held together by paperclips and masking tape. The characters talk like they learned English in the 19th century Old West (with occasional Chinese curses thrown in for good measure). And guns fire bullets, not laser blasts. This is one of the key elements that separates the Star Trek camp from the (new) Battlestar Galactica one. Serenity falls in the latter, "retro" category.

The storyline is set up economically, albeit with a little too much starting exposition. A 17-year old telepath named River (Summer Glau) is being manipulated by this universe's version of the Evil Empire (called the Alliance) to become a weapon. She is rescued by her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), and the two seek refuge upon the mercenary ship Serenity. The ship is captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a war veteran who is more compassionate than he lets on. His crew consists of his second-in-command, Zoe (Gina Torres); her husband and the ship's pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk); Kaylee (Jewel Staite), an engineer who's prettier than Scotty; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a tough-talking bruiser. At first, having River and Simon on board doesn't seem to be a problem, but Simon's unwillingness to take orders and River's increasing mental instability generate friction. Then a real problem becomes apparent: River is being pursued by one of the Alliance's elite operatives (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and he will stop at nothing to eliminate her. This puts the crew of Serenity in the cross-hairs of a galactic showdown.

For a two-hour movie, the characters - even the secondary ones - are remarkably well-drawn. The ones with the most screen time and opportunity to establish themselves are Mal and River. Kaylee and Simon have a coy romantic subplot. Jayne gets all the good one-liners. Wash and Zoe don't have a lot to do, but I assume they had their moments in the TV series. The newcomer is the Operative, and he's about as interesting as villains get. This guy isn't your usual run-of-the-mill megalomaniac or battle-hardened warrior. His motives may be simple, but his characterization isn't. As played by talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, he is arguably Serenity's greatest asset.

The characters and circumstances reminded me of the late '70s/early '80s British science fiction series Blake's 7. There, as here, there's plenty of tension amongst the crewmen. Some are more in the crusader mold than others. Some are in it purely for the money. Some are affable, some are antisocial. And there's plenty of bitterness, anger, and resentment to go along. Comparing Serenity to Blake's 7 is compliment, since I consider the earlier TV show to be the best science fiction program ever to appear on the small screen. There are similarities, and those represent strengths for both franchises.

There are plenty of special effects, including an impressive space battle that, while not on the same level as the one that started off Revenge of the Sith, is nice enough in its own right. But Serenity isn't about effects. It's about narrative and characters, and it does a solid job in both areas. Whedon propels the story along at a breakneck pace, but keeps it smooth enough that we never get lost, and occasionally pauses to allow for character interaction. There are plenty of "fan moments," but they don't interfere with the overall viewing experience. And there are times when the unexpected occurs. Being space mercenaries harboring a fugitive can be a dangerous business, and Whedon doesn't shirk from bringing death into this movie.

The film leaves open the possibility of future adventures - whether they materialize remains to be seen. Whedon went all-out for the fans with Serenity, including going so far as to hold special pre-release screenings in the late spring. (The final cut was reportedly tweaked based on audience response.) For the average movie-goer, the movie may not have the same emotional resonance it achieves for Firefly aficionados, but those who enjoy science fiction adventure will find plenty to appreciate. It's self-contained and entertaining - arguably the two things most necessary for Serenity to soar.

Serenity (United States, 2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Ron Glass, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Music: David Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1