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Joss Whedon understands something George Lucas never will. It's not the Jedi that got us interested in Star Wars, it’s Han Solo. He's used that knowledge to craft Serenity, a rip-roaring and sometimes moving space adventure that picks up almost where the crew of the Millennium Falcon left off, except this time without any of those pesky, holier-than-thou Jedi around. Lightsabers or no, we're all better off.
The film opens with a bank robbery, and if you’ve never seen an episode of the cancelled television show “Firefly” from which Serenity was spawned, you’re already in trouble. There’s some attempt here to start the movie cleanly, without the need for prior knowledge, but it’s impossible with so many characters being introduced and promptly un-introduced. In a way, it’s a good thing. Having the television show as a base frees Serenity from having to bother with a boring origin story. At the same time, if you haven’t seen any of “Firefly” it’s a lot like watching Empire Strikes Back without having seen A New Hope. It might occasionally leave you a little lost, but “Firefly” fan or not, this is still a great movie.
At the same time, writer/director Joss Whedon isn’t slaved to that pre-existing TV source material. He’s willing to be brutal in bringing it to the screen, willing to kick all those slavishly devoted “Firefly” fans square in the balls if that’s what it takes to deliver a properly cinematic presentation. Film and television are two completely different animals, and that means streamlining in the name of creating a fresh, new, and energetic adventure. Whedon seems to get that, in a way no one really has since maybe The Wrath of Khan. The man deserves a lot of credit. In order to make this work as a movie, he’s had to slash some of the most beloved things about his own material. Let go of a few characters, discard a few suited-for-television-only plotlines, (like those silly guys with the blue hands from the TV show), trash the whole Western theme which there’s really not time to muck about with and explain in a two-hour movie. This isn’t a cheapo WB miniseries, and Whedon is ready to piss off and hurt his fans to make it more than that. Bravo.
But back to that bank robbery. Serenity makes its point early. These “heroes” aren’t noble, good men. They’re scoundrels, thieves, and criminals. They make their living doing things like, well, robbing banks. There’s no boorish, moral agonizing over their way of life. It’s simply who they are; self-described “naughty men” the crew of the starship Serenity is at best a bunch of pirates. The film is set in a non-specific distant future, in which mankind has migrated from Earth to a star system full of other habitable planets. Serenity is the name of a rather rickety spaceship, a garbage scow and not exactly in a good way. While most of the ship design in the movie is rather well done, Serenity looks like a big, meandering heap. The Millennium Falcon may have looked like a hunk of junk, but it looked like the coolest hunk of junk in the universe. Serenity just looks like a hunk of junk, and I can’t imagine very many kids running out to buy Serenity model kits, or playing with their light-up, laser-action Serenity at home. Her captain is Mal (Nathan Fillion), who let’s face it, is basically a little harder version of Han Solo. You’ll love him. His crew is a mix of military castoffs, me-first opportunists, and fugitives. They may all be on the wrong side of the law, but to Mal they’re fiercely loyal.
Whedon’s sharp, witty banter quickly develops a sort of group personality for them, and best of all he does it in the midst of the action. There’s no mood-killing stop-down for a moment of a character development. Han kissed Leia for the first time in the middle of trying not to get blown up, not while taking a break to ride a cow, and that’s the sort of perfect character development you’ll see in Serenity. We get to know these people intimately while on the run, as it should be in anything resembling a good Sci-Fi Action movie.
The film moves quickly and succinctly, after a few opening moves to let us get familiar with the personalities, if not the details, of Serenity’s crew. Some time ago Mal took on two passengers, a brother and a sister, fugitives from the local oppressive government. That government (called generically “The Alliance”), has decided it wants them back, and what’s more would like them back dead. Now the marketing for the film has been rather misleading here. They’ve made a point of pushing this thing as another ass-kicking chick movie, when it’s nothing of the sort. River Tam, half of the brother sister fugitive duo, is a mentally damaged little girl who’s been turned into a deadly killing machine by the government. But no matter how hard the trailers, and the posters with her giant looming head are trying to sell it, this isn’t the River Tam story. Thank the maker. Whedon has instead written a balanced, sharp-edged story with Mal as a central figure and the rest of the cast sort of filling in as a fairly balanced ensemble.
Visually, the movie is something of a mixed bag. Exterior shots are done almost entirely with CGI, and it shows. There’s a marked difference between the well designed, detailed ship-interiors and the sometimes rather fake looking outside. Serenity has some great effects moments, and sometimes the ships look quite impressive, as in a massive battle sequence towards the end. Other times though, while the movie never looks bad, some of the bigger CGI shots seem a bit underdone. Computers are the thing these days, but I can’t help missing models. This isn’t Revenge of the Sith, and Serenity clearly doesn’t have the kind of budget necessary to give their ships that same kind of consistent, ILM, computer-generated polish.
What Joss Whedon has created here leaps well beyond the rather humble bonds of a mediocre cancelled TV show into the realm of amazing, adventure filmmaking. This is a truly great adventure movie. Funny, fast, blistering with creativity and style, Serenity delivers well beyond expectations. One of the big surprises for me was the central villain, played by the unpronounceable Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s fantastically well written, a compelling and interesting character in a place where Whedon could have easily enough opted for a stock, sneering bad-guy and probably gotten away with it. There’s something deeper mixed in here too, a subplot about the importance of believing in something, and conversely the dangers of zealotism. Serenity pays an uncanny amount of attention to detail, and it pays off in an exciting, sci-fi chemical reaction.
You'll get caught up in these characters, fall in love with these people, and suffer with them as they go through a sort of hell that changes them forever. Joss Whedon is the creator of "Buffy" and "Angel", but for all of you like me who dislike those shows, this is a big step beyond any of that love it or hate it crap. In Serenity he's created something that's bound to be remembered as a genre staple, maybe even a classic. The old fashioned space cowboy has been far too long absent from theaters. Quick-draw your laser pistol and jump in.