Serenity soars: gritty sci-fi adventure at its finest.

  

Serenity rises from the ashes of the beloved but criminally mishandled television series Firefly, a show that–despite touching brilliance in its finest moments–was presented by Fox as if they wanted its extinction from the very beginning (episodes were shown out of order, on different nights, and were switched out for baseball games). In Serenity, the Firefly characters get reincarnated into movie form, providing a stylish and solidly entertaining sci-fi picture, helmed by series creator Joss Whedon.

The setting for Serenity is refreshingly bare bones by sci-fi standards: five hundreds years in the future, human beings have colonized an unnamed solar system, populating its dozens of planets and hundreds of moons with vastly different levels of civilization. The inner worlds are a paradigm of technology and innovation, while the outer rim worlds may contain nothing more than livestock and simple colonies. Crazed, cannibalistic humans called Reevers live on the fringes of space, occasionally attacking settlers.

A totalatiarian government called the Alliance won control over the core worlds in a bloody civil war, and anyone that wants a little breathing room is forced to scratch out a living on the rim, which is where we find Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of Serenity. When a longtime passenger (Summer Glau) turns out to be stuffed with government secrets and buried training, the crew finds itself on the run from the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a guy who paralyzes his still-standing victims and then waits for them to nobly fall onto his conveniently-placed sword.  He’s classy that way.

One of the best things about Serenity is that its heroes are convincing in their setting: the constant verbal sparring between the crew shows their affection for one another, while the situations they face and their actions in solving them show that they’re coldly effective at survival.  

Fillion is given the best chance to shine as Reynolds. While raiding the vault of a rim-world bank, Reynolds debates with the security guard about the best place to be wounded. “You don’t want to make it look like you just gave up,” he warns earnestly. During a later rescue attempt, Reynolds shrugs off the cliche speech about the crew running if he doesn’t make it back in time, saying “If I’m not back in an hour, you take this ship, you come, and you RESCUE me.”

On the other side of Reynolds’ philosophy is the Operative, a nameless individual who is equal parts sinister and apologetic. Ejiofor is outstanding as a government agent running on pure devotion, a seemingly caring man whose belief in a higher calling allows him to commit an endless amount of atrocities. His character is genuinely unsettling, and it’s a testiment to the sheer creativity and energy of Joss Whedon’s work that one of the best villains of the past few years pops up in this low key sci-fi picture.

Serenity stays true to its rules: although the final showdown is a good one, Reynolds and team do not have the goal or the ability to save the human race; they merely fight to keep the tank from going empty for another day.

Serenity’s shortcomings are the inevitable result of a series–to–film translation. Characters are truncated, and enticing plots are glimpsed but not mined to their potential. Serenity feels at times more like the hyperpowered cliff notes to a second season of Firefly than a stand-alone movie, and I would have gladly traded the improved effects for a television mini-series that could have fleshed the story arcs out over ten hours or so.

Serenity does an admirable job as the swan song to a show that passed on well before its time, and makes viewing the fourteen episodes of Firefly on dvd an absolute necessity. It’s fast, it’s witty, and it provides a welcome glimpse into a shortlived but excellent piece of fiction.