The problem with feature films based on television series that left the airwaves long ago is that with a different cast and different writers and, heaven help us all, a “hip” new take on it all, what made the original popular, even classic, can easily get lost in the shuffle to make a quick buck. The great thing about SERENITY is that it takes “Firefly”, the series on which it is based, and transmutes it intact to the big screen with creator Joss Whedon at the controls, the original cast in place, and all of them in perfect form.
For those not familiar with the short-lived series (I’m still not ready to forgive Fox for yanking it), there is a primer at the start. What’s great is that it’s also the starting point for the story, which focuses on River Tam (Summer Glau), the psychic and sometimes psychotic victim of an experiment by the Alliance. Rescued from being lab rat by her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), they’ve found refuge on the eponymous and rickety ship, or boat, as it’s called by its suitably rag-tag crew. Its captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and first-mate Zoe (Gina Torres) were on the losing side of an uprising against that Alliance and now ply the oceans of space on the outer edges of its reach engaging in jobs that are usually not legal and are always dangerous. This time, though, trouble comes to them in the form of a covert Alliance agent (DIRTY PRETTY THING’s Chiwitel Ejiofor) who is willing to do anything to remove River as a threat to the form of government he worships and never questions.
There is more at work here than just shoot-outs, bar fights, and some snazzy deep space action gilded with moments of divine absurdity. Ejiofor as the sad-eyed true believer is revealed to be far more dangerous than someone who is merely evil, willing as he is to do the dirty work for an ideal that he himself admits he can never be part of. As for where that government actually falls in the scale of such things, Whedon makes it very clear with a flashback, or perhaps it’s a hallucination River has where a teacher is explaining that the Alliance doesn’t want to tell people what to think, just HOW to think.
Whedon has allowed himself 115 minutes, give or take, to tell what feels very much like a season-long arc. While that gives what some may consider short shrift to some of the characters timewise, Whedon gives each his or her due and without using precious plot twists in order to include them all. Shepherd Book waxes wry and pastoral to Mal, tender-hearted mechanical whiz Kaylee (Jewel Staite) laments her lack of carnal diversions with Simon, Jayne (Adam Baldwin) pouts over Mal not letting him bring grenades along on a job, and Zoe’s improbable true love, Wash (Alan Tudyk), takes a poetic turn as he once again plays fast and loose with the laws of physics while piloting the ship in and out of tricky situations. As for the intoxicating professional companion, Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), she and Mal trade barbs and tantalizing hints of what it covers as they play out the sexual and philosophical tensions that keep them at odds. Yet for all the quips, there is running through the film beneath puckishness and feigned nihilism a delicate sense of the melancholy felt by the former rebels for a worthy cause that was lost and can’t be resurrected. Fillion has it down cold, the way, pace classic film fans, that Bogart did. The bedrock sense of right and wrong that wells up in spite of himself and that can’t be ignored to expunged, no matter how hard he tries or how annoying, not to mention life-threatening, it turns out to be. Whether it’s discussing the best would he should give the clerk he just robbed so that it will look like he put up a fight, or doggedly not turning River over to the Alliance and going about his way.
For fans, there is closure, a look (finally) at the cannibalistic and worse Reavers, and a few gut-wrenching twists that change the dynamics of the core cast. For fans of Whedon’s other franchise, Buffy, there’s a delicious homage to one of that show’s minor characters that is funny even if you’ve never visited that part of the Whedonverse. Alas, there is none nudity some had hoped for and wouldn’t you rather know that going in? Most importantly, Whedon proves again that he isn’t afraid to explore the dark side of existence by making an integral part of the mythos. His fantasies are anything but fairy tales and are all the more compelling precisely because of that.
The villain of the piece has a penchant for asking people what they think their greatest sin is. SERENITY’s greatest sin is in making its fans, old and new, all the more irritated that it’s no longer around in series form for that satisfying weekly fix sharp dialogue, terrific characters, and some of the most thoughtful writing on television. Be of good cheer, though, rumor has it that SERENITY has two sequels on the way.