Mal Reynolds (Fillion) is captain of the space craft Serenity, home to a nomadic crew of mercenaries whose relative tranquillity has been disturbed by their taking on Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his troubled sister, River (Glau). River is caught up in a conspiracy involving galactic superpower The Alliance, and they’ll stop at nothing to get her back
The multiplexes are already rammed with the fetid, mewling cinematic offspring of hit TV shows, so why on earth should anyone want to watch a spin-off of a series that failed to even make it through its first season?
Well, firstly: it’s the big-screen debut of Buffy god Joss Whedon, a man with more pop-culture funnies than Scream’s Kevin Williamson. Secondly: everybody knows that these days truly great shows rarely make it beyond a debut run. Thirdly: it’s a hell of a lot better than The Dukes Of Hazzard.
Genre obsessives will already be fully clued up on the seemingly doomed course of the good ship Serenity, which, in the US show Firefly, launched with great fanfare before being buffeted by network execs to such an extent that only the most dedicated viewer could find it on the schedules. But with its complex mix of Western, sci-fi, thriller and comedy, not to mention a sprawling cast and twisting back-stories that 14 episodes could barely touch on, it was Whedon’s most ambitious project, and a show of such wit and originality that naturally it refused to die. Thus, through the power of the browncoat (read: Firefly nerd) and stellar sales on DVD, the lawless cast was given a reprieve and Whedon $40 million to resurrect his project.
All of which should send anybody disinclined to conventions and mint-condition collectables running from a darkened cinema for the sunshine of the outside world. Fear not; herein lies black comedy, spiky romance and action adventure — without an alien to be seen.
You could question Whedon’s wisdom in making this his first foray into movie direction (he’s previously been Oscar-nominated for co-scripting Toy Story), with its demands to satisfy both the faithful few and the indifferent masses. Screw this up and he’s not only dashed the dreams of his die-hard following, but also called into question his big-budget future.
Thankfully, through pluck, talent and enormous imagination, Whedon’s done it, cheerfully Frankensteining the smart mouth of Buffy, the dust of Deadwood and all the fun bits of Star Wars. Which, in some ways, is the movie’s sole problem.Serenity exists on a plane somewhere between cinema and TV. For much of the running time it feels like an extended episode of the series, with televisual staging and a slow reveal strategy that seems to be saving something for next week’s show. A large lead cast (played wonderfully by the original TV actors, all stretching their comedy and action muscles with ‘may never get the chance again’ vigour) demands a great deal of screentime to draw in newcomers.
Whedon’s economical with his exposition, but with the amount of story to be squeezed in, even a tiny lapse in concentration will leave some scratching their heads during a few of the plot twists.
Gloriously, though, around the halfway point Serenity blossoms, breaking free of its small-screen confines. Whedon lets loose a series of confident action sequences befitting any summer blockbuster, the cast step up to big-screen presence (all hail Nathan Fillion, the new Han Solo!), and the careful seeding of the characters and story bears the fruit of an ending in which nothing is certain, no clichéd outcome inevitable and no crew member safe from the jaws of death. Bring on Episode II.
If you’re a novice, this is a plucky introduction to Whedon’s world and the most fun sci-fi of the year. If you’re a devotee, this is the magnificent return you’ve been praying for.