To the uninitiated, "Serenity" may seem like just another "Star Trek" knockoff, but to so easily dismiss writer Joss Whedon's feature directing debut, a continuation of his short-lived 2002 sci-fi western TV series "Firefly," would be to miss out on a highly entertaining piece of genre-blending fun.
Already a cult hero based on the series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" — how many writers in any medium can boast fans devoted enough to wear T-shirts that read "Joss Whedon Is My Master Now"? — he further burnished his star among the faithful with "Firefly," which despite its incomplete run on Fox (11 of 14 episodes aired), gained fans through DVD sales and repeats on the Sci Fi Channel (where it's currently running on Friday nights).
Picking up in a postwar 26th century where the TV series left off, "Serenity" overcomes mild patches of turbulence to sail straight and true. Whedon reconvenes the original cast, carves out a tidy story rooted firmly in the show's mythology and tosses in a bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to boot.
Whedon's not-so-ancient mariner, Capt. Mal Reynolds, a jaded veteran on the losing side of the War for Unification, is weighed down not by guilt and a dead bird, but a painful past and an enigmatic passenger. Played with wary resolve by Canadian actor Nathan Fillion, Mal has given up on the human race with his only priorities being the well-being of his crew and finding the next safe harbor.
The crew of Serenity — a Firefly class interplanetary cargo vessel — has more in common with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang than the crew of the Enterprise as they whisk across a distant, human-colonized solar system pulling off enough small-time heists to keep them in food, munitions and replacement parts for the beleaguered ship. Their nemesis is the Alliance, a sort of militarized United Nations that governs the Central Planets with a utopia-gone-wrong idealism.
The crew and Capt. Mal share a love-hate relationship built on loyalty and self-preservation that is tested at every turn. The next in command is Zoe (Gina Torres), who served alongside Mal in the war and is Serenity's military tactician when they get into scrapes (which is often). Her husband, Wash (Alan Tudyk), is the ship's pacifist pilot. The heavy artillery comes in the form of Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary always on the lookout for a better deal. Sensitive Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps Serenity running with her gift for all things mechanical.
The comic exchanges among the crew initially seem like mere banter until you realize that Whedon is presenting well-developed relationships involving rejuvenated archetypes — something that will not surprise Whedon fans, who will be the ones in the theater laughing the loudest. Don't worry, the rest of us soon catch up.
There's no need to have seen a single episode of "Firefly" to digest any of this as Whedon craftily weaves the complex exposition into the main story. In the TV series, the crew picked up a pair of passengers who turn out to be more than the crew bargained for. Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) signed on temporarily as Serenity's medic — the crew requires almost as much patching up as the ship — and he brought along his unstable sister, River (Summer Glau), who initially appears fragile and fairly helpless.
Far from it, River turns out to be a psychic prodigy the government subjected to cruel experiments, the result being some serious fighting skills and an erratic triggering mechanism. Simon spends a fortune and sacrifices his career to break her out of a top secret facility and the Alliance wants her back. Serenity and crew are pursued to the far corners of the galaxy by the Operative — a highly principled killing machine, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things") — where they also face a cannibalistic breed of humans known as Reavers.
A strongly acted, well-written story fortified by riveting action sequences — a rarity these days among studio releases — "Serenity" should delight Whedon novices as much as the already converted. The fractured cowpoke syntax, sprinkled with occasional forays into Chinese, spoken by Whedon's characters is a little unsettling at first, but it quickly becomes part of the movie's charm. Odd as it may seem, a vernacular that includes phrases such as "I aim to misbehave" and "None of us know'd that" allows the filmmaker to kick the space western up a notch by connecting the two genres so explicitly. Whedon knows that he's blazing down a well-worn trail, but he addresses that by deftly adding elements of humor, action, romance and horror and continually confounding audience expectations.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references
Times guidelines: Implied cannibalism, dead children
A Universal Pictures release. Writer-director Joss Whedon. Producer Barry Mendel. Director of photography Jack Green. Editor Lisa Lassek. Costume designer Ruth Carter. Music David Newman. Production designer Barry Chusid. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.