3½ stars (out of four)
Joss Whedon's intimate sci-fi epic "Serenity" rockets straight out of the universe of second chances.
Whedon seems to have cornered this market, having penned 1992's lackluster "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" feature, only to resurrect it five years later as the cult TV phenomenon starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
"Serenity" takes the reverse course. It's the sequel to Whedon's groundbreaking "Firefly" TV series, which was mishandled (episodes aired out-of-order), then unceremoniously dumped by the suits at Fox. Fans protested and DVD sales of the series helped Whedon push "Firefly" through the black hole of cancellation to the silver screen.
And oh, what a movie it is. "Serenity" is a brash, funny, action-packed bit of sci-fi ecstasyand a giant raspberry to the execs who let "Firefly" fall out of the sky.
But you needn't have seen a single episode to be blown away by "Serenity." Its first five minutes plunges audiences into Whedon's esoteric universe of outlaws living on the fringe of the Wild West-style frontier of space.
The movie begins with Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) struggling to keep the crew of spaceship Serenity together. Taking on fugitive siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and telepathic River (Summer Glau) has caused considerable strain on Serenity's fractured crew of smugglersmostly because the unstable, unpredictably violent River is an escaped government she-weapon.
The Alliance, Whedon's totalitarian galactic state, wants River backeven at the cost of starting a small interplanetary war. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Serenity's deadly nemesis, an unnamed "operative" with steely resolve and murderous methods. The calm, polite Ejiofor is the greatest asset in Whedon's war of ideologies.
"[When] I start a fighting a war, I guarantee you'll see something new," Reynolds says.
It's a promise Whedon keeps.
Outer space as the new western frontier isn't anything new. In fact, when Gene Roddenberry was trying to sell "Star Trek" to networks, he pitched it as "'Wagon Train' to the stars." Whedon takes the metaphor even further.
Characters talk in an artificial "OK Corral" vernacular (people are always "fixin'" to do something), pausing only to swear in Chinese. Mal's love interest, Inara (Morena Baccarin), works as a Companion, a revered class of intergalactic saloon courtesan. Space battles are at a minimum, since Serenity doesn't have any guns. No aliens. No transporter beams. No phasers on stun.
"Firefly" was never about the techie stuff, and unlike its peers, "Serenity" isn't designed to sell action figures (although, yes, there are toys). Instead, it's a character-driven series about fundamental human issues: love, the morality of genetic engineering, big government, etc.
Even so, "Serenity's" special effects look remarkable. Instead of offering intricately designed space fights on a static screen, the action sequences look as if they were captured on a hand-held camera, often out-of-focus and blazingly fast, much like the human eye sees.
But Whedon's primary allegiance remains with the human heart. Though the Inara/Mal relationship gets short shrift (mostly due to screen time allotted them, one suspects), pixieish mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) finally reveals her twitterpation with Simon. Second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), her pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk) and mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin) also faces major changesbut keeping the Serenity clan intact remains the central theme.
"Serenity" carries an unexpectedly high body count and is far nastier than audiences may bargain for. Mal's face-off with the Alliance's operative feels a tad unsatisfying, if only because it defies convention. Then again, Whedon has made a career thumbing his nose as convention.
With "Serenity," Whedon has his cake and eats it toowrapping up most of the major plots and themes of "Firefly," while leaving the door open (just a crack) for a new seriesmaybe even another film. This second chance deserves a third.
Written and directed by Joss Whedon; cinematography by Jack N. Green; production design by Barry Chusid; music by David Newman; edited by Lisa Lassek; produced by Barry Mendel. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references).
Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds - Nathan Fillion
Zoe - Gina Torres
Hoban "Wash" Washburn - Alan Tudyk
Jayne Cobb - Adam Baldwin
Kaylee Frye - Jewel Staite
Dr. Simon Tam - Sean Maher
River Tam - Summer Glau
Shepherd Book - Ron Glass
Mr. Universe - David Krumholtz
The Operative - Chiwetel EjioforCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times