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Serenity: Joss Whedon's Firefly Hits the Big Screen

If you're already a Browncoat, you don't need me to tell you what Firefly and Serenity are. If you're not one, you're thinking "What's a firefly? And why would my coat be brown?"

Back in 2002, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) concocted a space western television show called Firefly. The network was mean and got rid of it. Two bits of good news, though: it was really really good, and now it's a movie called Serenity, opening today. Okay, three bits of good news: the movie's really good, too.

Let's hear the tale of the rag-tag group of misfits. A desperate lot, they fought on the losing side of an epic battle for freedom, and (barely) lived to tell the tale, where most others didn't. Reduced to nothing more than renegades and mercenaries, they might nowadays thrive on the wrong flip of the galaxy's coin, but they're hearty and they'll get through. There's this signal, see, and you can't stop it: you can't stop the underdogs from getting one last message out to all the people in the 'Verse who most need to hear it. They'll get their asses solidly kicked to do it, sure, but that's what heroes do; they bleed, and they cheat, and they fight like crazy, no matter what the cost, to get the job done. And then they get paid.

Only Joss Whedon would turn the elemental story of his fanbase's struggle against an evil network bent on quashing their favourite television serial, into the driving plot thread of his first feature film. It's a good thing that Whedon had the horse-sense to make the story within Serenity the same as the story without, because the story without is a hell of a yarn, and if he had failed to sew it into the film's plot proper, the story within might have been mightily overwhelmed. As Whedon himself would be the first to point out, failed television series don't get made into movies. On a simple, fanboy level, Serenity is just plain miraculous. It's a fabulously-crafted finale to the aborted series, and - to this writer's delight - is so detailed and exhaustive in its scope and reach, that it really is far more than just a 2-hour capper to the show. It's a movie in the ways that movies are movies (take note, Star Trek films), and even at a running time that would scarcely cover three normal episodes of a television show, it feels like about a hundred times that number in storytelling power. It's seasons two, three, four, and about half of five, all bundled into one. Which is to say, this movie kicks serious, hard ass, and answers every Firefly fan's prayers, continuing and concluding the Firefly storyline in a resoundingly satisfying and successful way. Praise the Whedon.

Praise the Whedon s'more: it's a damn good flick, too. I bemoan the fact that it's probably about thirty years too late: back in the day (say, the 1970s), it was actually possible to have a decent, character-driven genre picture with no pre-existing "hook," and have it succeed based solely on quality, word of mouth, and the audience's willingness to experience something new. As any quick glance at the 2005 summer tentpoles will certify, however, audiences no longer want to experience anything they haven't been sold before. Six Star Wars films, five Batman films, the umpteenth computer-generated animals-being-wiseasses movie, an adaptation of a popular SF novel, and rehashes of True Lies and Rocky - this summer's approach (give the people what they wanted before) is nothing new, but it speaks volumes for how little the people want newness. It's a shame, because Serenity is the sort of film that doesn't get made very much any more, and would be highly rewarding to anyone and everyone willing to turn their brains on and give it a try.

Serenity is the kind of science fiction flick that hasn't worked this well since Alien. It's character-driven and idea-driven; it's willing to do damage to its core characters and concepts in the name of telling its story. Unlike most TV-to-movie movies, Serenity advances character and theme in the service of its own story, without ever playing it safe for the next episode/sequel. It's charming, witty, visceral, and real; it tells a good story in a nicely detailed, made-up universe, while doing that interesting cross-genre slide (using the structure of the western in the format of the space opera) that tends to elevate a flick from being forgettable to being (at the best of times) legendary. These might not be the best of times, but Serenity's a damn good rallying cry for us to want to get back to them.

Of the many plot threads left dangling by Firefly's aborted television run, the film deals most directly with River (the ephemeral Summer Glau), who is the psychic/psychotic kid sister of doctor-on-the-run Simon Tam (Sean Maher). She's a walking bomb programmed by the evil government, and that same evil government has finally dedicated a lone, nameless Operative to bring her back. Oh, and he's got a pretty nice fleet of evil spaceships, too, in case you were wondering, which leads to one of the best reveals, followed by one of the best space battles, I've ever seen. Revenge of the Sith, eat your heart out.

The Operative's mission causes plenty of trouble for the crew of our eponymous Serenity, the local answer to the Millennium Falcon, a smuggling/pirate ship that casts about space, looking for mercenary work. Captain Malcolm "Tightpants" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, smacking the rough-and-tumble Harrison Ford mojo out of the park in his first big-screen lead role) and his merry band of misfits get caught between River and the Operative, and (as any fan of Whedon's work should know going in), it's not going to be an easy fit. Mal struggles and strains between the bonds of his long-buried human decency, and his more facile on-the-ground pragmatism, and Whedon is nothing if not great at revelling in the inclement moral ambiguities. There's an early sequence where Mal kills a desperate man outright, to save his crew, and a later sequence where he does it again, for an even more challenging reason. Above all, Serenity proves to be a great chance for Whedon to write Mal the way he never could on television: a truly dark, conflicted man. It's a great screen portrayal, made digestible by Fillion's easy charm and willingness to get the shit kicked out of himself.

Whedon is notably merciless with himself when it comes to character usage (remember, he loves these characters more than anyone); fan favourite Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) gets left to a virtual cameo, while Mal's love interest, Inara (the luminous Morena Baccarin, with a few tricks up her sleeve), doesn't show up until the story actually finds a useful way to bring her in. River and Simon get to be the focus of the story without completely overhwelming it; the rest of the supporting cast get equal play (especially Jewel Staite's lovely turn as Kaylee). There are great moments for Zoe (Gina Torres, six feet of Wonder Woman) and her husband, wise-cracking Wash (Alan Tudyk), which not only slot nicely into the existing character work from the series, but move them beyond, in subtle but profound ways.

It's Fillion's movie, though, and rightly so; his chiseled features eat the big screen alive, and his sheer charisma is just breathtaking to behold. He's got the chops, too; his final sequence with River in the cockpit of the ship is not just one of the nicest reiterations of the entire Firefly mission statement - keep flyin' - but is a truly incandescent little character scene, all on its own, all about self, and loss, and the meaning of it all. Whedon - who lenses the film with a stylistic confidence that should seem earned, after all those excellent hours of directed television, yet seems pleasantly surprising nonetheless - really grabs for the gold here. He's crafted a film that really goes places, and sticks the landing. In the end, Serenity isn't afraid of its own, hokey, inner message: goodness will out, even at great cost. It's pleasantly bittersweet, but hopeful nevertheless. There's a surfeit of bad guys, in this or any 'Verse, but thank goodness, there are also a few real heroes out there, doing their thing, flying low, waiting for their moment. This is Serenity's moment to shine... and it sure is shiny.


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