Film Review: Serenity

Posted: Sep 30, 2005 9:18 PM

I’m not really a sci-fi kind of girl.

I watched Star Trek only because it was the only thing my brother and I could tune in on the rabbit ears in the early 80s. I saw Star Wars mostly because when I was a kid, I thought the Ewoks were cute (now, I know they’re considered an abomination by many Star Wars fans community, but I didn’t know any better back then, and they were just so fuzzy). I’ve never been one to know the whole chronology of the Empire’s rise to power, and I don’t know one word of Klingon.

So, when I got the chance to see a free screening of Serenity, Hollywood’s newest sci-fi offering, I was willing but pretty sure it wouldn’t be my thing. I was wrong.

Serenity’s galaxy of the future is not an unfamiliar setting. A spaceship named Serenity and its plucky crew of former freedom fighters fly through a solar system ruled by the empire they were unable to conquer. They roam from world to world in the “verse” (short for universe), picking up odd jobs and pulling small-time heists just to keep their ship in working spark plugs. The ship clunks along under the radar of the Alliance, which is too busy creating a better world through invasive surveillance to bother with their already vanquished enemies, until Serenity takes on two passengers—a handsome young doctor and his quiet, waif of a sister, River.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew soon find that River Tam (Summer Glau) is more psychic secret weapon than sweet teenager, and that the whole of the Alliance is after them to get her back.

The Serenity crew hops from planet to planet narrowly evading the Alliance’s murderous Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Reavers, a band of cannibalistic creatures who drift near the edge of the universe in between feasting upon their living prey. In the process, they end up re-fighting the war they thought was long over.

Serenity is a big-screen incarnation of what started as a small-screen project, but this crew’s trip from TV to film is a story in and of itself.

The show—named Firefly because Serenity is of the Firefly class of spaceships—ran in 2002 for just 13 episodes. It was created and written by Joss Whedon, Emmy-award winning writer of the Buffy the Vampire series. Due to scheduling shuffles that ended in a dreaded Friday night time slot and a network that inexplicably played the episodes out of order, Firefly failed to gain a wide audience. It did, however, gain a dedicated audience.

The Firefly fan base was so rabid, in fact, that they kept the characters, the buzz, and the show alive in fan fiction and DVD sales for several years after the its demise. Universal Studios was impressed by the fans’ showing (they call themselves Browncoats—the nickname for those who fight the Alliance), and was subsequently convinced to give Whedon writing and directorial duties and an action-flick budget to bring Serenity back to life.

Since I’d never seen Firefly, I was worried I’d be too out of the loop to enjoy the movie, but Whedon has made it accessible for Browncoats and non-Browncoats alike. The movie got hearty laughs and several rounds of applause from the Serenity-T-shirt-clad group sitting near me, and I was laughing with them.

Despite its elaborate special effects and sets, Serenity felt like a TV show – but that wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it made very clear that the average Hollywood action flick could use a writer like Whedon. The comic timing was great, the jokes funnier, and the catchphrases more believable than the average big-budget adventure. Most action movies seem to labor under the misapprehension that big noise and bigger guns buy them the right to forego clever writing, or take themselves too seriously to find the humor in an intergalactic fire fight. Serenity does neither, and the result is a film that covers a lot of the entertainment bases.

The cast members, all of which Whedon brought from the TV show into the movie project, obviously had 13 episodes of chemistry under their belts. They left you expecting and wanting to see them again in a week instead of forgetting about them after two hours. Gina Torres as Zoe is a tough first officer, Jewel Staite is the scatterbrained, lovelorn mechanic, Kaylee. Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk round out the crew with their portrayals of the loveably insubordinate ballistics expert and the calm, skilled pilot, respectively.

A few of the relationships were underdeveloped. Leading man Fillion and another Serenity passenger, Inara (played by Teri Hatcher look-alike, Morena Baccarin) clearly had had a relationship in the past, but it’s never fleshed out, with the notable exception of a hilariously awkward post-break-up conversation they have over the ship’s videophone. River, who is able to develop her quiet character in between fights with subtle facial expressions is unable to develop much of a relationship with her brother, Simon (Sean Maher).

The fight scenes are well done—likely a result of Whedon’s years of work on Buffy. They’re made even more impressive by the grace of 24-year-old Summer Glau, whose first career as a prima ballerina helps her make a high roundhouse kick look both beautiful and believable on a 100-pound girl.

All in all, Serenity is a thoroughly good time, and if it takes off on the big screen, many more movie-goers may start requiring more than big guns from a big-budget action movie. That wouldn’t be a bad thing for movie-goers, and it certainly won’t be a bad thing for Whedon, who I hope has more than a few offers in his future.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Tivo re-runs of Firefly on the Sci-Fi Channel. Maybe I’m a sci-fi kind of girl after all.