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Serenity

Joss Whedon, USA, 2005

Rating: 4.1

 

Posted: October 3, 2005

I figure I'm the perfect critic for this flick, since I never saw Firefly, the defunct sci-fi Western TV series it comes from. The show came on Friday nights back in 2002, and, well, I had better things to do on Friday evenings than watch a soon-to-be-cancelled show just in case I might have to review a movie with the same characters three years down the road, you feel me? Although it was axed after only 11 episodes, the eventual DVD of the entire season sold well enough to convince the powers-that-be to give writer-director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) the go-ahead to take his rough-and-ready crew to the big screen.

So as a Firefly virgin, so to speak, I'm hear to give Serenity a hale and hearty thumbs-up. The premise is simple: Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) heads the crew of the ship Serenity, doing odd jobs to stay one step ahead in a far-flung future frontier reminiscent of the Old West, complete with grimy space ports and rickety spaceships that threaten to fall apart; a world (sorry, a universe) where half of the writing and all of the cursing is in Chinese. In other worlds, your sterile Star Wars universe, this ain't.

Reynolds once fought in a big war against the Alliance, the group of governments that colonized outer space, on the side of the Browncoats, who sought independence. (They lost.) Now he runs a crew that includes his hot Number Two, Zoe (Gina Torres), her pilot husband (Alan Tudyk) and a battle-hungry merc named Jayne (Adam Baldwin), among others. One of them -- a hot little number named River (Summer Glau) -- turns out to have these psychic powers, as a result of being experimented on by the Alliance. As fate would have it, the Alliance is afraid of some top-secret information she might have locked insider her brain, and they dispatch a brutally efficient operative with no name (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to collect her.

That set-up might sound a bit rudimentary, but Serendipity isn't. Whedon knows how to build tension, laced with his trademark sense of humor. (And if the banter between Mal and his crew sometimes calls to mind the repartee between Han Solo and the gang on board the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back, well, that's probably intentional.) He might allude a little too often to events that a newbie like me won't understand, but Serenity never throws you off with its backstory.

Of course, not knowing the characters' backgrounds makes it a little less easy to buy into all the brooding Mal does at the beginning -- not to mention the big decision he makes at the film's crucial moment, which seems a little at odds with his classic out-for-me-and-mine attitude, unless you factor in the fact that the Alliance has just initiated a scorched-earth campaign against all of the crew's allies. (Then again, you sort of had to take Han Solo's affection for the Rebels on faith, too, right?)

So Serenity does feel like coming to a TV series in the middle of the season, but despite that it's never intimidating -- unlike the Reavers, the crazy, cannibalistic marauders who give both the Alliance and the Serenity's crew fits. These guys -- the Native American thorns in the side of our space settlers -- are way more interesting than the largely unseen Alliance. You leave the theater wishing there'd been more up-close-and-personal tussling with these galactic barbarians, especially given the big part they play in the grand scheme of things.

But that's a minor quibble. Serenity is a damn fine space-cowboy flick, with exciting chases, kick-ass hand-to-hand fight scenes, smart dialogue and a big revelation that makes you sit up and take notice of Whedon as a storyteller. If you're like me and were disappointed in Revenge of the S--t and Bored of the Worlds, this is the sci-fi summer movie to set things right. I'd strongly advise you to see it, because I want a sequel with more of that sultry little Summer Glau walking around barefoot, beaming her moon-eyed gaze at the screen. If I find out you didn't go see it, and there ain't a sequel, you better hope I don't know where you live.

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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